Lessons From the World’s Best Public School

Grant Birmingham:

Jinjing Liu, a 15-year-old ninth-grader at Meilong Intermediate in central Shanghai—and part of the best education system in the world’s most populous country—is ticking off her normal class schedule: “Physics, chemistry, math, Chinese, English, Chinese literature, geography…the usual stuff,” she says in impeccable English.

That’s not Jinjing’s school day schedule; that’s her workload each and every Sunday. The Lord may have rested on the seventh day, but Jinjing studies, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. She relates this over lunch on a Saturday afternoon, “the only day,” she acknowledges, that she has “any free time to relax.” And lest you think she is some whiz-bang academic geek on the fast track to Tsinghua, China’s M.I.T., think again. Ask who else in her high school has that Sunday routine and she says, “Pretty much everyone.”

Over the past several years, the Shanghai public school system has drawn global envy—and stirred controversy—by acing an international test given every few years by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that seeks to measure the quality of school systems globally. In 2009 (the first time the city participated in the test) and again in 2012, Shanghai finished first out of 66 locations surveyed in the so-called PISA exams (Program for International Student Assessment) in the three key disciplines: reading, science and mathematics. At the same time, the test showed the United States dropping lower in the global standings in all three disciplines, most precipitously in math.