Thursday, January 08, 2009


Photo of Shanghai schoolchildren by alokemon on Flickr.

(I said I'd post the first part of my e-mail about getting your kids educated here in Shanghai, so here it is. In this essay I tried to avoid singling out any specific schools because my opinions are still very subjective, but if you want meet up or chat privately by e-mail I'd be happy to put the smack-down on specific schools!)

I'm not an expert on the topic but I do have two small investments (Charlotte and Maryann) and work at SMIC so, as you predicted, I have thought about it before.

The way I see it, choosing a school is a decision with personal/practical, long-term/short-term trade-offs. Good questions to ask are: where do we live/work and what's in the area? where will our family be in 10 years? what can/will we be able to afford financially? what do I want my child to learn? what do I want my child's options to be when he graduates/transfers out?

Your answers to these questions will help you to narrow down from the options available to you in Shanghai, which are are: local schools, international schools, and the in-betweens. In my judgement, the international schools range from bad-soso-good-excellent, local schools follow the same scale, and in-betweens (local private schools with international sections) are generally bad with only a few exceptions (my school being one of the exceptions, and still not great; more below).

Then you have to choose a specific school. While different schools suit different people (the "personal" part of the decision), there are some common standards on which you might rate a school: teacher quality and turnover, curriculum, facilities and resources, administration, communication with parents, cafeteria food quality, etc. No matter the judgement you make, though, you will hear some indignant parents say "well I say! my child *loves* it at Ho-Hum Kindergarden! they may not have XXX, but their YYY is so good". Reasons for choosing one school that may be genuinely important to one parent can be genuine rubbish to another, and you may find yourself one both sides of the divide at some point or another. So take any opinions you get with a grain of salt and stand up for what is important to you and your child.

English-speaking international schools have the advantage of giving your kid a non-Chinese education and being on track with school systems back in their affiliated home countries, so the transition back can be easier than from a local school. The best international schools provide the highest quality English-language education your kids can get in Shanghai: they are often accredited by well-established national and international educational organizations, they have many experienced teachers (high turnover, but still), and their facilities can be top-notch. The worst international schools in Shanghai are poorly-run, hire inexperienced teachers, and can only provide a low-quality education equivalent to a bad public school back home. Some international school provide not just a "back home" education, but also the "back home" social environment for parents that want it. Concordia and SAS are geared towards parents and students that want a more pure American experience; Yew Cheung (HK) and Shanghai United (UK) have a greater emphasis on bilingual education and Chinese (but not necessary local) culture. These schools are relatively expensive, nearing 30k US per year all-in; Shanghai United is an exception. Some are better than others, so visits are important before making a final decision.

Chinese schools would give your kid the Chinese experience, but the higher up you go in grade level the harder it will be on your kid to transition back to your own country's school system or to an international school; your kids will also be trained in a Chinese way of thinking, for better or for worse (or for better). Within the local school category, you still have different kinds to choose from. Neighborhood schools tend to be soso in quality, but are easy to get into: just pay the bill (high for foreigners, maybe 60%-70% more). The best local schools are the ones run by or attached to the more prestigious universities, with quality falling the farther they are from the mother school. More selective local schools require an admissions test and/or interview so it's good to be in contact with them ASAP to know their requirements and testing dates. Getting in contact before your child is born is even not too early for preschools; and some preschool are feeder schools for some better elementary schools, which are feeders for some better middle schools, etc, so it's good to have a finger on those paths from the beginning if that's important to you. Private Chinese schools can provide a more progressive education, but from searching through many Chinese school websites I get the impression that you won't find a "progressive American-style education in Chinese" by turning to private Chinese schools; they are still Chinese at the core (reminder: this can be good or bad, depending on what you want).

In-between schools are the private/public Chinese schools that open international divisions. They (should) have college counselors to help the kids apply to universities abroad. By virtue(?) of being attached to Chinese schools, they 1) are regulated by the Shanghai Bureau of Education and follow a Chinese school calendar, and 2) tend advertise heavily the fact that they run a bilingual program (many parents are attracted by this), not because the program is any good but because of inertia and because they have a hard time finding/affording enough native-English-speaking teachers to staff all of their positions. These schools tend to have a high population of Korean students because the schools have lower entrance standards than official international schools. If you can't tell already, I don't have a high opinion of these schools because I get the feeling that a lot of them are just tacked onto Chinese schools as a reputation-and-money-building scheme, though I have heard of parents who are satisfied with them. In my opinion, you're better off sending your kid to a high quality pure-Chinese local school and giving them extra English homework, speaking English at home, letting them watch US TV, etc.

SMIC (my school) is an exception to the in-between school pattern because we have a unique dual-track system, and so is Shanghai High School Int'l Division due to its long history. Still, we try our best but will never measure up to the top international schools because the Bureau of Education caps our tuition rates, which limits our financial resources (I'm not complaining, just being open about the facts. I'm pretty satisfied at SMIC for many reasons, which I'd be happy to share with you).

