Schoolboys being taught in an all boys class at the government-run Shanghai Number Eight High School in Shanghai. Photograph: Peter Parks via AFP/Getty Images)
Schoolboys being taught in an all boys class at the government-run Shanghai Number Eight High School in Shanghai. Photograph: Peter Parks via AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, Elizabeth Truss, the British Minister of Education landed in Shanghai with one question on her mind: why are Chinese kids so good at math?

Her voyage was inspired by panic and the PISA -- the Programme for International Students Assessment -- an international standardized test of 15-year-olds and their academic performance. The 2012 edition (it’s administered every three years) placed particular emphasis on math, and U.K. students suffered for it, ranking 26th out of 65 countries and economies (the U.S. ranked 36th). In contrast, Shanghai, China’s wealthy financial center, topped the rankings.

For those who worry about Britain’s global competitiveness, this is cause for concern. “The reality is that unless we change our philosophy, and get better at maths, we will suffer economic decline,” Truss said last week. The philosophy that Truss prefers is Chinese: “Our new curriculum has borrowed from theirs because we know it works -- early learning of key arithmetic, and a focus on times tables and long division, for instance.” The purpose of this week’s trip, she says, is to learn more.

There is a vigorous debate underway as to whether or not the PISA scores -- especially as applied to wealthy Shanghai -- are necessarily accurate. Nonetheless, even critics don’t dispute that well-educated Chinese students are highly adept at testing. Their prowess has a peculiar hold on the kinds of Anglo-American educational reformers who view high test scores as the principle means of measuring educational achievement.

Nonetheless, in China this test-orientation has created an educational system that’s heavily focused on rote, repetitive learning supplemented by extra evening classes (at least, for those who can afford them). Weekend cram sessions are as close as many students ever come to an extracurricular activity.

For Truss, this might sound like just what the British educational system needs. But it’s precisely what Chinese educators and senior level government officials are trying to change. In fact, last November President Xi Jinping made transforming China’s test-taking culture a part of his overall reform agenda. The Ministry of Education has begun planning for the change, according to one of its senior-level officials. Already, a few of China’s elite schools are experimenting with reforms that -- superficially at least -- make them look less stereotypically Chinese.

The change can’t come quickly enough for Chinese parents who -- as soon as they can afford it -- seem determined to get their children out of Chinese schools, and into foreign ones. As of January 2013, 37.1% of the 25,912 foreign secondary school children in Britain were from China or Hong Kong. Likewise, the Department of Homeland Security reported that 23,795 Chinese students attended U.S. private high schools in 2013. Obviously, this is a small percentage of China’s millions of high school students. But the high cost of being educated abroad means that these kids are disproportionately representative of China’s wealthy elite.

For some Chinese, enrolling a child in a foreign school is a status symbol. But even the shallowest of Chinese parents wouldn’t risk their child’s education to distant foreigners if they weren’t convinced that schooling at home simply wasn’t as good. Of course, these wealthy Chinese likely have access to some of Britain’s finest schools -- surely, consolation if they fear their children are missing out on the educational benefits of endless testing. Nonetheless, if Truss wants a well-rounded view of Shanghai education, she’d be well-advised to meet some of those parents and ask what they think of British education.

U.K. schooling is far from perfect. But its flaws -- deep achievement gaps riven by class and ethnicity to start -- are unlikely to be solved by superior methods for memorizing multiplication tables. At the same time, its benefits -- including opportunities for talented students to develop outside of the classroom -- are likely to be lost if rote memorization and testing become ends in themselves. If Elizabeth Truss doesn’t realize that, it’s all but guaranteed that many of the teachers, administrators, and even parents she’ll meet in Shanghai do.

(Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in Shanghai and the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMinter.)

To contact the writer of this article:
Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net