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Who will invent the next Apple or Google: My (imaginary) speech at NBC’s Education Summit

26 September 2010 23,439 15 Comments

I received an invitation to NBC’s Education Nation summit last week (September 20) by email. The letter has a date of July 22, 2010 and I was told it was sent via USPS. Somehow I never received the letter in the mail. I became aware of the invitation only through an email response to Leonie Haimson (for Parents Across America), who has been writing to NBC recommending me on September 19th. The invitation asked me to call a number and confirm my participation. Upon confirmation, “editorial team will reach out to you to review the details of your participation.” So I confirmed but was told that there is no space on any panel for me to speak.

Thank you, Leonie and many others, thank you, NBC. I would really like to be there to share my thoughts. But since there is no place, this is what I would like to say.


Who is most likely to come up with the next Apple or Google?

Not China, not even Asia. Most probably the United States of America, according to Dr. Kaifu Lee, founding president of Google China and former vice president of Interactive Services of Microsoft, who also worked at Apple as a research and development executive.

“This is because American entrepreneurs can think outside the box because of their education,” said Dr. Lee at the World Economic Forum’s Summer Davos held in Tianjin, China last week (September 13-15, 2010). Lee, an immigrant from Taiwan, attended high school in the US, received his undergraduate education at Columbia and earned a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University. After resigning from Google last year, Lee established a venture capital firm to stimulate hi-tech innovations in China.

Lee was using Apple and Google as examples of big innovations. China may not be able to come up with an Apple or Google in 50 or 100 years because “it requires a completely new education system,” said the very influential icon of innovation in China.

I would agree with Lee’s observation if not for the education reform efforts China and the US have undertaken recently. The degree to which their respective efforts become successful will determine the accuracy of Lee’s prediction.

Keenly aware of how a nationally centralized and standardized education system coupled with high-stakes testing squelches creativity, reduces diversity of talents, and destroys passion and hope–all essential ingredients of an innovation-based economy, China has launched comprehensive efforts to reform its education system. These efforts include broadening the curriculum, increasing local autonomy, reducing student academic burden, minimizing the use of test scores in teacher and school evaluation, and diversifying the definition of achievement.

The US has been reforming its education too, but toward the opposite direction. Through No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top, the US has been working on increasing the power and frequency of testing, standardizing and narrowing the curriculum, simplifying teacher and school evaluation, centralizing education decision making, and reducing the definition of achievement and success to test scores.

In essence, what China wants is what the U.S. has and is eager to throw away, while what the US wants is what has and is eager to cast away.

The success of either country’s reform will prove Dr. Lee wrong. If China succeeds in its education reform, it could become a powerful innovative economy and thus increases the likelihood to come up with major innovations such as the next Google, hence proving Dr. Lee’s prediction wrong. If the US succeeds in its education reform, it will lose its capacity for innovation, also proving Dr. Lee wrong.

Judging from existing evidence, China’s reform does not seem to have much success because testing has been in place for so many years that it has become part of the education culture and developed many social and business institutions that reap tremendous benefits from supporting a testing-oriented education.

But the reform in the US is going very strong and gaining tremendous success: test scores have already been used nationally as the only indicator of quality of schools and soon teacher performance and compensation; national standards and assessment are in the works; and states and local communities have already been stripped of much of their authority in policy making. With billions of dollars of borrowed money, the Federal government is pushing for more testing, standardization, and centralization.

American reform proponents claim these efforts are necessary to ensure America’s global competitiveness and provide a world-class education to all its citizens. But their claims are not backed up by evidence. National standards and curriculum neither raises achievement nor closes gaps. Test scores are hardly indicators of what students have learned and what they can do in the future, nor are the predictors of a nation’s economic prosperity or livability. Using student test scores to assess teacher performance evaluation and determine compensation does not improve student test scores. Charter schools do not necessarily do better than public schools.

Their damages however have been clearly documented. High stakes testing results in rampant cheating, demoralization of teachers, narrowed curriculum, and teaching to the tests (hence learning what is tested). Curriculum standardization and standardized testing stifles creativity, reduces talent diversity, and constraints educational innovation.

