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The Real Shanghai Secret

Ann Qiu speaks at the 2013 International Democratic Education Conference as Sugata Mitra and attendees listen.

Ann Qiu speaks at the 2013 International Democratic Education Conference as Sugata Mitra and attendees listen.

by Ann Qiu

In response to Thomas Friedman’s October 23rd Op-Ed in the New York Times

When I got a link of "The Shanghai Secret" on 27th Oct. and was asked to write what I know about Shanghai as a local born, locally educated, independent educator, I was hesitant. One reason was it was not so easy for me to access the New York Times because of the "G. Wall." (If you visited the Great Wall, you can imagine how powerful the Golden Wall is for blocking the Internet.)

However, when I finally read what Mr. Friedman said to the American people through this very influential newspaper, I couldn’t help feeling upset. As a famous American journalist, how much was he allowed to explore in Shanghai? Being blocked by language, how much was he able to hear and understand of what was really happening around him in his short visit? An American who has interests in China at least should have some basic understanding of Chinese contemporary history.

To me, Mr. Friedman is not such a person. Indeed, he is a real foreigner. The worst thing is misinterpretation when a person just wants a surface answer of the enviable result achieved by Shanghai students in 2009 to support the standardized testing based education model, and persuade American students to "beat" the Chinese in phony competitions.

Please be aware that a lot of young Chinese are studying abroard! This number is rising annually, and the students' ages are increasingly younger. It is common sense to Chinese people that we cannot change the monopolized and red-coloured education system; but now, we can, at least, vote with our feet.  Please ask yourself why the wealthy class of Chinese parents want to spend a large amount of money on "the worse education" in the USA? Are they really fools? They must have their reasons!

The major reasons for pursuing educational opportunities outside of China are rather obvious to us Chinese: less compulsory, less homework, less boring mechanical exercises, less standardized questions and answers, and less threatening requests. Children can be treated as human beings instead of being force-fed homework, rote learning and standardized tests. Children have freedom to learn, even the opportunity to make mistakes. Children are encouraged to think critically and independently. Children can explore their curiosity.

That is what well-to-do Chinese parents are paying for: freedom, openness and humanity!

Through Mr. Friedman’s introduction, I became curious about the Qiangwei Primary School. In order to know a little background of its background, I tried to baidu it (Every Chinese Wangmin knows why we use baidu instead of Google.), and I was shocked because I found the local newspaper was also influenced by Mr. Friedman’s introduction and praised this school just three days after the news released. The school suddenly became world famous. I suppose this key school in the Minghang District will have a longer waiting list next year, and the property around it will continuously go up in cost despite those property known as Xuequ Fang [Note: Xuequ Fang is generated by a policy that urges students to enter the nearest school. Every applicant must bring Hukou or the rental contract to prove that the child is living in the property located the school admissible area.often implies ridiculously higher price, which indicates such a successful school actually is rare in Shanghai. Friedman also mentions the schools that attended the PISA exams in 2009. The truth is that the majority of Chinese parents and teachers who are able to think critically and independently, laughed at such a hollow achievement because Chinese students are trained to do on-paper exams almost from kindergarten. And ironically, the Chinese government wants to change the current one-size-fits-all system because of the lack of creative and innovative young adults who are needed for energizing the economic growth machine.

However, even if those students from a very small portion of "key" schools have achieved all the acknowledged standards of high-performing set by an organization that regards children as a "baby workforce," it will not change the real hidden secret: the tremendous health and sociological costs!

The truth is that Chinese teachers, students, and even parents are seriously suffering from the current highly standardized compulsory and no-choice education. While Mr. Friedman was applauding a deep involvement of parents in their children's learning, Chinese parents, in fact, feel kidnapped by it. Their own basic daily life is lost. Every afternoon, after school time, before dinner time, on a mother or father's mobile phone, a homework list is sent by the teachers who often are in charge of three major subjects: Chinese, math and English.  At the same time, children at the first grade start writing down the list of homework in a special diary that is a checklist for parents to sign off on. Through these tools, teachers pass their duties to parents because it then becomes the parents' job to ensure that their children complete the homework. Without the parent's signature, or just by making a few mistakes in a notebook or on an exercise sheet, the child will be in serious trouble the following day. An "irresponsible" parent is often asked to the teacher's office, and blamed in front of their children. It is not uncommon to hear about a mother being shouted at in front of a classroom, then breaking down and crying because she is busily working day and night to provide the basic needs of her family. Moreover, teachers are allowed to use the most powerful psychologically hurtful weapon: that is to ostracize a "rebellious" (really just someone who doesn’t fit the mould) student, thus forcing parents to see their children receive the ultimate kind of painful suffering until they agree to toe the line.

