Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Big Bad Dragon

There are those books you heard about and you thought, "Yeah, I should read that," but you were busy and didn't get around to it and after the initial publicity blast, you don't hear about it much again and so you never get back to it.

Well, I'm here to remind you about Yong Zhao's important book, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? The book came out last fall and was reviewed by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books last November. Her review is excellent and insightful and will provide you with one more set of reasons that you need to grab and read this book.

Zhao was born and raised in the Sichuan Province of China, coming to the US as a visiting scholar in 1992. He's now a professor at the University of Oregon in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership, as well as a senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute of Victoria Institute in Australia. He has also created a college English learning system widely used in China over the last decade. He is also, as anyone who has ever seen him speak knows, both smart and hilarious.

When you look at the sort of educational system that reformsters have tried to create over the past ten-plus years, you might be tempted to ask, "What do we know about a system like this? What do we know about creating a system for making all pieces of the educational system accountable to a central authority via a high stakes test? Has anybody ever tried this before?"

The answer of course is, yes, the Chinese have been doing it for centuries. When it comes to demonstrating problems inherent in authoritarianism in both education and in society as a whole, the Chinese have been demonstrating all the problems that come with such a system since before the United States even dreamed of becoming a country. And it's those larger implications that Zhao looks at:

The damage done by authoritarianism is far greater than the instructional time taken away by testing, the narrowed educational experiences for students, and the demoralization of teachers. The deeper tragedy is the loss of values traditionally celebrated by American education-- values that helped make America the most prosperous and advanced nation in the world.

Zhao looks at China-idolization in the US  and holds it up to the cold light of reality. China's testing system, keju, was instigated by an emperor who had couped his way to the throne and developed keju "to prevent anyone else from repeating the emperor's coup." China, like all other testing giants, achieved testing supremacy by homogenizing its population. Create a system driven by a standardized test, make it the gateway to everything valuable, and you will develop a nation of standardized people.

China is a living example, the full-sized laboratory for Campbell's law:

The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

In an authoritarian society, every process is social, and "the emperor can never be disappointed." So when Mao declared that reports on steel production must surpass, the reported production did just that, even if the steel was lousy or even imaginary. When Mao demanded that the production numbers for food keep rising even as resources were diverted to the push for industry, the food production reports did just that. The Chinese farmers made their numbers, and millions of Chinese people starved. Today, told to beat the world in scholarship and innovation, the Chinese enjoy a booming industry in low-grade junk patents and fraudulent scholarly journals.

Zhao says that the authoritarian approach to goal achievement is doomed for three reasons, and all three of them remind me immediately of our own reformster problems.

First, the top down goals are based in a grand vision of wishful thinking. "Having a grand vision is not a problem in itself, but often the grand vision in a dictatorial system lacks sufficient information about reality." Because the system demands compliance, nobody gets to speak up and say, "Here's a different view if reality that you might want to consider." So you get some grand high poobah in an office somewhere saying "We must create more steel than the West" or "100% of students will be above average" or "All five-year-olds will be able to read." Anyone who suggests these are pipe dreams is Not a Team Player or simply ignored.

Second, upward accountability. The only way to survive or move up is to make the person above you happy. That's how things work in an authoritarian country. In a democracy, you have to make the voters happy, too, but reformsters have been trying to fix that. And so reformsters have paid big money to win elections and get their folks in high positions, so that they can start replacing their own underlings with more compliant types. So a governor installs a reformy state education chief, who works to bring in reformy superintendents, who find themselves assistants and teaching staffs that are more agreeable-- and whereever that process hits a hitch, reformsters squawk and complain and try to get the rules changed. After all, an education leader should be like a CEO, and a CEO's most basic right is the right to have only underlings who agree with him.

Third, a uniform and quantifiable standard. Uniformity means that the system has no flexibility. Quantifiable means that it is always gamable, because we will be looking at something that can be measured. That measure will be treated a s a proxy for reality, but it won't be. This can be because the numbers can be lies (the monthly numbers reported for grain production are not actual grain) or because the measurement is itself bogus (PARCC scores do measure education, but are just massaged data from a batch of questions).

All of this gives China an "educational system" that doesn't really have anything to do with getting an actual education, but in turning each student into a nearly-identical test-taking answer-producing machine. Compliance and uniformity are the core values of the system.

China has recognized this as a problem-- even Mao recognized this as a problem. But China has done such a good job of inculcating compliance and uniformity in pursuit of test scores that the system has become "the witch that cannot be killed." Chinese students want to do well on The Exam that will "prove" they are college and career ready, and the student's test score is ultimately all that matters (hence the infamous riot when teachers tried to keep students from cheating-- because if only the score matters, then there is no such thing as cheating, really. Whatever gets the job done.)

Zhao gives us a clear look at China's historical struggles with its system and the various attempts to try to change. He conveys a certain bemused frustration that even as China tries to imitate the best aspects of US education, so many US leaders are intent on imitating the worst aspects of Chinese education.

Along the way Zhao gives some striking close-up looks at China and issues, provides a full catalog of US leaders saying ridiculous things, and even takes down the infamous PISA. The book is a quick, clear, simple read-- well-supported and sourced, but not thick with scholarly jargon or discourse. It would make a great gift to someone who does not work in the education field. I recommend this book highly, and now that summer is here, you've got the time to read it, so order a copy today. And if you're still on the fence, check out the link to Zhao's speech at this year's Network for Public


  1. Yes, top-down decisions mean disconnection with reality, the authoritarian compliance model means no questions so those in charge don't realize this, and, as my dad always said, "You can prove anything with numbers," because numbers aren't reality either.

  2. In 1998 I coined the phrase Search Learning and that global learners would eventually bypass tradition and corporate learning system threw global collaboration.
    Finishing up on publishing my research on the Global Learning Framework at
    This blog is right on. It is the the same reason why when corporations become two authoritarian the begin to implode the way GM almost did. IBM also has gone in and out of these problems, not to mention Microsoft as well.
    As more HS and college degrees go online the global community will simply be able to bypass traditional academia.
    We maybe not, if you want four years of party school there is nothing like an expensive college to fit the bill.
    In addition the authoritarian forces in the Ph D program that force student to replicate APA and MLA ignorance is also at risk.
    We do not need more academic shelf ware, we solutions in the streets.
    Great blog