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Chinese-American Scholar on American Education, and Foreign Competition

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One of the voices to weigh in recently on where U.S. schools stand internationally is that of Yong Zhao, a professor at Michigan State University who was born and raised in China. Zhao, in a new book published by the ASCD, draws upon his own experiences in the Chinese education system and argues that much of the U.S. angst over whether we're losing "competitiveness" on the global stage is misplaced. American policymakers, he says, are drawing the wrong lessons from the growing economic might of nations like China—and becoming overly enamored with high-stakes testing, to our peril.

Zhao observes, as others have, that Chinese officials are refashioning their education system to adopt some American-style features, namely less emphasis on high-stakes admissions tests and more promotion of critical-thinking skills and independent projects. One of the more interesting changes he cites is the government's decision in 2008 to give 68 Chinese colleges the freedom to admit or reject students on their own criteria, placing less emphasis on the gaokao, or national college entrance exam.39chinaevans.jpg

The author disapproves of what he sees as the United States' growing fixation on testing and the "accountability" measures of the No Child Left Behind era. One of his chapters is titled "Myth, Fear, and the Evolution of Accountability," which should give you a taste of his point of view. Here's an excerpt:

"Clearly, American education has been moving toward authoritarianism," he writes, "letting the government dictate what and how students should learn and what schools should teach. This movement has been fueled mostly through fear—fear of threats from the Soviets, the Germans, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese, and the Indians. The public, as any animal under threat would, has sought and accepted the action of a protector—the government."

Pretty strong language. Zhao goes on to praise what he sees as the strengths of the U.S. education system, such as its diversity, which he says breeds innovation and allows it to bring about and respond to changes in the American economy. He also describes American education as a system of "second chances," in which students who struggle initially have many chances to correct their course, seize upon a talent and prosper. (Presumably unlike other nations, where students are directed onto an academic track on the basis of test scores and kept there.) The United States needs to find ways to replicate these strengths, he says.

Zhao is by no means the first scholar to caution that fears of the United States falling behind educationally are overblown. If you've had a chance to read Zhao's work (the ASCD has published some excerpts online), are you persuaded by his reasoning?

Photo of students at Beijing's Fourth Secondary School, April 2007, by sevans for EdWeek.

10 Comments

Yes, I am persuaded by Yong Zhao's arguments regarding American education. Our students have never scored at the top internationally, yet our economy has remained the strongest in the world. Our teachers and schools must work with all children, of all abilities and backgrounds, at the same time. They have responded to every demand our society has placed on them and more.

I agree in general with Zhao and in particular with his statement that a strength of our system is "second chances." I see our community colleges as providing that strength, giving many adults the opportunity to "redeem" themselves from decisions that hindered their success and giving others skills needed in careers such as small engine repair or the beginning of credits for a four-year college degree.

I was very surprised, and pleasantly, by this article. It's nice to hear that America is doing something right in the field of education.

I wonder why I haven't heard these sentiments expressed in the media before. I guess it's because these sentiments don't support more federal government intervention in education.

I have recently retired after 41 years in public education as a teacher in NYC, a principal and superintendent in New Jersey suburbs.

It is painfully sad that America has repeatedly and historically had inappropriate expectations of its schools. Far too much is demanded (supplanting parental and personal responsibility) and political ideology narrows our curriculum. American education's strength has come from our inclusiveness and never giving up on children. The pendulum swings that bombard schools only undermines continuity and common sense.

The rest of the world (as well as our own politicians and media) would benefit from spending time in classrooms and observing teachers' daily struggles and efforts to motivate and educate diverse populations.

Persuaded? No. He is preaching to the saved with me. The idea that a testing company can somehow decipher the quality of teaching better than the teachers and administrators of our own schools is ridiculous, yet millions of dollars are wasted on this measure every year. It is perhaps a side effect of industrialization that the U.S. expects a kind of assembly line inspection process to be established for education. The objective is to spmehow create an entire generation of college graduates to fill the spaces previously manned, or womaned by the merely high school educated. Never mind that the extra time and expense of that higher education is rarely necessary.

I am warmed to read what Zhao has written. He does well to point out some of our educational systems strengths, and he rightly criticizes the weaknesses in testing and accountability. However, I disagree with "diversity breeds innovation", as I feel this is only the case when the diversity is coupled with motivation.

I would be very curious to read what Zhao has to say about competitiveness in the classroom (in contrast to cooperation) and where he sees other nations focusing their efforts. Concerning the global 21st century community, cooperation is all the rage in the South Eastern US, even so far as influencing curriculum.

I have more than 30 years in K-12 education and have taught in a number of places. I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Zhao speak on these matters last spring and I just read the book. It is so refreshing to get a different and I feel more accurate assessment of where the American education system is and should be going. But how do we get our leaders to consider what he has to say? Bravo Dr. Zhao!

Excellent book with ideas deserving of a lively discussion. Without champions like Dr. Zhao, I picture our students wearing an ill-fitting one-size fits all curriculum.

What does it tell us about our educational system when we are proud to offer our students "second chances"! What are the barriers in keeping us from offering all children their "first chances" to high quality instructions?

Yesterday I had the chance to hear Prof. Zhoa speak at a professional develop conference I attended. I have not read his book but plan to do so soon. I strongly agree with him regarding the negative implications of too much emphasis on standardized testing. Below are my thoughts regarding the movement toward market principles in public education, which have stressed the need for testing.

Through my career in teaching I have long felt that our country has slowly been abandoning public education for policies that in the long run tear down our once envied public education system. It is that system that has helped so many move up the ladder of American society to a better life. My entire career in education has seen countless efforts to improve education by applying market place theory to the public service that is public education. I have said in the past to many colleagues that I don’t understand this approach for the following reason. A market economy is based on the principles of supply and demand. This means those who make the best products while keeping costs low will win in the market place. This also means that someone, somewhere will lose in that market place. Applying this theory to a public service such as public education also ensures that someone, somewhere will also lose. Education is a long process not a short-term end product. Final success is determined by individual successes based on each student’s interests and talents. None of this can be accurately measured year by year on a test. Some students move ahead early while others catch up later. All students come from a home environment that has a huge impact on their learning from day to day. This will always affect student learning in positive and negative ways. Some will move from a public high school directly to college. Others to job training schools and others immediately to the work force and eventually back to a community college or job training school with new appreciation for the opportunities in American public education.
This is how our system assures that all can win in education because there is always the opportunity to go back to school.

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