Shanghai International Schools a Mothers Thoughts

Over the years, I have noticed many questions and comments about various aspects of international schools in Shanghai. I thought it would be useful, as an experienced parent and shanghai expat, to give my two cents worth.

We are of European background and moved from the U.S. about 10 years ago, raised/raising a total of 4 kids in Shanghai. Through trial and error, we have been exposed to several of the well-known international schools here. Here are a few honest thoughts (which I believe are pretty well informed) regarding the” western” rather than Chinese international schools that I hope will be useful for those interested:

Most (not all) international schools are “for-profit”.

This basically means their primary motive is to make money for their investors. Administrator’s decisions are highly influenced (if not bound) by this and teachers are often less empowered because of this.

In some schools, troublesome students are unlikely to be expelled or punished in any meaningful way, as the school administration does not want to lose the tuition derived from those students. This makes bad behavior relatively consequence-free (especially in schools that are newer and trying to increase student numbers).

Teachers, as a result, have few tools at their disposal to reign in bad behavior. The consequences are significant in some of the schools. Obvious bullying goes unpunished, leaving the victims helpless. Classrooms are more difficult to control; dress codes not enforced; academic standards compromised, diluted, and often not enforced.

If a child has trouble in math or reading, many of the schools are not committed adequate tuition dollars to resources devoted to helping them along. I found this surprising after paying roughly the equivalent of $20,000-$25,000/year per child! Based on my experience, good public schools in the U.S devote more resources to support services than MANY of the Shanghai international schools.

A false sense of community diverts deficiencies in their academic programs.

Some of the relatively newer international schools (i.e. anywhere from 0-10 years old) try to sell their schools by advertising a “community” feel or having a music or sports program.

While these are definitely important, keep in mind this can be a red flag, as it is often an attempt to divert attention from glaring deficiencies in their academic programs. Remember, international schools in Shanghai are not bound by law to any enforceable academic standards—again, they are businesses intended to return profits to their investors.

They will go to great lengths to achieve this. Unfortunately, the local government isn’t really concerned about foreign student education so parents cannot rely on them to regulate school behavior. This is what makes our role as parents so important in Shanghai, as there are no watchdogs. Just a lot of fluffy and misleading advertisements and school tours that often do not accurately portray the overall reality of the school.

You should ask and ask again, not only what curriculum the school is using, but how they execute the curriculum. How do they measure progress of their kids compared to kids outside of Shanghai? Do they use textbooks (if so, make sure to look at them) or do they give the kids photocopies and handouts all year long so they can save money?

They should have administrators and teachers that have good general teaching experience as well as experience in the school’s particular curriculum. Many new schools are learning to implement their curriculums from trial and error. This is especially true of many of the IB program schools so keep your eyes wide-open when evaluating these kinds of schools. Do you want to pay a roughly equivalent amount of money for a school with less experience or an established, mature, and tested program with a track record?

Plenty of wasted time on non-educational activities.

You would be surprised at how much time is wasted on non-educational activities at some of the international schools.

For example, some schools place so much emphasis on producing a good Christmas program (i.e. plays and musical performances) in order to please the parents, that the kids’ education suffers for a few weeks before the performance.

Classes are diluted or shortened weeks in advance to make time for practice and rehearsals. Sure the program turns out nice…but at what cost? The kids hardly learned anything the month prior.

I don’t believe most parent want that for their child. Keep in mind, teachers at those schools commonly complain about this particular issue -I have and continue to hear it first hand. What teachers are surprised at is the lack of obvious concern by parents. The school, as a result, assumes parents love this.

Just because your kids are happy at school doesn’t mean they are getting a good education.

I have heard so many parents tell me “my kids seem happy at school so their school must be doing a good job.” For some (not all) of these schools, nothing can be further from the truth. Beware! Remain vigilant about what your child is learning. You do not want to return to your home country and find that your child’s math and reading skills have fallen far behind the classmates they left back home a few years ago. Remember, a child can receive a good, rigorous, and challenging education and be happy at the same time.

Our kids deserve to be reasonably challenged. In fact, we are doing them a disservice if we don’t challenge them. After all, they are going to be growing up in a world that is infinitely more competitive than what most of us grew up in. They need both the academic AND social skills to succeed, find joy and meaning in life, and to contribute effectively and in a positive way to society. Make sure the school and teachers are enforcing expectations and providing the environment for them to succeed.

Many for-profit schools have very liberal admission requirements.

This means kids of a wide-range of academic abilities will be admitted as long as parents can pay tuition. While this sounds nice on paper, the consequences are that the school will admit behaviorally and academically problem kids; many which were rejected by other schools.

The issue is not the acceptance of these kids. The issue is the school does not have the experience or resources to deal with the special needs of these kids. This is not fair to anyone involved as this has direct consequences on the learning environment, teacher’s expectations, and the content covered in the curriculum.

I don’t want someone reading this to think it is impossible to get a good western style education in Shanghai. While there are many academically substandard schools, there are a small number of excellent schools at roughly the same price.

I do hope that parents considering entering their child in one of the Shanghai western international schools (either for the first time or transfer from another Shanghai school) will understand the bottom-line realities of many of these schools and take a closer look at each school to determine if it really is committed to serving the child’s academic and social needs.

Wishing you the best of luck!

3 COMMENTS

  1. Indeed great post. Friends of mine who a boy and a girl attending a French school in Pudong, are complaining about the sheer amount of lengthy holidays. Let’s say my friends are not amused about this.

  2. Dam I don’t even have any kids yet but found this post very informative. I do have a question though, does these international schools have any standardized tests that maybe the public schools here are subject too. Just like you said there should be some way to measure how a school / student is doing vs others.

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