Debunking the “Shanghai Secret” - OZY | A Modern Media Company
The Chinese Education Conundrum
SourceMichael Prince/Corbis


Because in the long run there’s more to brain power than the fuel of obedience.

By Quanyu Huang

In the late 1970s, the U.S. and China took a close look at each other’s education systems. The Chinese wondered, just how far ahead are the Americans? How do they run their schools? With these questions in mind, China sent a group of experts to investigate. 

The delegates were dumbstruck by what they found.

From kindergarten up, the kids exhibited little, if any, discipline or interest in learning. Teachers were often begging students for their attention. And American kids were far behind their peers in China in terms of math and science ability. In a Democracy and Science article published in 2005, the Chinese delegates reported, “American education is sick beyond treatment. In 20 years, China will make advances in science and technology and overtake America as the preeminent global superpower.” 

At the highest levels of academic and scientific achievement, Chinese students who excel in the early stages struggle to have any impact at all.

That same year, America sent an educational delegation to China. They too were shocked by what they found.

Every day at dawn, students sat patiently in massive classrooms across the country, eyes trained on the teacher. They spent nearly double the amount of time in class, were assigned many times the amount of work as U.S. kids and were far ahead in math and science ability. The delegates found that “Chinese students are the most diligent in the world. Their intensity and abilities can be matched by few, if any, of their American peers. If this continues, in 20 years, there’s no doubt that the Chinese will leave the U.S. far, far behind,” according to the same Democracy and Science article. 

To a certain extent, these predictions have come true. The results from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), released in December 2013, show that since 2009, teenagers in the U.S. slipped in math, science and reading. However, students from Shanghai again won first place in the same three subjects. 

Chinese students are quick out of the gate, but, puzzlingly, they invariably fail to reach the finish line.   

This prompted the famous “Shanghai Secret” article by Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman, written after he and Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and other American educators visited Shanghai — just before the results of the 2012 PISA were released. There is no secret behind the Shanghai schools’ success, wrote Friedman. Chinese schools simply devote more time and energy to “all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools … What we’re now about to see is the payoff from China’s 30 years of investment in infrastructure and education.”

But while China has become a front-runner on exams like the PISA, in the later stages of education there is a surprising, countervailing pattern. At the highest levels of academic and scientific achievement, Chinese students who excel in the early stages struggle to have any impact at all. American-educated students, however, produce high volumes of important innovative research and scholarship with unparalleled consistency and profundity.

The Nobel Prize is a stark example. Since the first science prize was awarded in 1901, not a single person in a Chinese research institution has won. By comparison, as of 2012, Americans and American-educated scientists won about 300 merit-based Nobel Prizes. The only Chinese to win a scientific Nobel Prize received their advanced education in America. It’s possible, but unlikely, that the prize is awarded to insiders or known figures and the Chinese people are just not part of this club; after all, the Chinese consistently submit their work for review. 

There are other examples too. Every four years, the International Mathematics Union awards the “International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics,” also known as the Fields Medal, which is generally regarded as the highest honor given to a mathematician.

How many Chinese mathematicians have won the Fields Medal since its inception? Zero.

The real “Shanghai Secret” is that students are doing well in early testing phases but falling behind, and staying behind.

Out of 50 medalists, not a single adult at a Chinese university has won. Ironically, Terence Tao and Shing-Tung Yau, the only medalists of Chinese background, are products of Western academic institutions.

More than 30 years after those stark predictions, and despite using a “broken” system to educate its children, the U.S. remains an undisputed global leader in nearly all education-reliant fields. America has the most patents, inter-service intelligence, and advances in material science, computer science and nanometer technology. And in space technology: China became the third country to reach the moon, long after the U.S.

Meanwhile, Chinese education has failed to live up to the hype. According to Times Higher Education World University Ranking 2013-2014, there are 15 American universities among the top 20 in the world. The game-changing advances in Chinese science and technology have not yet materialized. 

But American education has its own problems. According to a study from OECD, Americans are “near the bottom in skill with numbers and technology.” While Americans have won the most Noble Prizes and Fields Medals, many kids (even college students) can’t do basic math without a calculator.   

So what’s going on?

A thorough examination of American and Chinese education reveals two paradoxical patterns. First, if analysis is confined to students at the primary and secondary levels, Chinese education is undoubtedly better. Chinese students swept the first official attempt at the PISA in 2009, taking first in all three categories (math, science and reading), besting students from every participating country, shattering all previous records and achieving the highest scores in PISA history.

Chinese students are quick out of the gate, but, puzzlingly, they invariably fail to reach the finish line. Americans, on the other hand, start the race slowly but manage to catch up, overtake and leave the Chinese behind in their dust.  

Why this occurs is complex to explain but may be captured by an ancient Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” 

The focus here is on the verb “to fish.” As an educational philosophy, it emphasizes that there are three ways students approach academics:

  1. Passively take the fish that teachers hand out;
  2. Engage with teachers on one’s own initiative and procure more fish from them; or
  3. Teach students to fish. Teaching students to fish takes longer than getting fish from teachers, and that is why Americans are behind at the starting line but eventually catch up and surpass Chinese students. 

So why does the American system prevail? It fosters independent thinking and the abilities to “fish” knowledge (particularly the knowledge that human beings haven’t yet understood). Thus, the real “Shanghai Secret” is that students are doing well in early testing phases but falling behind, and staying behind, when it comes to teaching breakthroughs, innovation and leadership.

The real winner of this education race will be the country that figures out how to get in front at the start and stay there. If Americans increase their skills with numbers and technology, and the Chinese engage more in creative and critical thinking, then we’d have a real race on our hands.

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