Question Authoritarianism

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

zhaoEduShyster: I have to start by paraphrasing my hero, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: why can’t we have 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. 

Yong-Zhao_editedEduShyster: 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’ve heard this 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. Now in trying to imitate them and trying to become more authoritarian, we’re fixing our system so that even those accidents won’t.

testprepEduShyster: 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 down the slippery slope towards authoritarianism are we? 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. 

shanghai-towerEduShyster: 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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  1. The roots of Common Core stem from the United Nations initiative Agenda 21. It is a global effort to build a progressive environmental value system in today’s children and in future generations where individualism is frowned upon for the ‘greater good’ of society. It is an attempt to create a ‘global classroom’ where national citizenry is suppressed and global citizenry is promoted.

    It’s a smoke screen folks. The rich and powerful know this. Did you know that Obama sent his kids to the private Sidwell Friends School in Bethesda, MD? Sidwell does not employ the Common Core method of indoctrination. Think about this carefully. The president and his wife promote Common Core for the masses, but it is not deemed satisfactory for their kids. It’s not good for yours either!

    The Common Core name has rightfully earned a bad connotation since its introduction therefore it has been given other names to mask its presence. Here in Maryland it is called ‘Maryland’s College and Career-Ready Standards’. What is it called in your state? Look it up here:

    You owe it to your kids to research this matter and do something about it folks. The info is available on the Web, but you will have to make the effort; if it matters to you. Learn more here:
    and here:
    and here:
    and here:
    and here:

    The philosophy in the school room in one generation will become the philosophy of government in the next. — Abraham Lincoln

  2. So what’s the alternative?

    The traditional system lets the children of the poor and the uneducated primarily follow in the pathway of their parents. Same for the rich and/or educated. If your parents are rich and you want to be come a social worker or organic farmer or artist, you can do that. If your parents are poor or uneducated, it’s unlikely that you’ll have those choices, or most others. Is that fair? I say no. How do we change that reality?

    So maybe you don’t like charter schools, or Common Core, or no excuses. What is the alternative? Do we revert to the time frame before NCLB, Common Core, etc? Do we think that was actually working for most poor kids? Or is there a different proposal out there? I’d love to hear it.

    1. Common Core and its attendant baloney do not solve any of those things. So the whole, “All right, if you don’t want me to punch you in the face, then how else should we get your shirt properly buttoned” argument is bogus.

      But the solution is to use the traditional system like we mean it, instead of trying to cut corners, shave dollars, and act as if looking like we’re trying to educate US children is the same thing as actually doing it. Spend the money it takes to give schools the resources they need. Take the steps necessary to attract and retain good teachers. Manage the whole business in a way that fosters good education instead of compliance and obedience.

      It’s really not that hard. We were doing pretty well for decades until we decided to declare a crisis so that politicians could try to shoot fish in a barrel. But they missed the fish, shot the bottom out of the barrel, and hit themselves in the face with the gun.

        1. *sigh*

          “On balance, it is safe to say that a sizeable and growing body of rigorous empirical literature validates that state school finance reforms can have substantive, positive effects on student outcomes, including reductions in outcome disparities or increases in overall outcome levels. Further, it stands to reason that if positive changes to school funding have positive effects on short and long run outcomes both in terms of level and distribution, then negative changes to school funding likely have negative effects on student outcomes. Thus it is critically important to understand the impact of the recent recession on state school finance systems, the effects on long term student outcomes being several years down the line. It is also important to understand the features of state school finance systems including balance of revenue sources that may make these systems particularly susceptible to economic downturn.”

          Translation: money matters in education. A lot.

          1. Right. And the point is not just “more money” but more equity. From where I live, I can visit wealthy public school districts that literally have more money than they know what to do with, or poor ones that struggle to keep the buildings safe and the lights on. Meanwhile, almost every other OECD nation spends as much or more on the education of poor children as they do on the education of rich ones:

        2. Something tells me you’re not really a teacher. I’ve never heard of a teacher arguing against more money for education.

          1. Definitely a teacher. Sorry to be unclear. I just feel the “more money” issue is a political non-starter, at least in a meaningful way.

            I believe in a redistribution of school funding from wealthy to poor school districts.

            I believe in a reduction in class size across the board (and especially in lower grades).

            I believe in more school counselors, special educators, etc.

            I believe in art, music, dance, phys ed, sports teams, clubs and other extracurricular activities.

            I also believe in a reduction in poverty.

            All of these things cost money, and I don’t see a scenario where this is likely to happen based on the political situation in the US right now. It’s a travesty, but it’s the reality. I fight for those things in the long term, certainly. I just think that the kids that will be moving through school between now and that uncertain change in society need something better than they are getting now. I think my school provides a decent alternative in the here and now.

  3. You know, Mathteacher, it’s good you’re here. I don’t agree with everything you’ve said in the last few comments sections I’ve read, but the fact that you’re contributing to the debate is important.

    I teach in California where, last I checked, we were 47th nationwide in school funding, and we’ve been either 47th or 48th for the last ten years, the entire time I’ve been working in urban schools in San Francisco and Watts.

    Worth noting in CA, affluent districts or schools within affluent districts fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars, through parent organizations like the PTA or the community Education Foundation. My sister lives in Orinda which is a gorgeous bedroom community to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. She is PTA president. She has a $750,000 budget to manage for a single elementary school.

    Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, which now funds all the schools in the district, but began years ago at the school site level, had an operating budget of $5.385 MILLION dollars for 2013-2014.

    Even with greater government funding, this level of inequity will not be overcome. Income inequality and concentrated poverty have to be addressed.

  4. Education costs a lot of money. Good education costs a lot more. The really good, progressive schools where Gates and Obama send their kids are obscenely expensive: $30,000 to $40,000 per year, plus all kinds of fees for this that and the other.
    Small classes are expensive. Good teachers costs money. Science labs and gyms and counselors and social workers and psychiatrists and speech therapists and shop classes and AV workshops and computers all cost a lot, too.

    But so does prison.

    I’d much rather we spent money on our poorest kids from ages 3 to 19, rather than locking them up from ages 19 to 69 or until they die.

  5. Everyone seems to agree more resources (i.e., money) are needed and the resources must be distributed more evenly so that poor schools have a chance to thrive. There ARE ways to pay for a real reform of our public schools, a way to provide more & better training for teachers, a way to make sure every child is fed & has a chance to be healthy so that every child can learn to his/her ability. Here are a few:
    1) Nationalize the Federal Reserve & order it to issue century bonds at no interest to States to rebuild public infrastructure, create jobs, stop privatization of not only schools, but the post office & prisons among other public democratic institutions.
    2) Tax Wall Street derivatives & speculations (NOT 401(k), IRAs, etc.) 1% to bring in trillions to be shared by states (there should be $1 million cap to protect individual investors).
    3) Remove the age cap on Medicare so that EVERY American has access to quality healthcare that is affordable.
    4) Find decent candidates now to run in 2016 (since both Democrats & Republicans are all for privatization to profit off our children). Here’s one with a great economic recovery platform:
    We must become better advocates & activists to not only fight privatization but also offer SOLUTIONS and ways to PAY for proper reform, growth, productivity, the rebuilding of America.

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