Keynote speaker calls for K-12 schools to focus on students as individual learners

by Alan Wechsler

On Board Online • October 23, 2017

By Alan Wechsler
Special Correspondent

Everyone in American public education knows that our students are always near the bottom of the list when compared to how students in Europe and Asia score on math, science and other tests.

According to education scholar Yong Zhao, here's what education leaders should do in response: forget about it.

There are more important things that America can excel at besides training kids to ace standardized tests, Zhao said. That's what school boards in the United States should focus on in order to prepare children for a rapidly changing future, he said.

His keynote address at NYSSBA's 98th Annual Convention & Education Expo was frequently interrupted by waves of applause - and laughter - as he discussed his topic: "American Education in the Age of Globalization."

An education professor at the University of Kansas, Zhao delivered a somewhat tongue-in-cheek analysis of what ails American public education.

To Zhao, too many schools in the world - including many with impressive test scores - are like sausage factories, churning out identical students prepared for unremarkable jobs. Standardized tests, he said, are basically assessments of how good schools are at being "sausage makers."

In that competition, "American education has always been bad," he told the crowd. "You've been so bad for so long, should America still be here? The Canadians want to know that, too."

"America has never been good at (standardized outcomes), because America has local school districts," he said. "Because of this diversity, an American trying to become a sausage maker is not as good as an Asian sausage-maker."

Zhao, a native of China, has won accolades for a unique perspective borne of living in two cultures. His book Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon explores being a student - and later a teacher - in Chinese schools. It discusses how the world's most populous country routinely turns out the world's highest-achieving students - but with an education system that is reviled by most who participate in it.

Another of Zhao's books, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, explores how countries like China are striving to emulate America's education system - despite our lackluster test scores.

Asian students may do better in tests, but have lower curiosity or creativity, he said, adding: "America, as a broken sausage-maker, accidentally makes a lot of inventors."

He noted that one of the side-effects of teaching kids to do well at tests is that students might look at the task as drudgery. For instance, a student could be forced to learn reading to excel at a test of his reading ability, and then hate reading forever.

Schools are often tasked with preparing students for "college and career." Zhao questioned whether that makes sense.

How many jobs of today will be around in a decade or two? For instance, many schools are preparing students for jobs in computers, but computer programs are already at the point where they can write their own programs, Zhao said.

Here in the United States, schools should concentrate on providing experiences that nurture the skills and traits that students will need to achieve what he described as the most important form of success - moving out of their parents' basements!

And regarding college admissions, "Japan just created a robot that scored higher than 80 percent on an entrance exam," he said. "So what do we need? We are wasting our education to turn our children into very compliant people - our students are not becoming who they can be. What we need to do is to not turn our children into 'excellent sheep.'"

In an age of smart machines, the only way to compete with any machine is to not be mechanical. To Zhao, we need students to become uniquely different - become the best they can in their own particular skills, whether it's art or music, science or entrepreneurship.

"Today, every talent can be of value," he said. "Every talent is worth developing."

He showed a photo of a store aisle with dozens of kinds of shampoo. "We consume all different things. We need scientists (to develop the product). We need people who are good at talking (to handle functions like administration and marketing). We need an artist to design the (shampoo) bottles."

He suggests a new system where students are encouraged to find and excel in their own particular talent.

"Every talent is worth cultivating, and every student can become great. Every student needs to be great in their own way," he said.

"You hold the dreams of every child in your hands, and every dream is worth something," he concluded. "Make sure to not turn their dreams into nightmares. America needs to rebuild its dream, and that can only happen in your public schools."

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