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Yong Zhao Interview: Will the Common Core Create World-Class Learners?

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University of Oregon professor Yong Zhao's 2009 book Catching Up or Leading the Way sent a jolt through our educational system. He questioned the use of tests and "accountability" from the unique perspective of someone educated in China, now living - and raising children - in the USA. His next book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, is due out soon, so I asked him to share some thoughts about some current issues. yongzhao.jpg

Question: Where do you see the push for Common Core standards coming from?

Yong Zhao: The push comes from a host of sources, from political leaders to business leaders, from government agencies to non-government groups, from academics to consultants, and even from education organizations. The Common Core Standards Initiative is having a great time, much like NCLB in its early days, with lots of money and lots of political power behind it. And of course there are many who would stand to make some money off and perhaps earn some political points from it as well and for these organizations and individuals the Common Core must continue.

Question: What will be different five years from now if the current plans go forward?

Yong Zhao:
It's always dangerous to predict the future. But if history is any indication, judging from the accomplishment of NCLB and Race-to-the Top, I would say that five years from now, American education will still be said to be broken and obsolete. We will find out that the Common Core Standards, after billions of dollars, millions of hours of teacher time, and numerous PD sessions, alignment task forces, is not the cure to American's education ill. Worse yet, we will likely have most of nation's schools teaching to the common tests aligned with the Common Core. As a result, we will see a further narrowing of the curriculum and educational experiences. Whatever innovative teaching that has not been completely lost in the schools may finally be gone. And then we will have a nation of students, teachers, and schools who are compliant with the Common Core Standards, but we may not have much else left.


Question: Some argue that without a single high bar, we will continue to leave poor and minority students behind. How would you respond?


Yong Zhao:
The lack of a "single bar" is never the cause of the problem in the first place. There is plenty of evidence to show that our poor and minority students have been left behind is because they are poor and minority--a social justice and racial issue that must be addressed by the whole society and government at all levels. For example, we know the early years matter a lot but our poor and minority children are not in schools until they are five or six years old. That is, even if a "single bar" mattered, it would be too late. After they begin school, they spend most of their time outside school, in impoverished homes and neighborhoods. More importantly, past experiences show that state level standards and assessment have not improved the educational outcomes of poor and minority students.

In fact, I would argue a single bar in itself is discriminatory because it favors one type of ability over others, while other abilities may be as valuable. For example, a newly arrived immigrant may not do as well as native born students in English but she has already spoken another language. By judging her ability in English only, she would be "at-risk." Likewise, if a child is musically talented but may not do well in mathematics, if using a single bar, he would be "at risk" in math. Like Albert Einstein once said: "if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." Or imagine judging a swimmer by how high he can jump and training him as a jumper.

Question: Leaders of the Common Core have emphasized the importance of students understanding and responding to non-fiction, shifting away from the personal response, even going so far as to say "In college and careers, no one cares how you feel." Do you think this will be helpful?

Yong Zhao: This is getting silly. The world is not filled with heartless, cruel, cold individuals, and the world actually needs individuals who understand emotions and feelings. If they had read any recent studies about creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial talents or books related to multiple intelligences, they would understand the importance of emotional intelligence and the value of empathy.

Question: How should we pursue excellence in the absence of national standards?

Yong Zhao: I have tackled this issue in my upcoming book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, to be released by Corwin Press in mid August. My basic suggestion is that excellence comes from the individual--individual students, individual teachers, individual schools, and individual communities. A true high expectation comes from the students themselves when are allowed autonomy and rewarded for genuine contribution to the society using their talents, passion, time, and efforts. My new book includes three elements of an excellent education: personalized learning/student autonomy, product-oriented learning, and the globe as the campus.

What do you think of Yong Zhao's perspective?


Yong Zhao is Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education, College of Education at the University of Oregon, where he is a full professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership. You can read his blog here.

Image of Yong Zhao used by permission.

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