Zhao: Diversity and Creativity Benefit U.S. Public Schools

 Yong Zhao
 Yong Zhao addresses an audience at AASA's final
  general session of the National Conference on Education.
by Scott LaFee

Every few years, the American education system seems to convulse and morph with a new set of ideas and movements to create “better” students, teachers and schools.

For Yong Zhao, a Chinese-born, U.S.-educated researcher, author and entrepreneur, it’s a wondrously confusing spectacle. Despite all of the often angst-ridden activity, the mandates and programs, the studies and conclusions, Zhao questions whether anybody really knows the ultimate goal, the final destination.

“I imagine this race to the top, where we push everybody off so that there’s no child left behind,” said Zhao.

The line brought chuckles from Saturday’s final general session at the AASA national conference, where Zhao, professor of technology and educational policy and leadership and associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon, gave the keynote speech, but there was a serious point beneath Zhao’s abundant witticisms: The American public education system isn’t broken, despite our best, ongoing efforts to do just that.

Consider, he said, the perceived paragons of modern education: China, South Korean and other Asian countries whose scores on international tests invariably top the lists, with U.S. scores far below.

American politicians and many educators look at those rankings and bemoan a general decline in U.S. student learning and quality. But Zhao says it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Or perhaps, more accurately, chopsticks with knives, forks and spoons.

The Chinese education system, he said, is built to mass-produce superb test-takers who can fill a billion productive but non-creative jobs in society.

“Nobody wants a car built by Lady Gaga,” he said.

Conversely, American schools remain more amenable to creative diversity, fueled by such factors as local control, an open and forgiving system that offers multiple second chances and gender neutrality.

Chinese public education, said Zhao, is a sausage-making machine. American schools produce bacon as well, though he thinks the current push toward a Common Core curriculum (he’s no fan) combined with an obsessive effort to rank and label is pushing American schools more into the sausage-making business.

And that is a bad thing, he argued, because America’s greatness has long been based upon its diversity and the chance for individual creativity to emerge and thrive.

Zhao noted that despite China’s indisputable economic growth, only 1 percent of new patents in the world come from Chinese inventors and companies, and half of those are from China-based multinational corporations.

He noted that while students in many Asian companies do quite well on tests of math, science and reading, the vast majority is not really interested in any of those subjects. American students, meanwhile, fare more poorly on the tests, but remain abundantly confident that they can succeed in life.

“American education is not in decline. It’s not getting worse,” said Zhao. “It’s always been bad.”

Or more precisely, it’s always been bad on tests.

But the measure of greatness, he suggested, isn’t a multiple-choice question.

(Scott LaFee, a writer with the University of California San Diego Health Science Center, is a reporter for AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)