When Mr Friedman applauds "a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development," I am not sure if he ever questioned the real motivation of these teachers. But, he certainly does not know the change of role of a teacher in contemporary China when he appreciates our "culture that […] respects teachers." Chinese intellectuals used to be an independent social class that only pursued the facts and the truth in a monarchical institution with a long history. Teachers, being respected, used to teach with their own understandings of the world.

They worked for maintaining the independence of intellectuals. Unfortunately, today, Chinese teachers have already lost these rights and their own voices. Yuan Teng Fei, a high school teacher, was imprisoned because he taught his students his own critical understanding about Chinese history. A Chinese language teacher who works in a primary school expressed self-guilt privately in front of me since she was unable to carry out her assignment without using psychological force. A math teacher, also a vice principal of a primary school in the Yangpu District, admitted she should, but was unable to, slow down her teaching schedule to fit the real needs of her class of students that she had just taken over from her colleague because the competition between teachers in math group would result in the loss of her bonus and other rewards. A teaching schedule must strictly follow the regional curriculum and instructional procedure and arrangement. Now, teacher’s payment is strictly related to their students' scores only assessed by the paper-based examinations and tests, which force teachers to catch up to the teaching schedule instead of pay attention to a student’s learning pace; which also generate a certain amount of tension between teacher and those lower performance students and their parents. Indeed, teachers have become agents to deliver the will and philosophy of the Party to students and their families, and ultimately to the entire society.

It is not a happy job. But, even so, to be teacher is still attractive to many college graduates while millions of new graduates are jobless, while teacher’s pension can be paid at the salary level, just like a civil servant thereby reinstituting another powerful, privileged class in our dictatorial social system. It is a really stable job if teacher keeps up the routine and makes sure that children do not to take any risks in school. "It is just an ordinary job for survival, same as a cashier in supermarket!  I just deliver the body of textbooks, I don’t teach children any other matter." The spirit of being a teacher as an independent intellectual is so weak that the moral issues consequentially become the major social problem in the current China.

While Mr. Friedman applauds "China's 30 years of investment in [..]education," I am really doubting whether he ever took a close look at these “investment,” what has been invested, and how much real contribution to children’s needs and growth that cannot be measured in our official statistical reports. E-learning and IT supported learning were new and potential large businesses around 2000, but only a few companies have made money from the market. That "you need Guan Xi to get the government's money" was common sense to businessmen in this field. I have a friend who runs a big company that sells whiteboards to schools. His major job is to corrupt decision makers at every level to ensure orders and payments. It is all tied into the GDP and the growth of the large companies. All this technology but no real change in teaching.

This is also why so many well-decorated and fully-equipped buildings have appeared in recent years in schools and universities in Shanghai and China. If Mr. Friedman and those educators had some basic idea of what real teaching and learning are about, why would they tout just the way the system looks from the outside? Are they not aware that investment in buildings and teaching tools does not lead directly to the improvement of student’s learning?

The communication obstacle is unshakable, particularly when people just want evidence to support their policies regardless of what the whole picture is. In China, we say: "a tree leaf close to eye makes you blind." We Chinese are too familiar with standardized testing-focused education, the reasons for it and the dangerous results of its tyranny on students.

Shanghai has no secrets, nor does China. Whoever is able to read the Chinese language and access the Chinese Extranet, can clearly find out about all of the fallout of the high stakes, one-size-fits-all system and the human wreckage of standardization. Whoever can personally talk with Chinese principals, teachers, students and parents in Shanghai streets about education, can find the hidden secret of Shanghai.

Please add following facts to understand the Shanghai secret:

  1. In 2013, less than 30% college graduates can get a job in Shanghai while the local GDP grew 7.5% in 2012, less then 40% in China while the GDP grew 7.8%, which proves the indicator of college-level human resources to the economical growth could be a lie.
  2. The suicide rate among young students in China is the highest in the world and it is continuously rising. In Shanghai, 24.39% of students in primary and secondary schools admit they have had an intention to commit suicide, 15.23% considered the suicide methods, 5.85% seriously planned suicide, 1.71% committed suicide. (reported in 2011 by the 39 Network, one of the biggest health network in China)
  3. The physical health of children and teenagers is continuously worse in the past 30 years. The rate of near-sighted students in China is also the highest in the world. Mr. Yang Rengui, the deputy chief inspector of the Ministry of Education of China, admitted in 2006 the anxious pursuit of performance and the lack of physical exercise time are the major contributors.

If a "successful" education system is based on shaping students as conformists and passive learners without any confidence in their own creativity, imagination or human potential, then the Chinese school system is, indeed, remarkably efficient. However, if the Americans want to emulate our model as a way of competing in the global marketplace, please beware. We Chinese know the real secret of our system that has been kept over 50 years, and it’s absolutely not a pretty picture.