How Shanghai Does It

Key Findings
  • Shanghai has topped two consecutive rounds of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in reading, mathematics and science.
  • Shanghai’s stellar performance on international tests is linked to a strong education system with efficient public financing.
  • Shanghai’s policies and investments have created a great teacher workforce, established clear learning standards and regular student assessments, and struck a balance between autonomy and accountability in school management.

The report “How Shanghai Does It” highlights how the city’s education system stands out as one of the strongest in the world, translating smart education policies into excellent learning results. It documents and benchmarks key policies in Shanghai’s basic education system, provides evidence on the extent to which these policies have been implemented in schools, and explores how these policies and their implementation have affected learning outcomes.

A comprehensive evaluation was conducted using the Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER), the World Bank’s global platform for benchmarking education systems, and complemented with detailed school surveys, key informant interviews, and detailed literature review. 


  • In 2013, there were 1.2 million basic education students in Shanghai and nearly half were children of migrants. About 77% of them were placed in public schools and the rest funded to attend private schools. 
  • Shanghai topped two consecutive rounds (2009 and 2012) of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. PISA is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in reading, mathematics, and science to assess how well 15-year-olds have acquired the knowledge and skills needed to fully participate in knowledge-driven societies. 
  • Shanghai also stands out for having the world’s highest percentage of “resilient students,” i.e. students from socio-economically disadvantaged who perform at the top 25% level.

Attracting and Developing an Excellent Teaching Force

  • Clear learning objectives and standards, well-aligned curriculum, compact and affordable teaching learning materials, and efficient assessment systems for all grade levels provide the framework for teachers in Shanghai. 
  • Teaching is regarded as an attractive and respected profession, with clear career advancement mechanisms in place.
  • Teachers are evaluated systematically, and necessary incentives are provided to encourage them to improve performance and to teach in hard-to-staff rural and semi-urban schools.
  • Teachers go through a rigorous pre-service training and are well supported with ongoing professional development once they begin work. Professional development activities are designed to be collaborative, focus on instructional improvement, and encourage teachers to be researchers who can evaluate and modify their own pedagogy in relation to student outcomes.
  • Recruitment criteria for school principals are high and stringently adhered to, with a clear focus on instructional leadership.

Financing Education for Quality and Equity

  • Education financing is decentralized to districts and counties.
  • The education budget is channeled to schools via teacher salaries, capital investment, and an operational budget based on the number of students and standard per student allocation. 
  • Education financing in Shanghai is designed to ensure provision of minimum inputs needed for all and at the same time transfer mechanisms to support students in need as well as the low performing schools and districts.
  • Innovative financing instruments such as “entrusted management” pairs low-performing schools with high-performing peer institutions.
  • Shanghai closely monitors the school management environment and teaching learning outcomes. The municipality collects school and district data annually. 
  • Education budgeting is based on adequate and transparent information and made available to the public. 
  • Specific policies are in place to assist disadvantaged students with education expenses, particularly for the children of migrants, students under economic hardships, and students with disabilities.

Balancing School Autonomy and Accountability

  • Schools have substantial autonomy in planning and managing the school budget and personnel management. However, schools may have varying levels of autonomy to appoint and dismiss teachers- depending on the district.
  • Schools are accountable for school management and learning outcomes and are inspected annually to make necessary remedial adjustments to their teaching and management practices.
  • Schools can design up to 30% of the curriculum as school-based curriculum. To a certain extent, teachers and school principals can decide for themselves what educational materials to use in their classrooms.
  • The system promotes and maintains professional accountability through relations within the teaching staff and through the execution of in-service teacher training and monitoring procedures.
  • However, public schools are not yet mandated to have school councils and there are no clear guidelines for the participation of the community in school activities.

Creating an Effective Student Assessment System

  • Schools conduct continuous and formative classroom assessments, year-end exams, national level exams at the end of ninth and twelfth grades, and as well as participate in international assessments such as PISA. 
  • There are clear guidelines on assessment standards, and efforts have been made to align these standards with appropriate, age-relevant expected learning outcomes.
  • Data from these assessments are used to inform teaching-learning and future assessment practices.
  • Efforts are underway to reduce the associated pressure level and alleviate the fear parents and students have of national-level ninth and twelfth grade examinations.

Overall findings

  • Based on the SABER framework and rubric, Shanghai scored “established” and “advanced” in almost all areas across four key educational domains: teachers, school finance, school autonomy and accountability, and student assessment.
  • Shanghai was also found to have high degree of coherence between policy and implementation
  • School factors that are positively associated with PISA performance include educational resources, extracurricular activities, principal instructional leadership, curriculum autonomy, accountability, and teacher participation in school governance.
  • Moreover, individual and family background characteristics have demonstrated consistent correlation with student performance across academic programs.
  • Shanghai carefully plans, meticulously implements, and focuses on improving teaching and instructional excellence – the Shanghai “secrets”.

Policy considerations

  • Delay “tracking” (allocating students to different programs, based on exam results) to tenth grade or later. Evidence from Germany shows that extending students’ time with general academic education to develop basic competencies in reading and mathematics could increase overall academic performance.
  • Devise comprehensive assistance strategies, including more demand-side interventions to children of migrants and other disadvantaged children.
  • Expand the role of parents, the community, and society in education.
  • Explore the role of public-private partnerships to address the last-mile issues in education service delivery.
  • Find a healthier balance between academic excellence and students’ social and emotional well-being.
  • Continue the spirit of innovation and reform in education.