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Yong Zhao: A comparison of Chinese and American education

Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon, has come far. Born in what he calls “one of the most ordinary villages in China,” he is now an authority on Chinese and American education and the author of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World,” being published this week.

There, Mr. Zhao examines how China’s contemporary examination-driven system emerged from an authoritarian, imperial culture, and how it has become an object of admiration among some policy makers in the West after Shanghai students ranked at the top in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, test twice in a row. That throws up a puzzle that he unpicks: Chinese educators, parents and students believe their system is broken and have been trying to change it for decades. At best it produces a narrow kind of intelligence. At worst it replicates a rigid culture in which everyone competes for a few elite jobs that are dispensed, and controlled, by the state. So why is the West trying to “catch up” with China?

Following are excerpts from an interview with Mr. Zhao:


You have said that traditional Chinese education actively “harms” children. How?


It basically ignores children’s uniqueness, interests and passion, which results in homogenization. It forces them to spend almost all the time preparing for tests, leaving little time for social and physical activities. It also places them under tremendous stress through intense competition, which can damage their confidence and lowers their self-esteem.


Recently there has been a lot of attention, even envy, from Western nations regarding the Chinese education system, after Shanghai came first in PISA. Yet Chinese parents, educators and children say their system is failing. What’s going on?


Precisely the message of my book. It is best in test scores, but test scores are far from meaningful educational outcomes. In fact, excessive focus on test scores hinders a real education, which is more about helping each and every child grow rather than forcing them to achieve high test scores. In other words, PISA and other tests measure something very different from the quality of education Chinese parents, educators and children desire.


You write, “If the United States and the rest of the West are concerned about being overtaken by China, the best solution is to avoid becoming China.” Is the United States becoming like China in education? How?


The U.S. has certainly become more like China in recent years. The No Child Left Behind Act has increased the stakes and usage of standardized testing. President Obama’s Race to the Top and other initiatives continue to push testing into schools and classrooms by associating test scores with teacher evaluation. The Common Core State Standards Initiative has been pushed to many states, creating de facto national standards in math and English language arts. So American education today has become more centralized, standardized and test-driven, with an increasingly narrow educational experience, which characterizes Chinese education.


Will this damage America?


I believe so. Because a narrow education experience that is centrally dictated, uniformly programmed and constantly monitored by standardized tests is unlikely to value individual talents, respect students’ interest and passion, cultivate creativity or entrepreneurial thinking, or foster the development of noncognitive capacities. But it is the diversity of talents, passion-driven creativity and entrepreneurship, and social-emotional well-being of individuals that are needed for the future economy.


How exactly does China’s education system implement authoritarian cultural and political habits? When did that start?


Very much the same as America has been doing in recent years: The government prescribes a curriculum, makes schools and teachers teach the curriculum, forces (or lures) students to master the curriculum, and monitors students’ progress with standardized testing. It starts as early as school begins.


What’s the better road forward for China?


I think China has been doing the right things in recent years. They have been working very hard to minimize the impact of tests, reduce academic burdens on students, broaden the curriculum, grant more autonomy to schools and local governments, ease educational inequalities and reform college admissions to admit the emergence of different talents.


You write: “Effective solutions to China’s dilemmas require revolutionary changes to the very foundation on which Chinese society operates. These changes would be so disruptive that they would threaten traditional cultural values and the current social order.” What hope is there that change will finally succeed?


I think the hope lies with a thoughtful and rational reflection of the traditional values and the current social order. It needs the people and leaders to consider different pathways, different voices and different values without automatically assuming evil intentions in dissenting opinions. But that is very difficult as the history of China’s modernization shows, which is discussed in the book.


Chinese educators have long tried to change the system, to “kill the witch of testing,” to ban homework, entrance examinations. Why do they continually fail?


There are many reasons, but primarily it is the authoritarian spirit that has put people in a “prisoner’s game.” Mei banfa [“there’s nothing to be done”] is a very common phrase I hear from my friends and colleagues in China when talking about why they allow their children to do certain things counter to their better judgment. I hear the same from policy makers and educators. They know what’s good for children, but they felt they are unable to change or if they take the first step to change, they will be punished because others won’t change.


You write that “Chinese education is the complete opposite of what we need for the new era.” What do we need?


The education we need is actually quite simply “follow the child.” We need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children’s passions and fosters their social-emotional development. We do not need an authoritarian education that aims to fix children’s deficits according to externally prescribed standards. I wrote about this in my last book, “World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students”.

By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW September 14, 2014 in The New York Times


2 comments to “Yong Zhao: A comparison of Chinese and American education”

  1. Pingback: U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World | gadflyonthewallblog

  2. Pingback: U.S. Public Schools Are Not Failing. Theyre Among The Best In The World | BuzzWare

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