The NCSL Blog


By Julie Bell

This year NCSL created the Study Group on International Education, a bipartisan group of 24 legislators and six legislative staff. The group will meet to study with international and national experts to learn what the states can glean about education reform from high performing countries.

NCSL study group members meet with education expert Prof. Zhang Minxuan, the chair of the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the Standing Committee of Shanghai People's Congress.Most state legislators know that in countries such as Singapore, Finland and China, students do much better on the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test than students in the U.S. While many legislators may be skeptical of such comparisons, the study group is trying to find fundamental lessons about reform that might be applicable to the states.

NCSL has a long partnership with the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. We were fortunate to be able to invite eight members of the study group to participate in the annual Study Tour to China.

This year's trip provided the study group with a perfect opportunity to meet experts, officials, teachers and students in Shanghai, the consistent top PISA performer. How is it that this huge place with 24 million people can do so well educating its students?

On our first day in Shanghai we had an opportunity to talk with Professor Zhang Minxuan, the chair of the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the Standing Committee of Shanghai People's Congress. He is the former president of Shanghai Normal University and a former deputy director-general of the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Education.

He is known internationally for his efforts to understand research and data, including PISA scores, to inform the design of Shanghai education reforms. We asked him about China's secrets to success.

Zhang described four traditional and eight modern “secrets” to Shanghai's success.

Chinese culture and history have always placed a high value on education and believed everyone should be successful in education. There is a strong belief in individual diligence and persistence. The high respect for teachers and education can be traced back to Confucius. 

The “modern” secrets include an “open door policy” to borrow the latest knowledge, experience and approaches used by other successful countries and demonstrated through research. Other "secrets" are the elevation of teaching as one of the most valued professions, investment and improvement of poorer schools in poor areas, and the empowerment of school leaders. 

Teacher salaries are high and the best students are recruited into the profession. Teachers are regularly evaluated and promoted based on their performance. Teachers are taught both content and practice. Great teachers serve several years in the lower performing schools. Teachers spend less time in the classroom so they have time during the day to provide specific and individual feedback to students and design lesson plans with individual needs in mind. 

The U.S. and China are very different places with very different histories and traditions. Study group members believe, however, that there are important lessons in the Shanghai approach for states to consider. The study tour will continue all this week with visits to schools in Shanghai and Beijing and other meetings with education and government officials.

The study group will work through 2015 to study other top performing countries to better understand education structure and reform.

Julie Bell is a program director in NCSL's education program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.