some thoughts on Zhao- catching up or leading the way

February 23, 2011

Zhao’s reflection on the ‘two purposes of education- to select and to educate’ (p 74) is a key tenet in his section on high stakes testing, and one I think we need to pay great attention to… to paraphrase- what is valued in a country at any given point in time is reflected in it’s tests… and the current US goal to out-test-the-rest could very well put us out of the running at all.  Zhao also speaks to testing and ‘the American public, short of other easy-to-understand measures, seems to have accepted the notion that test scores are accurate measures of the quality of their schools…. It is misleading, but immensely popular.’ (p.33)  Frightening, but true.  And I think he is on to something, when, at the end of the book he gets to his key argument- that what progressive schools in America are doing IS the answer- that fostering and building creative, problem-solving curriculum and the idea that ‘changing the definition of success also means changing how we measure success’ is exciting.  According to Zhao, and I have to say I very much agree… if we examine our most progressive, project based, in-the-face of current mandates for directive and control schools and schooling practices- we have way more going right than going wrong.  The crisis agenda, with high profit margins for the testing and textbook companies that support it… has GOT to go…
I am intrigued by the potential connections to charters and vouchers and business models of reform… I find much food for thought as I re-read parts of Chapter 7 on education interest groups and policy agendas as I want to be sure to keep myself from jumping to conclusions (as I am at times wont to do) so I am returning to the historical account here to frame my thoughts. From pages 134-140 I find it fascinating to examine the political environment and policies that grew from them in the period of the creation of and then later re-authorization of NCLB.  My attention is drawn to the reality that highly experienced and informed parties, were pointing out the significant flaws and potential un-constitutionality and the ultimate long term reality that NCLB itself would not be able to be fulfilled as presented, particularly the ability for states and local agencies to meet demands both in productivity and performance.  The critique was available and pressure was on congress to recognize and act to prevent this law with such fundamental flaws. And yet we see that not only were the critiques dismissed, the coalitions lobbying for thoughtful construction of this law (and others) found themselves in direct opposition from the growing collaboration of policy analysts and think tanks who focused on a ‘competition agenda’.  This agenda appears to have sent us reeling to create policy that would help us ‘keep up with’ China and India as they race to out-think and out-perform us and potentially unseat us from the intellectual and economic global power we aspire to be.  The resulting fear-based, at-war, competitive approach to establishing/maintaining/bolstering the American position in the global power structure, is putting a fascinating (and in my eyes frightening) spin on our current ed reforms and the publication of the current agenda.
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2 Responses to “some thoughts on Zhao- catching up or leading the way”


  1. Thank you for posting. I share your concerns.

    It’s worth noting that the last time this kind of fear based approach appeared in the US was the “sputnik crisis’ My read is that at the time it was Fear of international competition drove huge investments in what I think can be fairly called the Education-Industrial complex.

    NCLB gets complicated because while the rhetoric of improving the outcomes at the bottom of the pyramid makes some sense, the reality of the policy effects have been mostly disastrous. ( Not unlike some of the good sounding, but disastrous effects of the foreign policy decisions of the last administration in the US )

    Having said that it’s important to see that there is a new administration in Washington with a different approach and a somewhat different dna.

    The problem from the policy point of view is the notion of “trust the professionals” is hard to accept in the face of the fact that in general schools that serve People of Color have never worked very well.

    Without some way to measure to progress, it’s inevitable that policy makers would grab onto tests. Of course the fact of a huge testing industry who’s livelihood is based on a testing regime doesn’t help.

    My thought is that the challenge for us who understand the effects of the testing regime is to highlight other ways to assess performance. Another thing that we might consider is what make tests nefarious is the silly notion that every kid will learn some X at a specific time in their lives.

    To my mind the real problem is the Factory Time used in Factory Schools. Seems to me that if one takes away the idea that by Grade X, a child has to be able to do Y, many of the testing issues tend to disappear.

    I’m very interested in knowing if this sounds reasonable.

    • jennaream Says:

      Two thoughts- first the easy one, ‘trusting the professionals’ is not in a vacuum… and the link you posted earlier about authentic assessment http://www.edutopia.org/stw-assessment-tips-get-started-replication has GREAT resources and ideas for what this could look like… skilled professionals who know development and learning in addition to the content and seek to ever refine their work with children through reflective practice. Checks and balances must also be in place to support the process of continual improvement and refinement- this includes coaching interactions, administrative observation conversations, interactive reflective professional development (NOT the traditional stand-and-deliver or make-and-take… actually THIS is where I see a very clear need to consider Mitra’s SOLE principles… but that is another post and another convo :).

      I believe we need to dig deeper on ‘schools that serve People of Color’ and talk about why they have ‘never worked very well’. There are distinct commonalities, yes, particularly around institutional racism and classism that affect communities and schools, but as we continue to find via the myriad of Turnaround Strategies being implemented with significant differences in the effects… that solutions that work are based on relationships and building resilience, and both of those are dependent on high levels of trust. Perhaps it would be a good next step to examine the assumptions and risks that underlie the concept of ‘trust’… we might find some interesting fodder for conversation there.

      Then, to the question you asked, about Time and Factory Model- In my view- yes, but that’s a smaller part of it then perhaps we have been thinking. My thoughts here revolve around tipping points and 2%milk (á la Gladwell and the Heath brothers) and that perhaps these are conceptualizations along the lines of the USDA food pyramid- the information is mostly true and explains a part of the picture, even appearing to capture the big picture… but what works in general, breaks down when you examine relationships between elements.

      And I am back to the ecosystem analogy- and what we can learn from High Sierra alpine lakes… http://www.ted.com/talks/eric_berlow_how_complexity_leads_to_simplicity.html


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