Chinese-American Scholar on American Education, and Foreign Competition

By Sean Cavanagh — October 05, 2009 2 min read
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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.

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.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.