I am honored to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education, College of Education at the University of Oregon. He is a fellow for the International Academy for Education. Zhao was born in China’s Sichuan Province and is author of Catching Up or Leading the Way (ASCD, 2009), a book I highly recommend others to read. He has a new book coming out next month: World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. For more information about Dr. Yong Zhao go here.
YSR: Thank you, Dr. Zhao for allowing me to interview you.
YZ: My pleasure and thank you for this opportunity.
YSR: I am going to jump right in. Here is my first question. What do you think is the most pressing problems in American Education today?
Obsession with standardized tests distorts and confuses.
YZ: I think the most pressing problems in American education today are: (1) obsession with standardized tests of a few subjects; (2) using simplistic accountability measures, instead of real investment in education such as professional development for educators, improving student living conditions, and stimulating innovation, to improve education; and (3) lack of faith in public education and public school educators.
YSR: Why do you think this is a huge problem?
YZ: This is what people need to understand. Using standardized tests to measure student performance in a few subjects distorts the whole picture of education, confuses test scores with real education that prepares competent and responsible citizens, and reduces education to test preparation. These simplistic accountability measures distract policy makers, educators, parents, and students from addressing what really matters in education, waste precious political and financial assets, and unfairly blames educators for societal problems. The lack of faith in public education could lead to the demise of the great American tradition–a decentralized public education system that strives to educate all children in their local context.
YSR: I agree with what you said. So, why is our government so stuck on high stakes testing?
High-Stakes Testing does more harm than good.
YZ: I am not exactly sure because research from both within the United States and other countries suggest clearly that high stakes testing does more harm than good.
YSR: I understand. I have seen children crying, teachers frustrated, and parents worried. We have also learned that when the stakes are high and punishment is used, there is cheating going on. I don’t think cheating to raise test scores is healthy. So my question is: What can we educators do, if anything, to stop this lunacy?
Educators need to advocate, educate, and act.
YZ: Good question. I think educators have to shoulder the responsibilities of public intellectuals–we need to advocate, educate, and act. We need to advocate what makes a good education for children, educate our students and the public about the true value of education, and act to provide an education agenda that serves all children and help them to realize their own potentials.
YSR: But, how can we move forward and provide an education agenda that serves all children and help them to realize their own potentials, when we are fraught with money being poured down the testing companies coffers?
Abandon the idea of test-based accountability via high-stakes testing.
YZ: To begin with, we should completely abandon the idea of test-based accountability, that is, get high stakes standardized testing out of education, do not use it to evaluate schools or teachers. Second, we need to return autonomy to local schools and teachers. Let educators do their job and provide support. The government, both federal and state, should work on providing equal funding for schools and eradicate poverty, instead of interfering with teaching and learning, and adding bureaucratic burden on educators and students. Finally, we should invest in education innovations to encourage educators and local schools to seek creative ways to deliver an education for the future.
Zhao’s comments on the Common Core State Standards and education: It’s an expensive and futile exercise that will likely cause more damages in terms of narrowing the curriculum and leading to more teaching to the test.
YSR: You are suggesting that educators and local schools must find inventive ways to educate our young to live in an ever-changing unknown world. Do you think that the Common Core State Standards can accomplish this? I just read the piece in Ed Week where Anthony Cody featured you entitled, “Yong Zhao Interview: Will the Common Core Create World-Class Learners?” In this interview you question the value of the Common Core State Standards. Why? Many think that this will help to solve the issues of inequities in our schools.
YZ: Well, I don’t. I think the best analysis of why the Common Core Standards Initiative won’t make a difference is done by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute in the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, which you can find at this link. It is based on sound research and shows the Common Core won’t improve performance, reduce the achievement gap, or increase efficiency, as the proponents have suggested.
I have written quite a lot about this initiative. The simple message is that they will not improve education. It is an expensive but futile exercise.
YSR: I know implementing the Common Core State Standards is and will continue to be expensive, but why do you think it is a futile exercise?
YZ: It is futile exercise that will likely cause more damages in terms of narrowing the curriculum and leading to more teaching to the tests.
Parents’ Roles in the Education of Their Children: Be more concerned about the well-being of your children than their test scores on standardized tests.
YSR: I know there is a ground swell of parents who are choosing to opt out their children from taking the tests. Is this good for the child? I mean, do you think parents should opt out their children from taking high-stakes tests?
YZ: If parents feel that high-stakes standardized testing is hurting their children’s education, they should opt out.
YSR: I know that you have two children. Your son is in college now, and your daughter is still in high school. What does your daughter think about high stakes testing?
YZ: My daughter told me she does not pay attention to the testing.
YSR: But doesn’t this bother you? Don’t you want her to get a high score?
YZ: Not really. I am more concerned about her well being in schools than test scores on standardized tests. I trust her teachers’ assessment more. I am more interested in her real education–now she is really into debate so we talk about space programs, social Darwinism, and transportation and infrastructure. I have not considered opting her out but I am not one who wants to make sure she takes them either.
Dr. Zhao’s work abroad: He spends most of the time working with schools interested in moving away from high-stakes testing and have a desire to provide an education that help their students succeed in the age of globalization.
YSR: I know that you go back to China frequently. What kind of work are you doing in China and why?
YZ: I do some research there, but spend most of the time working with schools–some international schools that are interested in moving away from high-stakes testing and have a desire to provide an education that help their students succeed in the age of globalization. I also spend lots of time working with educators in Australia and other places.
YSR: Wow…cool! I am glad that you are helping some international schools move away from high-stakes testing. But how will moving away from testing, help students succeed in the age of globalization?
YZ: Well, as I have said elsewhere in my writings and presentations, we educators have to truly recognize the negative impact or collateral damages of high-stakes testing and take actions to provide an education that matters in the future.
Dr. Zhao’s closing thoughts: A good education is one that liberates, empowers, and enhances individuals, not one that imposes and instills what external agencies believe individuals should learn. Education is different from indoctrination.
YSR: Thank you, Dr. Zhao. Once you told me a great idiom from China called, “Yin Zhen Zhi Ke: Drinking poison to quench thirst.” Would you please explain why you used this Chinese idiom when speaking about American education?
YZ: Well, the Chinese saying is to warn people not to take measures that may appear to solve an urgent problem in the short term but in effect the solution is more damaging than the problem.
YSR: I read the story about this proverb and it does make sense. Thanks, Dr. Zhao, for taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything else you would like to say to your readers? What would you say to teachers, parents, and students?
YZ: Education is much broader and longer than what can be measured with a single test at a given time. Life is long and children are different. A good education is one that liberates, empowers, and enhances individuals, not one that imposes and instills what external agencies believe individuals should learn. Education is different from indoctrination.
YSR: I think that what you just said is important for us to remember. A good education is indeed one that liberates, empowers and enhances individuals and we know in the end society would benefit. I also agree with when you say that “Education is different from indoctrination.” Okay, any final words?
YZ: Thank you for the opportunity and what you do for education.
YSR: And thank you, too. It’s been a total pleasure.