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EduShyster: Question Authoritarianism

Yong Zhao warns that America is on a suicidal quest for educational excellence…


EduShyster: I have to start by paraphrasing my hero, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: why can’t we be China’s education system for a day? 

Zhao: Because the Chinese system is not a system that you want to copy. I started thinking about writing this book a decade ago, after No Child Left Behind. I remember thinking *I can’t believe that the US is going to abandon what has made it a good country so far in order to try to copy a system that has been proven ineffective in producing a modern economy.*  After a decade, it’s getting worse and worse, not just in education but in the rise in the glorification of authoritarianism in other domains. That’s how you end up with writers like Friedman asking *why can’t we be China for a day?* Every few decades people begin to question democracy because it isn’t as efficient as authoritarianism. On the one hand we condemn authoritarianism but at the same time we admire its actions.

EduShyster: The book opens with a chapter on what you call *America’s suicidal quest for educational excellence* that describes high-stakes testing as a Faustian bargain, made with authoritarianism. I’m going to share a little excerpt because the chapter helped me see testing in an entirely new way.

In exchange for the comfort of knowing how their children are doing academically and that their schools are being held accountable, Americans welcomed high-stakes testing into public education. Without the benefit of historical experience with these kinds of high-stakes tests, however, Americans failed to recognize those benign-looking tests as a Trojan horse—with a dangerous ghost inside. That ghost, authoritarianism, sees education as a way to instill in all students the same knowledge and skills deemed valuable by the authority. 

Zhao: Because any high-stakes testing must come from an authoritative body that has the self-claimed authority and ability to prescribe what children should learn or should know, the tests by definition force students to comply with the answers or the way of thinking that the authority wants. Then you hold the students, the teachers and, to a lesser extent, the parents accountable for being able to get the answers that the authority wants and to show that they have mastered the skills and the knowledge and possibly even the beliefs that the authority wants. That’s how I think authoritarianism and testing are related. 


EduShyster: Much of the book is devoted to your insider’s account of the realities of the Chinese education system, but also the philosophical underpinnings of that system. One thing that really surprised me was the centrality of the idea that poverty doesn’t matter. I feel like I heard that somewhere else recently…   

Zhao: I’m so happy that you picked up on that point. It’s a very convenient denial of social injustice to say you guys didn’t make it because you didn’t work hard enough. If you work hard enough, you’ll be rewarded. But that’s not true. I want to warn Americans who naively believe that it’s all effort—of the teachers, of the kids, of the parents. I think it’s a very dangerous trend and you hear people saying that there are some groups that have parents who simply don’t care about their kids’ educations. But that’s just nonsense. What parent doesn’t care about their child’s education?

EduShyster: Your description in the last chapter of what authoritarian education looks like reminded me so much of the strict *no excuses* charter schools that are rapidly replacing traditional public schools in urban areas. Do you see parallels?

Zhao: I definitely do. As long as you’re trying to deny the existence of individual passions, strengths, weaknesses, interests and curiosity and instead homogenize individuals in order to meet your expectations, it’s authoritarian. A lot of these charter schools are trying to achieve a single outcome—sending all kids to college—but all kids aren’t the same.

EduShyster: You basically conclude that the entire thrust of our education policy will have the opposite effect of what its architects and advocates claim—that instead of producing more entrepreneurs and creative types, we’re moving pell-mell towards a system that will produce, well, sheep.

Zhao: I’m not endorsing the American system of education necessarily, but when you look at the history, most of the schools were locally controlled and community driven and a lot of them rejected the ideas of using the schools to produce workers for employers. Because of the tradition of local control, I think of the American system as a broken authoritarian system that happens to produce people who are entrepreneurs and creators. But the entrepreneurs and creatives we’ve enjoyed have almost been produced by accident because the system isn’t quite as effective as stifling their creativity as the Asian systems, particularly the Chinese system. We’re lucky to have them. Now in trying to imitate them and trying to become more authoritarian, we’re fixing our system so that even those accidents won’t.


EduShyster: Wait—I just thought of a solution to this problem. Have you heard of the Common Core? It’s going to instill in students the higher-order thinking necessary to become masters of their domains.

Zhao: The problem is that there is higher-order thinking in different domains. You can’t have the same higher order thinking in all areas. An engineer might be different from a musician who is different than an artist. Creativity can’t be mandated. It’s like trying to say *you shall be creative in my way.* The Common Core carries an authoritarian prescription because there’s no way you can prescribe one body of thinking in math and English Language Arts that’s going to apply to everybody. 

EduShyster: You convey in pretty stark and dramatic terms just how difficult it is to change a system with an authoritarian dynamic at its heart. You describe the Chinese system as *the witch that cannot be killed.* Allow me to mix metaphors here and ask: how far is the US down the slippery slope towards authoritarianism? Can we change course?

Zhao: I don’t think it’s too late. I’m always happy to see that American society is pretty resilient, and that there are lots of different opinions being expressed. There are a lot of parents putting up a fight against standardized testing. I think there’s another complication here. We want to hold our teachers accountable and there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s public dollars—but how do you hold them accountable? People conflate accountability and testing. They say *don’t you want to know how your children are doing compared to others and how your school is doing compared to others?* But those are really artificial comparisons. Say you are ten years old and you take the PISA math test and you score in the 10th percentile, which is very bad, or you score in the 90th percentile, which is very high compared to others. What about all the other domains? You’re ten years old. How did you get there and does it really matter? Does the test predict the future or does it measure the past? It doesn’t really do either of those things. It’s like when you take your child to the pediatrician to be measured and you find out that he’s in the 90th percentile height wise, which means he’s taller than 90% of other children, or that he’s in the 10th percentile. But someone has to be below, so what does it mean? Does it mean you haven’t given the child enough nutrition? That you haven’t taken care of him? Some of these measures simply don’t make sense. 


EduShyster: Speaking of PISA, you single out PISA chief Andreas Schleicher for particular criticism in the book—he comes across as a shill for what you call *poisonous pedagogy.* If you had the length of an elevator ride in which to try to change his mind, what would you say to him? 

Zhao: I would ask Schleicher this question: Do you really believe children all over the world need to be equipped with the exact same skills and the same knowledge in order to flourish and prosper in their own societies? He would probably say yes—and since it’s just an elevator ride, there wouldn’t be time to debate.

EduShyster: Good news—the elevator is in the tallest building in Shanghai—so you have some more time.

Zhao: In that case, I think Schleicher might have two answers. One is that the PISA provides a simple gauge of how different educational systems are doing. To which I would respond: but these systems are so diverse. How can they be compared on the basis of simple test scores? Or he might say that his tests actually do test the capacity of students to survive in the 21st century, to which I would say, but there are so many countries that aren’t in the 21st century yet. I’ve raised a lot of these questions on my blog, by the way, but Schleicher has never responded.

EduShyster: The book concludes on a hopeful note—and by *concludes,* I’m referring to the back cover. There’s a blurb from education writer Jay Mathews stating that you managed to change his mind.

Zhao: I’m very pleased that he said that. Jay is a veteran and has been writing about these issues for a long time. If this book can change more minds of people who are entrenched in believing in Asian superiority because of test scores, it will have succeeded. 

Yong Zhao is the author of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. He blogs at

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