Yong Zhao’s Biting Critique of the Chinese Edu-Miracle

I really like the University of Oregon’s Yong Zhao. Now, I don’t actually know him. (We’ve traded e-mails, he’s a member of the RHSU Edu-Scholar Selection Committee, yada yada, but we’ve never sat down together.) I like him because his writing flags the stifling nature of regulation and celebrates the creative power of entrepreneur-oriented education. This is a message that you don’t often hear in ed schools or the precincts of the anti-testing movement, where you expect people to sound a lot more like Paulo Freire than Milton Friedman. Having been born and bred in China, Zhao seems to have a visceral feel for authoritarian government, an oppressive state, and the nature of stifling homogeneity.

This all came to mind as I read his most recent book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. Zhao notes that students in the city of Shanghai topped the PISA performance tables in 2009 and 2012 (when compared to the tested populations of other nations). This turned China into the latest object of envy for those who travel the world seeking the latest in miracle cures and led to a series of books with titles like Surpassing Shanghai. Zhao sets out to explain why the Chinese miracle isn’t all that miraculous. It’s a breezy, interesting read. Zhao makes his case largely through anecdote and allusion, but, given that most of the paeans to the Chinese miracle aren’t all that reasoned or persuasive either, I’ll make allowances. There’s plenty I disagree with, and I think Zhao makes some assertions that I find questionable, but it’s not every book that ranges from Coca-Cola’s entry into China to the Opium Wars to Beverly Hall’s cheating scandal in Atlanta.

More to the point, Zhao does a wonderful job of challenging the lazy nostrums peddled by those suffused with China envy. He quotes New York Times bloviator Thomas Friedman as yearning for a “China day” when “we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions…on everything from the economy to environment.” I suppose it’s true that, if one imagines there are incontestably “right solutions” on big questions, the messy business of pluralistic democracy would seem unnecessary and unpleasant. Of course, the Sinophiles seem to forget that a bedrock principle of the American system is a distrust of those who would entrust so much power to a coterie of “right-minded” government officials.

In what may be the book’s nut paragraph, Zhao states his case plainly:

The Chinese national educational system has won high praise as an efficient system with national standards, a narrow curriculum, a high-stakes test (the college entrance exam), and a clearly defined set of gateways to mark students’ transitions from one stage to another. Admirers note that every Chinese student has a clear and focused goal to pursue…and the government knows exactly which schools are doing well. What those admirers ignore is the fact that such an education system, while being an effective machine to instill what the government wants students to learn, is incapable of supporting individual strengths, cultivating a diversity of talents, and fostering the capacity and confidence to create.

This strikes me as a pretty compelling take. It would’ve made a lot of sense to Horace Mann and his fellow 19th century reformers, who saw the Common School as a way to inculcate the “right” habits of mind in Catholic youth. It would’ve resonated with founding father Benjamin Rush, who enthusiastically explained that a properly configured system of schools could turn children into “republican machines.” It certainly rings true for those delegations of Chinese education officials who stop by during their American tours, as they avidly seek ways to cultivate imagination and creativity in their students.

Zhao anchors his critique with a discussion of the keju, the imperial exams that were used to select China’s “scholar-officials” for millennia but were finally discontinued in the early 1900s. His argument is that such systems may help to promote a floor of competence, but they also lead to a plateauing effect. Zhao inevitably notes how much of China’s performance ultimately comes down to “families’ high expectations” and students’ “hard work and diligence.” I’m consistently struck by how much more comfortable we are talking about policy and even about centralizing government power when it comes to  schooling than we are talking about the responsibilities of parents and students–or how private action can encourage  responsible behavior.

Now, like I said, there’s plenty that I don’t necessarily accept. Most notably, reformers in the U.S. argue, persuasively I think, that it’s possible to devise testing and accountability models that provide a floor without stifling schools or short-changing individual strengths. I think Zhao is too quick to close the door on this possibility. Now, I think it’s fair to argue that reformers haven’t done any of this very well to date, and that this raises questions about whether they’ll be able to figure it out. But, unlike Zhao, I don’t think the search for assessments and accountability that can support learning and foster dynamic teaching and learning is a fool’s errand.

Similarly, Zhao’s call for replacing a focus on the “excellence of the past” with one oriented to the creative possibilities of the future has an obvious appeal. But it also triggers some of my nervousness about the amorphous muck that often stands in for “twenty-first century skills.”

In the end, in a world teeming with a frenzied search for best practice models to copy, I come out much where Zhao does. His final words? “In no way can China serve as the model for the future. In fact, we don’t yet have a model that will meet the needs of a global future. We will have to invent one.”

-Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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