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Book Review February Vol. 1

Monday, February 2, 2015  
Posted by: Sarah Stewart
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Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World

By Dr. Yong Zhao

Reviewed By: Michael Ulku-Steiner, Head of School, Durham Academy, Durham, NC

For three weeks this winter, Durham Academy partnered with Duke University’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) and the North Carolina School of Science and Math to host 25 students from the Experimental High School attached to Beijing Normal University. In April, a colleague and I will visit that school and a number of others in Beijing and Shanghai. 

Unlike some independent schools, we will not recruit Chinese students to Durham Academy through these partnerships. Rather we seek to revive a dormant exchange program for our Chinese language students, expand conversations about curricular globalization, and learn all we can from our counterparts at several well-regarded Chinese schools. 

I can’t wait to peek inside the schools that have piqued the interest of journalists and educators worldwide. Gold medals in global academic competitions and top rankings on the PISA tests suggest that we have much to learn from Chinese schools, such as the organization of their curricula, the rigor of their teachers, and the grit of their students. At least, that’s what I thought until I read Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

Zhao directs the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education at the University of Oregon. In this book, his most recent of 20, he argues that Chinese educational excellence is a mirage – as alluring to Americans as it is debilitating for China. “Behind the illusion of excellence is an insufferable reality that the Chinese have long been trying to escape ... Chinese education stifles creativity, smothers curiosity, suppresses individuality, ruins children’s health, distresses students and parents, corrupts teachers and leaders, and perpetuates social injustice and inequity” (p. 187).

While Zhao laments the schooling of his native country’s youth, he sees the Chinese – whether through national education reforms or a raft of experimental ventures – moving as quickly as their culture will let them toward a better path: teaching non-cognitive skills, fostering creativity, and letting children develop their unique talents.

Zhao worries most about American educators – called by the sirens of uniformity, consistency, competition, data-driven practices, and an emphasis on outcomes. He explains that these are the features of “employee-oriented education.”  

“In distinct contrast,” argues Zhao, “entrepreneur-oriented education maximizes individual differences. Schools following this paradigm have no standardized, common curriculum. Each child pursues his or her interests and passions, and teachers respond to and support those individual pursuits and assess students’ progress accordingly. Variation, diversity, tolerance (or indulgence) autonomy and student-driven education are features of entrepreneur-oriented education” (p. 185). 

Sound familiar? While Zhao aims his argument at public school leaders (Arne Duncan is called out several times), the book speaks directly to us in independent schools. Our faculties prize autonomy and creativity. Our curricula are varied and ingenious. Our students are supported as they pursue unique passions.

Though tempted to feel self-congratulatory smugness about the ways in which our schools are already “entrepreneur-oriented,” I encountered at least two ideas that made me squirm with self-recognition:

1. As parents demand ever-greater accountability from our teachers and consistency from our curricula, we independent school leaders find ourselves leading more forcefully toward rigorous teacher evaluation systems and coherent curricular arcs. Zhao warns us away from this direction, using the example of Bruce Lee’s art of fighting without fighting: “Rooted in the Taoist thinking of no interference and following nature, Confucius was the first to utter the words 'wu wei er zhi' (governing without action).”
2. As parents and trustees seek concrete returns on their investments, we find ourselves assessing students more often and more comprehensively. Independent schools have so far escaped the test-driven vortex of public systems. Still, Zhao’s warning rings true for those of us pushing to use student performance data in new ways: “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 ... and failed to recognize those benign-looking tests as a Trojan horse – with a dangerous ghost inside.”  

How vigorously should we supervise our teachers? Ought we to align every scope and sequence? How much should we use student performance data to improve instruction? I have yet to find answers that serve all constituents in our school. I’m guessing I am not alone.  

Like many books in this genre, Zhao’s would pack more punch as an article in The New Yorker, National Review, or The Atlantic. Interestingly, his ideas and politics would fit in all three. Occasionally repetitive prose would benefit from distillation beyond the book’s current 190 pages. 

In making his impassioned case against the reductive, data-driven authoritarianism of the American accountability movement, Zhao generalizes and oversimplifies too often. He ignores, for example, that nearly 8 million American children attend private or charter schools – many of which embrace the same holistic, student-centered approach he does.   

In similar ways, I wish Zhao offered a more nuanced view of Chinese resilience, discipline, humility, and delayed gratification – the constellation oft-labeled as grit and lauded eloquently by writers like Angela Duckworth, Martin Seligman, Amy Chua, and Paul Tough.

Zhao writes, “The belief that the Chinese attach high values to education is widespread in the United States ... This belief is, however, an illusion at best and a cruel glorification 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" (p. 8).

While Zhao succeeds in convincing readers that Chinese grit is rooted in dehumanizing authoritarianism (an argument that would be applauded by Alfie Kohn, whose critiques of America’s recent love affair with grit are worthy of attention from independent school educators), it seems intellectually irresponsible to ignore the utility of resilience and discipline. Creativity and entrepreneurial spirit alone rarely suffice for students, or the job creators Zhao aims to nurture. 

Despite these few weaknesses, Zhao makes a freshly compelling case for the paradigm shifts described elsewhere by Pat Bassett, John Chubb, Grant Lichtman, Daniel Pink, Ken Robinson and Ken Kay. As he puts it, “We need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurship-minded citizens who are 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.”

I sometimes tire of reading phrases like 21st Century Education, paradigm shifts, and the new world. Still, I think Zhao is right. And we, in independent schools, have a distinct head start in creating that new world.

Michael Ulku-Steiner is the Head of Durham Academy in Durham, NC. He can be reached at or on Twitter @MrUlkuSteiner. 



*Watch Yong Zhao's keynote speech at the 2013 SAIS Conference. 

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