Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World


Yong ZhaoYong Zhao holds the first Presidential Chair at the University of Oregon, where he also serves as Associate Dean for Global Education and professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership (EMPL). Born in China’s Sichuan Province, Zhao taught English in China for six years before moving to the U.S. He is the author of over 100 articles and several books, and has appeared as an expert commentator in national media including the New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, and ABC.

Below is an excerpt from his latest book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. To learn more, go to http://zhaolearning.com.

Fatal Attraction: America’s Suicidal Quest for Educational Excellence

(from the Introduction)

High-stakes testing is America’s Faustian bargain, made with the devil of authoritarianism. Under the rule of authoritarianism, which gave birth to high-stakes testing in the first place, disrespect of teachers as professional colleagues and intrusion into their professional autonomy are praised as characteristics of no-nonsense, tough leadership with high expectations. Beverly Hall became national Superintendent of the Year for having “demonstrated a commitment to setting high standards for students and school personnel.” That commitment turned out to be authoritarian rule, as a 2012 New York Times report points out: “For years, Beverly L. Hall, the former school superintendent here [Atlanta schools], ruled by fear.” Principals were told that if state test scores did not go up enough, they would be fired—and 90 percent of them were removed in the decade of Hall’s reign. “Underlings were humiliated during rallies at the Georgia Dome,” to set an example of Hall’s “rule by fear,” the New York Times report continues. “Dr. Hall permitted principals with the highest test scores to sit up front near her, while sticking those with the lowest scores off to the side, in the bleachers.” Moreover, “she was chauffeured around the city, often with an entourage of aides and security guards. When she spoke publicly, questions had to be submitted beforehand for screening.”

Lorenzo Garcia, the former El Paso superintendent, was another action-oriented leader praised for his miracles. He kept almost half of students eligible for tenth grade from taking the tenth-grade exam by not allowing them to enroll in the school, retaining them at ninth grade, or rushing them into eleventh grade. Although what he did was reported and investigated by both the US Department of Education and the Texas Education Agency, twice he got away “because he held people’s careers in his hands. . . . If you said no to him, you were gone,” said El Paso’s director of student services, Mark Emmanuel Mendoza on NPR. El Paso has a large population of Mexican immigrants, and Garcia also exploited the community’s fear of the courts, fear of the Border Patrol, and trust in the school system. The students excluded from the tenth-grade exam “were made to feel like they did something wrong,” said Linda Romero, the drop-out prevention counselor who blew the whistle.

Under the spell of authoritarianism, the Obama administration has consistently disregarded the law, not to mention the checks and balances of American democracy. Instead of reworking the expired No Child Left Behind Act, President Obama and his secretary of education have given out waivers to states, exempting them from the law in exchange for their willingness to accept the administration’s wishes. States have responded favorably, and Congress has largely forgiven, if not condoned, the administrations’ actions.

Under the spell of authoritarianism, 50 million American children are being taught a de facto national curriculum, then subjected to a de facto national standardized test. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, created with little input from the people or their representatives, is now enforced with tax dollars in nearly all states. Although the federal government did not technically pay for its development or officially adopt its standards, the billions of dollars in the Race to the Top program, which required the adoption of common standards and assessment, undoubtedly helped the CCSS spread.

Under the spell of authoritarianism, Americans have willingly surrendered their beloved local governments to state and federal control. Locally elected school boards have turned into bureaucratic branches of state and federal government, for in effect, they only collect local taxes. They then use that tax money to implement the wishes of the state and federal governments in curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.

Authoritarianism has driven America to admire, glorify, and emulate other authoritarian education systems because they seem to produce “results,” defined as test scores. Instead of valuing what their own educational methods can produce, American leaders envy countries with top test scores in a narrow set of subjects—which is simply a sign of how successfully those countries have homogenized their students. Mistaking China’s miseries as secrets to success, American education pundits and political leaders have been eager to learn from the quintessential authoritarian education system. Ironically, they’ve condemned China’s authoritarian political system in the same breath.

A survival strategy the Chinese people developed to cope with thousands of years of authoritarian rule has been glorified as China’s secret to educational success. The belief that the Chinese attach high values to education is widespread in the United States. That belief has been used to explain the educational success of Chinese students; it has also been used to condemn Americans in general, and some racial and cultural groups in particular, for their poor test scores.

