School Turnaround in Shanghai

The Empowered-Management Program Approach to Improving School Performance

In this report we discuss and closely examine Shanghai’s empowered-management program, an important education initiative that has markedly improved low-performing schools in Shanghai.

Students learn Chinese language at Fusheng Migrant School in Shanghai, China. (AP/Eugene Hoshiko)
Students learn Chinese language at Fusheng Migrant School in Shanghai, China. (AP/Eugene Hoshiko)

Public-school students in the world’s largest city, Shanghai, China, are academically outperforming their counterparts across the globe and becoming the talk and envy of education experts worldwide. Using an innovative partnering approach that matches successful schools with low-performing schools, Shanghai has valuable lessons to teach on turning around public-school systems—lessons that transcend several of the unique characteristics of the Chinese educational system, as well as the country’s rich pedagogical traditions.

In development for more than a decade, Shanghai’s empowered-management program aims to improve student achievement in all of its schools by contracting high-performing schools to turn around the academic outcomes of low-performing schools. Chinese officials regard the program as highly successful and have extended its reach across school districts and to other parts of China.

For a number of years now, the Shanghai approach to schooling has garnered worldwide attention due to its students’ impressive performance on international assessments. Results from one of the most respected of these assessments, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, ranked Shanghai as the world’s highest-performing education system in 2009. The student assessment, which is conducted every three years, evaluates the math, reading, and science skills of 15-year-old students from more than 70 countries. According to the most recent results available, from the 2009 administration, the average 15-year-old student in Shanghai performs at a math level that is 33 months ahead of the average 15-year-old student in the United States. The performance gap in science is 23 months, and the performance gap in reading literacy is 17 months.

Admittedly, some have questioned Shanghai’s performance on the evaluation, claiming that the results are false, misleading, or the results of selective sampling of students to take the PISA tests. There is, however, no evidence to support such claims.

Just as impressive is the fact that Shanghai’s high academic performance is matched by greater equity. This means that there is little difference in student performance across economic strata. While a student from a poor family or community in the United States is more likely to fall behind academically than his or her peers, the same isn’t true of poor students in Shanghai. In fact, the poorest 10 percent of students in Shanghai perform at a level in math that is on average 28 months ahead of the poorest 10 percent of students in the United States. What’s more, the achievement gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students in Shanghai is smaller than the achievement gap in the United States.

The differences between the performances of students in Shanghai schools and students in U.S. public schools are stark. What, then, can be learned from successful practices in Shanghai? The answers are many and complex. Certainly, not all Shanghai practices could or should be replicated in other countries, and context clearly matters.

In this paper we discuss and closely examine Shanghai’s empowered-management program, an important education initiative that has markedly improved low-performing schools in Shanghai. We discuss the program and its implementation in detail in order to help our readers better understand it and to determine those aspects of it that would best suit school systems in the United States. Importantly, this paper argues that cultural differences would not prevent the bulk of this program from being successfully reproduced in the United States, although we fully acknowledge that the program cannot be replicated without some attention to differences across systems.

School-improvement debates in the United States are complex and contested, not least because “school turnaround” has two distinct meanings. As part of President Barack Obama’s efforts to implement school reform, “turnaround” is one of four approaches that school districts can take to improve an underperforming school participating in the School Improvement Grant program. More broadly, school turnaround refers to the process of improving a poorly performing school.

The steps taken in Shanghai to successfully turn around schools will be clearly recognizable to anyone familiar with the school-turnaround process in the United States and other countries. The principles of school improvement remain consistent across the globe.

In Shanghai there are five main factors that are critical to turning around low-performing schools:

  • School leadership and strategic planning that raise expectations of students and teachers
  • School culture that supports and promotes student learning
  • Effective teaching that emphasizes professional collaboration
  • Measurement and development of student-learning and effective-learning behaviors
  • Strong community relationships that promote student learning

The empowered-management program contracts high-performing schools to work with low-performing schools—usually for a two-year period—in order to turn around their performance. Teachers and school leaders from both schools move between the two schools building capacity and developing effective practices to turn around the low-performing school.

School-district officials in Shanghai match the low- and high-performing schools. Once two schools are matched, the high-performing school is contracted to turn around the performance of the low-performing school. Extensive monitoring and evaluation ensures that the high-performing school is only paid under the terms of the contract if they are deemed to have been successful in turning around the performance of the lesser-performing school. The contract can be terminated and payments can be withheld if they are not successful.

A lack of detailed school- and student-performance data can make it difficult for outside observers to quantify the success of the program. As a consequence, this paper does not attempt to quantify the effectiveness of the program, as data needed to do so were not available and because there is not yet conclusive quantitative evidence of the impact of the program on student progress. There are no studies, for example, that measure the impact of the program using school-level, value-added data, which measures the contribution that schools make to student progress. (For an explanation of how additional information was gathered for this report, please see the Methodology.)

This report is therefore more descriptive, highlighting the apparent strengths of the program that align with international evidence on effective schooling. In Shanghai the evaluation of the program itself is more qualitative, analyzing in schools the behaviors that international research has shown to be important to effective learning and teaching and the assessment of parents’ reactions. Further empirical research is required to assess the effectiveness of the program, but it is clear that key decision makers at every level of Shanghai school education consider the empowered-management program to be key to improving performance and equity.

Ben Jensen is director of the School Education Program at the Grattan Institute, an independent public policy think tank focused on Australian domestic public policy. Joanna Farmer is an associate at the Grattan Institute, an independent public policy think tank focused on Australian domestic public policy.

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