To be globally competitive, we should all begin to use chopsticks…. (Yong Zhao)

Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon, wasn’t serious when he tweeted the above statement with a link to a post on his blog. Yong Zhao’s blog post was a reaction to an article that pointed to a correlation between countries which had high PISA scores but few natural resources. However, it is interesting that 4 of the top 5 PISA countries (Shanghai – China, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong – China, Singapore) are Asian.

In reality, what is important is each country’s acknowledgement that “education matters.”

I recently watched a video on education reform in Shanghai, China.

While there are varying perceptions about teaching and learning in China and other Asian countries, it is the efforts towards educational change depicted in this video which I find interesting.

The video begins stating that over the last three decades in Shanghai special attention has been focused on education funding for young people and education policy. Throughout the journey of improving education, problems arose, but on each occasion, in response, new education policy was created to address each of those problems.

The video goes on to highlight an approach used to improve weak schools in Shanghai entitled “Empowered Administration.”

Empowered Administration includes:

  • A stronger school or educational institution is contracted to strengthen a weaker school
  • The strong school or institution provides administrative and pedagogical guidance
  • Such institutions are generally composed of retired school principals and teachers

Empowered Administration includes four partners:

  • the Shanghai municipal government
  • the external partner (school or firm)
  • the district education authority which finances the endeavour
  • an external evaluation body to independently assess the results of the project

In Shanghai it was felt that the issues in the weaker schools included administration that did not know how to run modern schools, did not have strong theoretical foundations, and had, “not followed the changes in technology and modernization,” and, as a result, were behind current practices.

Their approach dispatched strong management teams to lower performing schools.

In one school depicted, a weakness identified was in teachers who came to class without a lesson plan and not having prepared much. As a result, one of the focuses became the need to improve the quality of the teaching staff. The teaching profession is described in the video as a, “conservative and insulated occupation,” acknowledging that it is difficult to change behaviours that have already been formed.

A mentor administrator shown in the video uses his “success education” philosophy, which he had used to turn around a previous school. His “success education” philosophy has three main points:

  • All students are viewed as potential high achievers
  • Developing student self-confidence is the key
  • Intensive teacher mentorship is the strategy

In Shanghai there was recognition that change in approaches to teaching needed to be systematic and lasting. The system of sending in teachers to work one on one with other teachers would often result in immediate change; however, teachers would usually revert back to their former ways of teaching after a period of time.

As a part of providing ongoing support, non-governmental consulting firms were contracted to provide regular and on-going support directly to teachers, and included regular communication with school principals. These firms were usually staffed by retired administrators and teachers.

The Shanghai experience, I believe, offers some interesting considerations for the work we do in improving schools.

The focus on education funding and education policy, I believe, is important. I also believe that these two foci cannot be exclusive of each other. Increasing funding to continue doing what we’ve always done doesn’t make sense for educational improvement. Moreover, policy should focus and guide us in our efforts to organize and allocate resources (who should contribute to the design of educational policy is a whole different topic for a completely separate post).

However, in our system, accurately identifying the “weaker schools” is difficult, controversial, and gives rise to conflict diverting from the issues and solutions, just as does identifying weaker administrators or weaker teachers. The annual Fraser Institute rankings of schools in our province are a good example of a ranking system that probably divides the education community more than improves it. These types of rankings, especially based on limited criteria not widely acknowledged by the profession, have not helped improve our system, and after many years of controversy will not likely be embraced by educators in the near future.

Perhaps for our purposes the focus is not on weaknesses, which speaks to a deficit model, but rather opportunities to share and capitalize on the successful experiences of others towards continuous improvement. In our District we have, on a small-scale, approached that type of work through collegial conferencing projects, and to a lesser degree action research.

I notice some similarities between the Shanghai narrative and the framework in Michael Fullan’s, The Moral Imperative Realized. Fullan identifies the value and importance of administrators and educators working together as partners to link schools, help each other, and ultimately improve the whole system. Out of Fullan’s book I pulled out important aspects necessary for change which spoke to me at that time, including the importance of relationships [Post: Relationships, Relationships, Relationships], building capacity [Post: On Building Capacity], and recruiting and hiring teachers possessing strong foundations on which to build [Post: Don’t Wait for Superman].

I believe there is merit to supporting administrators and teachers with some sort of system of mentorship or collegial sharing. I don’t believe that teachers recently graduated from university training are ready to be classified as “master teachers” any more than newer administrators (Vice-Principals, Principals, and Board Office Administrators) have immediately developed all the skills necessary to address each responsibility resulting in immediate success. Becoming stronger teachers and stronger administrators comes with learning from experience and each other, mixed with some trial and error. I appreciate Fullan’s advocacy for the importance of encouraging, “risk taking, learning, and sharing of successful practices while intervening in a non-punitive manner.”

Districts use educators in a variety of capacities to support school-based educators, including positions such as helping teachers, mentors, consultants, department heads, district administrators, directors of instruction, etc. Each district will have its own model which they believe is the best fit to move the organization forward. However, attention also needs to be focused on ensuring that the model is efficient and truly addresses the needs of the district, schools, educators, and students, especially given a time of limited resources.

Ideally, we should see ourselves continuously striving to improve the work we do in providing improved and superior learning situations focused on success for each student.

… we just need to ensure we have the correct framework and tools in which to do so.

It’s a good thing my kids already know how to use chopsticks. BYOC.




(photo credit: sizima via photopin cc)



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