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Global education lessons: China’s mentor schools bridge rich-poor gap

As the US struggles with inequity between richer and poorer school districts,  Shanghai's stellar urban schools offer hands-on help to rural schools with intensive teaching and administrative mentoring.

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While American educators struggle to address the achievement gap between higher- and lower-income students, the Chinese have turned their attention to their own chronic disparity – that between rural and urban schools.

For nearly a decade, education officials in Shanghai have found success with a mentoring program that pairs high-performing urban schools with poorly funded, lower-performing schools on the agricultural and residential outskirts of this city of 24 million.

The dichotomy is stark – especially because Shanghai astounded the education world in 2009 with a first-place finish in the Program for International Student Assessment test. Though Shanghai is China's largest and wealthiest city, a number of its schools still suffer from what one education official has called "rural culture." Staff are complacent and resistant to change, while teaching methods are outdated and little attention is paid to training. Schools closer to the city center benefit from more funding and a deeper teacher talent pool, with more students pursuing higher education.

The Empowered Administration program aims to level the playing field through weekly mentoring and guidance. Selected rural schools receive a mentor school and $160,000 to use in a two-year partnership. Launched in 2005, the citywide program has 46 school pairings.

Zhang Zhi was principal of the award-winning Yangpu elementary school when he was tapped in 2007 to oversee a partnership with the Qingcun elmentary school on the southern edge of the city. Each week for two years, Mr. Zhang and a group of 10 administrators and teachers traveled to Qingcun for meetings and mentorship activities.

The initial evaluation of Qingcun unearthed a number of challenges: poorly defined responsibilities, a steady drain of teachers and students to better schools, and what Zhang describes as "more administrators than work available."

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