As far as printed material, I know of one book on the topic of Shanghai international schools. My school library has a copy and I will send you the author/publisher contact info later this week. As for word of mouth, the best resource that I know of is currently the Shanghai Mamas e-mail list on Yahoo. Its a very diverse crowd and very active, maybe 10-20 e-mails a day, and mostly mothers of younger children so preschools are their specialty. Their archives are searchable when you join their Yahoo Group. You might think that the ShanghaiExpat forums are a good place to ask, but even though I monitor it and answer questions there myself, I find it hit-and-miss depending on who is around that day and what schools they are familiar with. For more professional opinions, relocation companies are usually familiar with the options but I can't recommend any one in particular and I imagine it will cost $$. As far as local public/private schools, I don't know of any print resources on local schools. I think most locals get recommendations through their social circles. I'd do some BBS research (for us that's Liba/篱笆 and Zhangjiang Jiayuan/张江家园) and ask neighbors, friends, etc.


At Jan 11, 2009, 4:09:00 AM, Blogger Cheffe said:

When I thought about which international school to choose in Shanghai I realized that I basically have just one option if it shouldn't be a Chinese school.

As it needs to be a school that teaches in German there is just one possibility in Shanghai - else there would be no flexibility on when to go back.

And after checking their tutition fee scheme I realized that you need a high salary to be able to pay that.

At Jan 12, 2009, 3:12:00 AM, Blogger Micah Sittig said:

Cheffe, thanks for your comment! I am a very budget conscious person because of my personal history, and it seems a lot of people and schools in Shanghai haven't thought about this issue in the past. I think in the future we will see more options for education in the more affordable ranges.

Is the German school really expensive? Could you link to the page where the tuition is listed?

At Jan 16, 2009, 3:23:00 PM, Blogger Jennifer said:

This struggle to balance education in different languages and systems is really difficult. I keep adjusting my ideas about how to do it as my kids get older.
I think that in practice it is very difficult to do enough extra language training at home to supplement a monolingual local school. In China, as in Korea, the homework demands on kids are pretty high from the beginning of elementary school, which makes it difficult to really get a good basic foundation in another language if its not done at school. When we lived in Korea I taught my son English at home, making him do workbooks and reading. For some time I spent the bulk of my time teaching him English, but this backfired because he started to feel that he was stupid in school since his Korean was not as good as the other students. After some discussion we decided to pay more attention to helping him do his Korean well and less time on English. And this was only to 2nd grade. Now that he's in a bilingual school, I feel like he's at least getting a good foundation of English -- proper spelling, proper grammer, knowing the vocabulary used in different subjects. Even in a subject that he is very good at, like math, my son had trouble moving from one language to another. It hadn't occurred to me to teach him the vocabulary for English-language math problems: addition, subtraction, divisor, greater than, etc., not to mention all the American currency, weights, and measures. Moving back and forth between the different systems, I keep running into problems I hadn't anticipated. In a bilingual school, the standard of English may not be as high, but I feel like he has a foundation that I can build on at home by exposing him to more books and by talking to him. I wish there were better (and more affordable) options for bilingual/bicultural education.

At Jan 16, 2009, 9:09:00 PM, Blogger Jessica said:

This post sums up my feelings on education abroad. We aren't quite there yet, as my son is only 15 months, but it will be upon us soon enough. Since we plan on moving back to Kunming fairly soon, the topic weighs heavily. Kunming's options are quite limited, and the quality of schools just isn't up to par with what you'd find in Beijing and Shanghai. I've found that International schools often don't deliver the quality that the high price tag would suggest. Chinese schools are, well, very Chinese, and the education the kids receive won't transfer well into an international context. I also work at a private/public school, and I tend to have the same opinion. While there are some quality students at our school, and the program is invaluable for students who plan on attending uni in the States (we offer AP classes), it is used also as a place where wealthy parents can dump their underachieving teenagers and feel like they're making a responsible choice regarding their kids' education.

Homeschooling is also an option, but I have my reservations about that as well. At least we have several years to figure things out, and in the end we may end up heading back to the States on the basis of the education issue alone.

Anyhow, thanks for this post. And thanks for stopping by my blog as well!

At Jan 16, 2009, 10:36:00 PM, Blogger Jason Li said:

Jessica: Out of interest, if you did return to the US, what school would you kids end up in? Maybe this doesn't apply as much to the pre-elementary school years, but after it, there's private/public/charter/magnet/etc?

At Jan 19, 2009, 3:53:00 AM, Blogger Cheffe said:

Micah there is just this German document about the school fees there:

The school fees including bus fees are at just below 100.000 RMB per year. There is also a mandatory one time deposit of 50.000 RMB.

All this is valid for the normal school (Kindergarten is cheaper).

This would eat up a big chunk of the salary if it's not paid by the company.

At Jan 20, 2009, 3:32:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said:

Hi Micah,
Thanks for good information about international school in Shanghai. That's what I really wanted. Compared good public school in CA, US to top international school (such as SAS) in Shanghai, which is better? How about SMIC? Is it better than a good public school or same? I am asking this is because that I am in the middle of making a decision whether we should bring my two kids back to China or not? Is it worthy spending so much money to go to international school? We heard that SMIC is a good choice, how do you think? Thanks for your comments.


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