Direct from Shanghai, an innocent abroad: Tom Friedman isn’t an expert on schools. But when has that ever stopped anyone?
Last Wednesday, in the New York Times, Friedman wrote a column about his visit to a public elementary school in Shanghai. Because of its extremely high scores on the 2009 PISA, Shanghai has become the new Finland—the place to which the journalists go on junket, hoping to find The Secret to high-scoring schools.
That was Friedman’s headline: The Shanghai Secret. For decades, writers like Friedman have been revealing The Secret which explains the latest educational miracle tale. Rather, they’ve been sharing The Secret as told to them by our education experts.
Friedman traveled to Shanghai with Wendy Kopp, a major figure in education and, in our own view, a bit of an embellisher. How savvy are major journalists when they go on these public school junkets?
Not especially savvy. First example:
When they arrived in Shanghai, Friedman and Kopp constituted a major international delegation. At one point, Friedman observed a third grade English class at Qiangwei Primary School. We note one of his observations:
FRIEDMAN (10/24/13): Teng Jiao, 26, an English teacher here, said school begins at 8:35 a.m. and runs to 4:30 p.m., during which he typically teaches three 35-minute lessons. I sat in on one third-grade English class. The English lesson was meticulously planned, with no time wasted.Did you follow that? Friedman visited this Shanghai primary school as part of a major delegation. When he observed one class, he noted, with an air of surprise, that the lesson had been well planned!
As noted, Shanghai produced extremely high results on the 2009 PISA. No one seems to doubt that the results are real, although Shanghai is a special case within China’s educational system (see link below).
Given his international status, there was no chance that Friedman would observe a class which hadn’t been extremely well planned. But Friedman, an innocent abroad, didn’t reflect on this obvious fact in his column. Instead, he played it straight, gaping at the preparation and the skillful use of time.
But then, there were a lot of things Friedman didn’t seem to notice as he produced his column. This cluelessness is often observed when journalists cast themselves the role of innocent abroad.
What else is odd in Friedman’s column? Below, you see the longer excerpt from which the previous passage was drawn.
Friedman is discussing the brilliant way this Shanghai school executes the basics. But in the highlighted passage, do Friedman’s numbers make sense?
FRIEDMAN: Take teacher development. Shen Jun, Qiangwei’s principal, who has overseen its transformation in a decade from a low-performing to a high-performing school...says her teachers spend about 70 percent of each week teaching and 30 percent developing teaching skills and lesson planning. That is far higher than in a typical American school.According to Friedman, Teng Jiao spends 105 minutes teaching, out of an eight-hour school day. That doesn’t exactly seem to make sense—and it seems to contradict the principal’s statement one paragraph earlier, in which teachers are said to be in the classroom 70 percent of each day.
Teng Jiao, 26, an English teacher here, said school begins at 8:35 a.m. and runs to 4:30 p.m., during which he typically teaches three 35-minute lessons. I sat in on one third-grade English class. The English lesson was meticulously planned, with no time wasted. The rest of his day, he said, is spent on lesson planning, training online or with his team, having other teachers watch his class and tell him how to improve and observing the classrooms of master teachers.
In comments, many readers of Friedman's column noticed this puzzle. They marveled at the teacher/student ratio Friedman recorded elsewhere. But as he typed the latest educational miracle column, Friedman didn’t seem to notice these things. Nor does he seem to realize that a serious journalist shouldn’t accept undocumented claims about a school’s “transformation in a decade.”
Should a journalist assume the truth in a principal’s claim about the number of students who are children of poorly educated migrant workers? Actually, no! He shouldn’t assume that either!
No one seems to doubt that Shanghai’s test scores are basically real. But a serious journalist wouldn’t take those localized miracle claims at face value. Meanwhile, do you understand the highlighted statement? We’re not sure we do:
FRIEDMAN: I’ve traveled here with Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and the leaders of the Teach for All programs modeled on Teach for America that are operating in 32 countries. We’re visiting some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in China to try to uncover The Secret—how is it that Shanghai’s public secondary schools topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams that measure the ability of 15-year-olds in 65 countries to apply what they’ve learned in math, science and reading.Does that highlighted statement mean that Friedman and Kopp ventured outside Shanghai? Did Friedman really visit some of China’s lowest-performing schools?
If so, Friedman doesn’t discuss what he saw in those schools, which would have been very different from what he saw in Shanghai. Indeed, he doesn’t discuss those schools at all.
Obviously, you can’t expect a journalist to answer all questions about a sweeping topic in an 800-word column. The problem is, Friedman almost seems to think he accomplished that task during his junket to Shanghai.
What is The Secret behind Shanghai’s high scores? In keeping with current tenets of ed reform chic, Friedman announces that there really isn’t a Secret. He then produces a list of four best practices which takes the place of The Secret. Did he notice something about his four-point list?
