Amidst the adoption of controversial Common Core state standards and as students across the U.S. prepare to take end-of-year exams, it is important to reflect about the implications of a centralized and test-based educational system. Chinese-educated University of Oregon Professor Yong Zhao’s recent book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, is a polemic against authoritarian educational systems. He argues that China’s leading performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has made western countries, including the United States, admire and strive to emulate China’s educational system so as to avoid China developing a superior workforce. However, Zhao argues that China’s two thousand year old tradition of authoritarian educational system produces good test-takers but extirpates the critical qualities, such as creativity, that actually produce thought leaders and make a society and its workforce thrive. The greatest threat the U.S. faces from China is not that the Chinese educational system is better, but rather that the allure of its flawed educational system might lead the U.S. to diminish its investment in developing entrepreneurial, divergent thinkers thereby compromising what has made the U.S. educational system so successful.
Zhao explains that in 2009 and 2012 students in Shanghai were the top performs in the world in all three PISA exam subjects (math, reading, and science). China’s educational system garnered praise. President Obama described the realization that China was outeducating the U.S. as a “Sputnik moment.” Zhao argues that this hype is misplaced in part because the PISA exam is a flawed measure. Data collection and analysis techniques are widely criticized. Some claim the test is culturally biased. A PISA score is merely an indicator of content mastery in three academic subjects; it does not measure social-emotional aspects of development that are critical for educating young people who will be successful adults. One test cannot possibly serve as a proxy for summarizing the strength of an entire educational system. Zhao argues that PISA scores indicate the extent to which students have been “homogenized” to think a certain way and cannot assess their creative capabilities.
According to Zhao, Chinese students perform well on these exams because of a tradition dating back to at least 605 AD when the Keju testing system was invented to “meritocratically” select people for highly sought government posts. The Keju test, which was administered until 1905, did make citizens highly value education, but it rewarded obedience and respect for authority, while diverting some of China’s brightest minds away from being innovators. Zhao says today’s college entrance exam, gaokao, drives similar intense competition and denies students the opportunity to develop themselves holistically. He describes a secondary school, Mao Zhong, in which students and parents work relentlessly for a year and spend thousands of dollars, to improve college exam scores.
Even if PISA scores were a perfect indicator of an educational system’s quality, the myopic focus on test scores has deleterious effects. Zhao argues that students from rural areas and students with disabilities are disadvantaged and overlooked. The testing culture has fostered an insidious, rampant, billion-dollar cheating culture. In 2013, when a cheating scheme for the college exam was stopped, rioters in the Hubei province chanted, “there is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.” At several levels of the educational structure a system of rewards and punishments exists to promote publishing academic papers. This has propelled China to become the second largest producer of scientific journal articles; however, some of these are based on false results and those that do not falsify results are not as highly regarded (as measured by citations) as research from other countries. There has been a 32-fold increase in patents, but many are essentially useless. The recent Atlanta test cheating scandal is an early indicator of the corrupting influence that an obsession with test scores can have here as in China.
The Ministry of Education made some attempts to dilute the emphasis on testing and rank, but these changes did not materialize. There is a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts; no individual student or parent is willing to cease doing everything possible to increase his test score and prospect of admission to a selective school when he knows that other students will still be doing the same, regardless of governmental messages to the contrary. Thus, not only does an authoritarian educational system suppress creative thinking, but a society that has become authoritarian in its educational practices is difficult to change. This should serve as a warning to us here. To create and support an educational system that produces globally-minded, innovative, citizens for tomorrow, it is critical to encourage the pursuit of intellectual passions and to scaffold social emotional development.
Zhao, Y. (2014). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. John Wiley & Sons.