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In his book, Who Is Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World , Dr. Yong Zhao offers a fascinating tour of Chinese education and a nuanced analysis that reveals the secrets that make it both “the best and worst” in the world.

This thoughtful book unfolds against the backdrop that Shanghai students topped the triennial tests of the PISA in 2009 and 2012, making Chinese education attractive to some education researchers and policymakers in the US. Many of the reforms taking hold in the US, including a greater emphasis on standardized testing and on core subjects like reading and math, echo the Chinese experience. The author starts with a chronicle of China’s long history of testing from the imperial exam system (keju) to today’s gaokao, the university entrance exam, asserting that the spirit of education in China today flows precisely from the keju. The imperial exam selected government officials, and rewarded obedience, conformity, compliance, respect for order, and homogeneous thinking. The contemporary Chinese education remains exam-oriented, relying on rote memorization and mechanical drills as the primary approach, and uses test scores as the primary or only criterion to evaluate students. Thus, Chinese education is authoritarian in nature, and produces good test scores but not a citizenry of diverse, creative and innovative talent.

In the end, the author states that China’s authoritarian education might be seen as excellence defined by an outdated paradigm that stresses uniformity, consistency, standardization, competition and data-driven practices. Chinese education should not serve as a model for the US or elsewhere, since it promotes a “poisonous pedagogy, stifles creativity, smothers curiosity, suppresses individuality, ruins children’s health, distresses students and parents, corrupts teachers and leaders, and perpetuates social injustice and inequity.” The author also devotes considerable space to challenging the credibility of PISA, citing some of its technical flaws, and questioning its validity for measuring a student’s ability to live in the modern world as well as its usefulness for assessing the quality of education systems. He asserts that PISA only proves that Shanghai students have achieved the highest scores in math, reading and science in 2009 and 2012, but provides no direct evidence that Chinese students perform better in other skill areas that an educational system should cultivate, let alone that China should be taken as the world’s model of educational excellence.

I share the author’s viewpoints entirely on three counts. First, to unpack the myth of Chinese excellence requires an exploration of its philosophies, beliefs, values, and normative positions. More than 100 years ago, Sir Michael Sadler, a pioneer in the field of comparative education, made the point that learning outside the school matters even more inside the school. Nicholas Hans, the greatest comparativist of the twentieth century, advised us to incorporate comparative studies in our understanding of educational tradition and national character. Dr. Zhao is correct in delving into Chinese traditions. Against his historical narrative, he argues that today’s education system bears the genetic imprint of an authoritarian Chinese culture. Second, China’s top-ranking PISA scores should not be taken as evidence of a superior education system. It is an ungrounded leap to liken the high PISA scores in three subjects to the best education system in the world. Third, the enduring political control over education in China presents a major hindrance to its transformation. This holds true not only for the K-12 sector but also for postsecondary institutions.

In the meantime, I don’t agree with the author on a few points. First, Chinese education is neither the best nor the worst in the world. Rather, it worked well in the past for China’s agenda of socialist construction and industrialization up to the 1990s, when the country moved towards a market economy. An economist once compared education in China and the US by stating: the former enjoys a high mean, while the latter triumphs in terms of a large variance. A high mean often indicates efficiency and effectiveness, and the gaokao serves precisely to secure a high mean—despite some of its drawbacks. For a populace nation that suffers from a scarcity of resources and has been keen to become industrialized, this high-mean approach might be a practical option, while the large-variance model appears to be a luxury more available to post-industrialized countries. Nevertheless, now that China is the world’s second largest economy, the old model is increasingly problematic. While many Western observers envy China’s PISA scores, the Chinese are now working hard to dismantle the factors responsible for that success.

By the same token, Chinese education is entitled to claim a certain degree of success. PISA is a Western-centric learning assessment. Still, Chinese students are proving outstanding abilities in math, reading and science through their top performance on the PISA. While Zhao associates Chinese student performance with a “poisonous pedagogy” (requiring excessive workload and repetition), I argue that discipline and focused effort contribute to that success as well. Take math for example, difficult for most students in the West and China. In the West, students too easily say without any embarrassment: “I am not good at math.” This is rare in China (as well as in other Confucian societies). Chinese students know there is no justification to say this and commit themselves to hard work in math. The authoritarian culture may be responsible in some ways for this sense of discipline and willingness to commit to arduous effort. In this sense, authoritarianism could claim some credit. Western students often take advantage of the freedom they have and choose subjects of greater interest, yet math is not only a core subject of knowledge but also essential training in abstract reasoning.

There seems to be a paradox in Zhoa’s main argument. He obviously places faith in historical and cultural determinism arguing the presence of “witches” that live inside Chinese education. If so, the US policymakers and educators should not worry about abandoning historic values of cultivating diversity and individuality or being corrupted by rigid standards and tests. Indeed, there is slim chance that China’s authoritarian type of education could take root in the US soil. It is the utilitarian aspects of China’s approach that appeal to some educational reformers in the US. In that sense, there may be some common ground between the US-style neoliberalism and the Chinese-style authoritarianism, and it is this possibility that US education researchers and practitioners should be alerted to.

Throughout the volume, Zhao discusses the Chinese and the US education models in a dichotomous manner—as though it were necessary to endorse either Chinese or US practices. Interestingly, while the author denounces excessive competition within an education system, he seems to be advocating the game of “Player Killing (PK)” between education systems. If we adopt his view, it will not be realistic to achieve his concluding wish—to create one education model “that will meet the needs of a global future.” In an era of globalization, a new education model needs to be built upon a wide array of human experiences. For this reason, we must develop a “listening mentality,” a readiness to listen to other narratives and take lessons from the distinctive threads of culture and tradition. I don’t mean to offer any counter argument to Zhao’s analysis. What I really want is to push any reader of this book to think beyond a PK challenge between Chinese and the US approaches to education and raise awareness to the fact that global issues require global solutions. This is just one reason why we should continue to invest in programs like PISA.

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An expanded review of Who Is Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World will be published soon in Frontiers of Education in China.

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