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Shanghai test scores have everyone asking: How did students do it?

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Shanghai trounced the OECD average: in reading, it got a 556, versus a 493 OECD average; in science, the score was 575 versus 501; and in math, there was a difference of more than 100 points – a 600 in Shanghai versus a 496 average. For a country that emerged only 30-plus years ago from the Cultural Revolution – when education was saturated with politics and many children lost years of schooling – the results left many observers with one question: How did they do it?

Experts ascribe Shanghai’s success to China's assessment that academic achievement is foremost the result of hard work rather than a good teacher or innate talent.

“Students not only work harder, but they attribute their academic success to their own work,” says James Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA who has conducted research on the Chinese educational system. “Chinese students say the most important factor is studying hard. They really believe that’s the root of success in learning.”

That emphasis on hard work is complemented by several other key practices: active engagement by parents, early efforts to build up attention spans, and families' emphasis on spending long hours in school and on homework while doing little else. Parents and students alike believe that buying in has a payoff – future success.

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