PORTLAND, Maine — While American policymakers are fawning over the academic test scores of Chinese students, the Chinese are coveting the entrepreneurial spirit fostered in American schools, Dr. Yong Zhao told a room full of Maine principals Friday.
Americans “are going after a false goal that doesn’t serve us,” Zhao said during his keynote address at the Maine Principals’ Association fall conference at the Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland. “And we’re going to destroy ourselves.”
Zhao, who was born in a rural Chinese farming village and moved to the United States to pursue an education, is chairman of Oregon University’s College of Education and author of two books about global academic trends.
He told the Maine principals Friday morning an Obama administration push to implement Common Core Standards, on top of a decade of President George W. Bush’s testing-heavy No Child Left Behind Act, is taking American schools away from the strengths that helped build the country as a worldwide economic power.
Zhao used scores from standardized mathematics tests delivered internationally in 1964 and compared them to gross domestic product figures of those same countries over the next 40 years, when the early test-takers presumably would be growing up and contributing to their economies. Zhao said the countries that performed poorly on the tests grew their GDPs through 2004 while those that aced the standardized assessments saw their GDPs trend downward.
He recalled a State of the Union address in which President Barack Obama touted America as still having the world’s “most prosperous economy.”
“If we’ve been bad [academically] for 50 years, how can we still have the most prosperous economy in the world?” Zhao said. “He went on to say, ‘No workers are more productive than ours.’ Who are those people? Are those the kids who were on the swing set all the time fooling around? Maybe we’re looking at the wrong standards.”
He said confidence and creativity were allowed to grow in the less standardized and regimented American classrooms, while passion and individuality were oppressed in the test-centric classrooms of the countries that performed well in the 1964 assessments.
Zhao said that widespread fears today that American students are falling behind their counterparts in other developed nations academically are not new. He showed the school administrators slides showing a 1958 LIFE magazine cover bearing the headline “Crisis in Education” and comparing the study habits of a laid-back U.S. high school student with a disciplined Soviet teenager.
He then flipped to a 1983 image of President Ronald Reagan holding a copy of his administration’s educational report, “A Nation At Risk,” released when the Japanese were beginning to be seen as surpassing Americans academically.
But Zhao argued that all along American schools have encouraged individual freedoms, innovative thinking and creative problem solving — traits that have been harder to quantify in numerical tests, but ones which have established the country as a global economic power.
He said that while U.S. policymakers are pushing to standardize assessments across all corners and implement teacher evaluations, many Asian school systems long seen as besting America’s academic performance are shortening their school days and throwing out standard curricula in an effort to cultivate more socially savvy creative problem solvers.
And Zhao said there aren’t enough hours and resources to effectively drive up test scores to compete with those coming out of Asia while at the same time protecting the entrepreneurial qualities that American schools have become strong at developing.
Zhao quoted a Chinese journalist, Gao Gang, who in 2003 compared American schools with those in China in a comprehensive report.
“They do not force their children to memorize all formulae and theorems,” Gang wrote of the U.S. teachers he encountered, “but they work tirelessly to teach children how to think and ways to seek answers to new questions.”