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Yong Zhao: Focus on Entrepreneurial Skills, not Test Scores

This morning's keynote by Yong Zhao, the presidential chair and associate dean for global education in the college of education at the University of Oregon, kicked off the second day of ISTE 2012 here in sunny San Diego.

"Right now, we are lost in terms of what's the purpose of education," said Zhao, addressing a crowd of nearly 5,000 in the packed San Diego Convention Center. "We are in the U.S. pushing for the idea of Race to the Top. But race to the top of what?"

An emphasis on test scores has led the U.S. education system astray, said Zhao. "We have lost decades of potential to harness technology while trying to subject technology as a tool to improve test scores," he said. "Test scores don't really lead to real education."

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Zhao pointed to results from PISA, an international exam that measures students' skills and knowledge in a variety of countries as a widely recognized yardstick for determining the quality of a country's education. However, many of the countries that rank highest in PISA results—China, South Korea, and Singapore, to name a few—rank lowest on entrepreneurial skills, which correspond to stronger economies, Zhao argued.

He pointed out that American students far surpass their Asian peers when it comes to confidence, despite lower test scores. And it is just that confidence and entrepreneurial spirit that has made the U.S. the strongest economy in the world, said Zhao. "Confidence underpins the drive to be innovative," he said.

"We have to abandon the idea of reducing people's talents into employable skills," and instead foster an education system that "enhances human capacity" and cultivates each students' talents, said Zhao.

"Every talent is useful. Do not pre-judge it," he said, using pop culture icon Lady Gaga as an example. "Curriculum should follow the child. It's not about fixing someone's deficit; it's about enhancing their strength," he said.

Throughout his presentation, the crowd responded favorably to Zhao's assertion, breaking into applause when he mentioned test scores not being a true indication of the quality of education and how literacy should not be a national goal because it is too basic and essential of a skill. But while Zhao's views certainly frame the conversation about improving education in a different light, how useful is his advice? To create a system in which test scores are unimportant compared to the overall skills and talents that each student brings to the classroom would require a complete overhaul of the K-12 education system as we know it. In a time when students, teachers, and schools are judged by standardized test scores, few can afford to push those concerns to the back burner in favor of what they deem more meaningful indicators of success.

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