This belief is, however, an illusion at best and a cruel glorification of authoritarianism at worst. The Chinese people were deprived of any other means to succeed in life, both spiritually and materially. Their only option was to pass the exams dictated by the absolute authority—emperors in the past and the government today. When people are convinced that there are no worthy options to pursue in life except the narrow path prescribed by an authoritarian government, they are forced to comply, accept indoctrination, and be homogenized. For this reason, Chinese parents have to invest generously in their children’s education and test preparation; their efforts mitigate the lack of sufficient investment from the government. When onlookers praise the efficiency of the Chinese educational system, in which minimal government investment begets huge gains in test scores, they ignore the resources Chinese parents throw into the pot.

The Chinese have also been praised for emphasizing effort and diligence instead of inherent intelligence or social conditions. Again, this is no more than a mistaken romanticization of an authoritarian ploy to deny the existence of individual differences and unequal social conditions. Emphasizing effort is a convenient way for the authority to evade responsibility for leveling the playing field for those with diverse abilities and talents. It is an excuse for not providing programs for children with disabilities or those born into extremely unfavorable social circumstances. It also serves as a seductive marketing slogan, persuading individuals to welcome homogenization.

Admirers also glorify Chinese students’ inability to question and challenge authority. For instance, Andreas Schleicher, in defending China’s top PISA ranking, noted how much more likely Chinese students are to blame themselves instead of their teachers for their failure in math, compared to their counterparts in France. While the finding is correct, Schleicher fails to notice its cause: an authoritarian culture that tends to shift the blame from the authority, which no one dares to question, to the students. This is true in other authoritarian education systems as well; just look at Russia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

The Chinese national educational system has won high praise as an efficient system with national standards, a national curriculum, a high-stakes test (the college entrance exam), and a clearly defined set of gateways to mark students’ transitions from one stage to another. Admirers note that every Chinese student has a clear and focused goal to pursue; Chinese teachers and parents know exactly what to do to help their students; and the government knows exactly which schools are doing well. What those admirers ignore is the fact that such an education system, while being an effective machine to instill what the government wants students to learn, is incapable of supporting individual strengths, cultivating a diversity of talents, and fostering the capacity and confidence to create.

I wrote this book to show how China, a perfect incarnation of authoritarian education, has produced the world’s best test scores at the cost of diverse, creative, and innovative talents. I also tried to illustrate how difficult it is to move away from authoritarian thinking by showing how China has struggled to reform its education for over a century. The book is intended to warn the United States and other Western countries about the dangerous consequences of educational authoritarianism.

Education in the West must go through transformative changes. A paradigm shift will be necessary if we are to prepare children to live successfully in the new world: a shift I wrote about in my previous book, World Class Learners; Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. As traditional routine jobs are offshored and automated, we need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens—job creators instead of employment-minded job seekers. To cultivate new talents, 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. 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. The empire that led the world for over two millennia was shattered by Western technological and scientific innovations in the 1800s. Its education represents the best of the past. It worked extremely well for China’s imperial rulers for over one thousand years, but it stopped working when the modern world emerged. The Chinese system continued to produce students who excel in a narrow range of subjects. Only 10 percent of its college graduates are deemed employable by multinational businesses because these students lack the very qualities our new society needs.

China’s achievements over the past thirty years should be no reason for the United States and other Western nations to panic, as forewarned by French historian Nicolas Boulanger more than 250 years ago: “All the remains of her ancient institutions, which China now possesses, will necessarily be lost; they will disappear in the future revolutions; as what she hath already lost of them vanished in former ones; and finally, as she acquires nothing new, she will always be on the losing side.”

Photo by Flickr/CleverClaire1983. Some rights reserved.



Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World

The secrets behind China’s extraordinary educational system – good, bad, and ugly.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? by award-winning writer Yong Zhao offers an entertaining, provocative insider’s account of the Chinese school system, revealing the secrets that make it both “the best and worst” in the world. Born and raised in China’s Sichuan province and a teacher in China for many years, Zhao has a unique perspective on Chinese culture and education. He explains in vivid detail how China turns out the world’s highest-achieving students in reading, math, and science—yet by all accounts Chinese educators, parents, and political leaders hate the system and long to send their kids to western schools. Filled with fascinating stories and compelling data, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? offers a nuanced and sobering tour of education in China.

“Zhao’s startling and masterful account is the best book ever written about China’s schools today. He exposes sloppy thinking on the part of people like me who thought the Confucian principles still at the core of Asian culture were all that were needed to push China and other East Asian countries far ahead of the rest of the world in school achievement. This is an irresistible story of both China’s weaknesses and ours, and how the two countries could make each other better if we conquered our mutual ignorance.”

—JAY MATHEWS, Washington Post education columnist; author, Work Hard. Be Nice:
How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America

This entry was posted in Featured, Teaching & Learning and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Join In The Conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>