Will teacher survey reveal secrets of Shanghai's success?

19th December 2014 at 00:00
City's decision to take part in Talis labelled `game changing'

Shanghai has become a byword for educational excellence after topping international education rankings. But even as politicians vie to replicate its success, little is known about the working lives of the people who make it possible: its teachers.

However, a "game-changing" decision has now been made to enter Shanghai into the next round of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis), a huge comparative study of the working conditions of teachers across dozens of countries.

The Chinese city has already taken part in the past two rounds of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's other major education survey, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). It finished top both times by a considerable distance.

Professor Minxuan Zhang, the educationalist who took Shanghai into Pisa, has told TES that its schools system will also participate in Talis 2018, revealing information including standards of student behaviour, the working hours of school staff and the esteem in which teachers are held in society.

Professor Zhang, an expert in comparative education, said he had taken the decision because Pisa had shown the importance of teachers in improving schools. He hoped that comparing teachers and their working lives with the rest of the world would enable Shanghai to make further progress.

"Maybe Chinese teachers are not so bad, but we can still see we will learn something new," he added. "We always try to learn something from the world. We think that is very important."

John Bangs, chair of the OECD Trade Union Advisory Committee's working group on education, described the news as a "game changer", adding: "Shanghai is a world leader and I'll be interested to know what the behaviour of pupils there is like and whether teachers think they have got a satisfactory career."

Shanghai's amazing Pisa performance - in 2012, 15-year-olds in the city were nearly three years ahead of the OECD average in maths - has already led the UK government to conclude that the city's teachers have much to teach schools in England. Shanghai specialist maths teachers recently took part in an exchange to the UK during which they led primary lessons and training sessions for staff.

But while the visits from the cream of the city's profession may be beneficial, Talis is likely to provide much more information about the working life of teachers across Shanghai.

The study, in which 34 countries participated last year, sells itself as filling "important information gaps in the international comparisons of education systems". It covers areas including teacher training, appraisal and feedback, school leadership and "teachers' instructional beliefs and pedagogical practices". The latest survey, published this summer, found that most teachers worked "largely in isolation" and did not do collaborative work with colleagues that would help their teaching performance.

Mr Bangs argued that it would be necessary for Talis to ensure that teachers' answers were an accurate reflection of what they felt. "Most of the countries that have participated in the past have a very strong pluralism running through them and are basically independent democratic countries. Shanghai isn't," he said.

"So it is going to be really important in that context that we drill down and find out what teachers' views actually are."

Shanghai will be joined by three other Chinese provinces and cities, including Beijing, in Pisa 2015. But Professor Zhang, a former deputy director general of Shanghai's education authority, said the city would be entering Talis alone.

"Yes, just Shanghai," said the academic, who is now director of China's Center for International Education Study and Consultation. "Shanghai is always the first."

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