FRIEDMAN: After visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School, with 754 students—grades one through five—and 59 teachers, I think I found The Secret:In that paragraph, Friedman lists four “basics” which are said to explain Shanghai’s success. He says “we know” that these four basics are the key to high-scoring schools.
There is no secret.
When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system. These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.
Who is this “we?” Friedman doesn’t say. Sill and all, let's be fair:
In some sense, Friedman’s statement may even be true! It may be that those four basic best practices do explain Shanghai's apparent success. But did Friedman realize that two of those “basics” aren’t within the control of a public school? He shows no sign of having noticed this highly important fact.
Guess what? A public school or a public school system can’t create “a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.” Nor can a public school magically create “the deep involvement of parents.” Those may be two basic explanations for Shanghai’s apparent success. But Friedman rattles them off without seeming to see that he is describing a cultural difference between Shanghai and many parts of this country.
In fairness, Friedman does know that he has encountered some cultural differences. At one point, he alludes to a difference he observes in a particular circumstance.
But alas! It isn’t clear that Friedman knows what that cultural difference is! Can you name the cultural difference lodged in this anecdote?
FRIEDMAN: Teng said his job also includes “parent training.” Parents come to the school three to five times a semester to develop computer skills so they can better help their kids with homework and follow lessons online. Christina Bao, 29, who also teaches English, said she tries to chat either by phone or online with the parents of each student two or three times a week to keep them abreast of their child’s progress. “I will talk to them about what the students are doing at school.” She then alluded matter-of-factly to a big cultural difference here, “I tell them not to beat them if they are not doing well.”Presumably, the cultural difference to which Friedman refers is the practice of “beating children.” A larger difference is described in that anecdote, though it isn’t clear that Friedman noticed.
Friedman isn’t an education specialist. What made him feel he knew so much, based on one quick trip to China?
Eventually, we discover his secret! Friedman believes the things he is told by “education experts.” Eventually, he cites one particular expert:
FRIEDMAN: Education experts will tell you that of all the things that go into improving a school, nothing—not class size, not technology, not length of the school day—pays off more than giving teachers the time for peer review and constructive feedback, exposure to the best teaching and time to deepen their knowledge of what they’re teaching.Earlier, Friedman told us that 70 percent of a Shanghai teacher’s day is spent in the classroom. Now, as he hurries to finish his column, he complains that a majority of a teacher’s time is spent that way over here!
In 2003, Shanghai had a very “average” school system, said Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA exams. “A decade later, it’s leading the world and has dramatically decreased variability between schools.” He, too, attributes this to the fact that, while in America a majority of a teacher’s time in school is spent teaching, in China’s best schools, a big chunk is spent learning from peers and personal development. As a result, he said, in places like Shanghai, “the system is good at attracting average people and getting enormous productivity out of them,” while also, “getting the best teachers in front of the most difficult classrooms.”
Whatever! In the end, we learn this from that passage: Friedman believes (and repeats) whatever the experts tell him. In this case, one expert almost seem to be telling him that Shanghai made a miraculous gain in the last ten years due to teacher training techniques which turn “average people” into exceptional teachers.
Being an innocent, Friedman doesn’t know that he shouldn’t automatically believe the things Schleicher tells him. Schleicher is the crusader rabbit who invented the PISA, which everyone agrees to say is a test of critical thinking skills.
We assume the PISA is a useful test. Regarding Schleicher, we would be somewhat skeptical.
Along with the cult of Finland, the education world has developed a cult of Schleicher in the past decade. A serious journalist would be much more careful than Friedman with Schleicher’s all-knowing pronouncements.
A few years ago, Schleicher told Amanda Ripley that Finland’s (not so) miraculous rise was based on the way they only allow the most talented people to become teachers. Now, Schleicher seems to be telling Thomas L. Friedman that Shanghai’s (alleged) miraculous rise is based on the way they take average people and make them excellent teachers.
Each claim could be true, of course—but then, each claim could be false. Friedman doesn’t seem to know that he shouldn’t be taking dictation from Schleicher.
Schleicher is a well-known expert. He has probably given TED talks! To Friedman, this can only mean one thing. Serving as the latest educational innocent abroad, he assumes he should be writing down the things this expert has told him.
Over the past forty years, the education experts have often been wrong. They have often been amazingly clueless. One example:
A lot of cheating was transpiring on this country’s standardized tests. We discussed this problem from the early 1970s on.
The education experts completely missed it. Forty years later, USA Today finally clued them in with their report on the cheating surrounding Michelle Rhee, whom the experts loved.
The experts’ track record is very poor. Friedman shows no sign of knowing. He is writing down what they said to an innocent abroad.
Background on Shanghai: Please note—Shanghai is producing very high test scores. So is South Korea; so is Singapore. That isn't the issue here.
For background on Shanghai’s special status within the Chinese system, see Tom Loveless’s recent piece for Brookings. Loveless is one of those rare education experts:
Good lord! He doesn't repeat what everybody else just said! In the world of education experts, is such conduct allowed?