In other words, the reform efforts in the US threaten to destroy the strengths of American education. As I have written in my book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, American education is far from perfect, but it has a few unique characteristics that makes it a system that cherishes individual talents, cultivates creativity, celebrates diversity, and inspires curiosity and a system that many other countries are working hard to emulate. The characteristics include: a broad definition of education, broad definition of talent, multiple criteria for judging success, decentralized decision making, and a strong belief in individual differences.

Unfortunately, these features have been precisely the target of the current reform. The definition of what education means has been reduced to what is tested—reading and math. Talent in schools has been reduced to the ability to obtain good test scores. Decentralized decision making and local autonomy have been viewed as the source of inequality and inefficiency. Respect for individual differences has been criticized as holding low expectations of students.

The more successful the current US education reform becomes, the more likely these features will be gone.  In its place will be national standards, national curriculum, and national assessment, just as the Obama administration has been pushing through the Race to the Top program, although these are called common core and viewed as voluntary by states (but the voluntary action of states was in response to billions of dollars). In the end, the US will have China’s education system and that will prove Dr. Lee wrong.

The next Apple or Google may not be invented in the United States.

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  • TFT said:

    Thank you, Professor Zhao.

  • Joe Bower said:

    You truly are an ally to real learning and progressive education. Thank you

  • Steve Ranso said:

    But it all sounds so good, doesn’t it. Hold teachers accountable. Assess students with rigorous and frequent standardized evaluation to ensure that they know what is necessary. Reward those who are successful at doing this. Punish those who are not and refuse to “take education seriously”. Provide a “quality education” for all. Leave no child behind. Listen to what successful venture capitalists have to say – they’re successful, aren’t they? See what KIPP is doing? See what this charter school has achieved?

    These are the messages that the public are hearing over and over. They are not hearing an informed analysis by experienced educators such as you, Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, and many others. The fact that there was no room at the table for you and many others who bring compelling counter viewpoints to our current trajectory is no mistake, I think – whether out of ignorance or intentionally.

  • Bill Peterson said:

    Thanks for your effort. What I have seen on MSNBC Education Nation so far is totally under the control of those with money and political power—how sad.

  • Christine Eagle said:

    Creativity and innovation are vital. Perhaps we need a balance. I am concerned if our society does not receive an eduation that allows them to think, process and consistently make good decisions, generations may be easily influenced by invoking emotion rather than logic. These are future voters we are talking about (if they exercise their right when they become of age).

  • Jean Hudson said:

    Dr.Zhao, Unfortunately I missed your presentation at our local community college but was glad to see coverage of it in our local newspaper today. I decided to check out your website. Now, I’m anxious to get your book to read as well. Here you are in my own state of MI and I wasn’t aware of your work until this article!

    Many public school educators, including myself, are extremely tired of the education bashing that we’ve experienced during our careers. We are frustrated with the high stakes testing, standards/benchmarks that shift with the whims of the state committees/testing dept. and legislators that can’t agree on budgets that don’t line up in the first place (i.e. school budget: July-June, state budget: Oct-Sept.). Why must accountability via testing be the sole responsibility of teachers? What has happened to parental responsibility as it relates to their children’s education?

    Thank you for being a voice of reason! I’m sharing your website with my colleagues tomorrow. We must spread your message to save what’s left of our American education system that allows students to create, innovate and lead.

    Thanks for all you do for children and education!!

  • Yvonne Siu-Runyan said:

    Thank you, thank you. Now why doesn’t DOE get this one?

  • NBC’s Education Indoctrination | Seattle Education 2010 said:

    […] Who will invent the next Apple or Google: My (imaginary) speech at NBC’s Education Summit […]

  • Jeanne Paynter said:

    Dear Dr. Zhao,
    I just finished reading your book, “Catching Up or Leading the Way,” and it grieves me that my state has just received the RttT funding and bought into all of its “reforms.” Employed by the state department of education, I am in the midst of what seems like an absolute frenzy to implement these practices that I believe could make NCLB look progressive. I probably will have no major role to play since my field is gifted and talented education and there is not one dollar earmarked for gifted kids. I am so frustrated and I wonder where I can find a venue to advocate your ideas. I teach a graduate class for teachers, and they tell me that they are unable to implement the creative teaching strategies I am sharing with them. They say wistfully, “We used to do things like that…” I am heartbroken. By the way, this summer I had the pleasure of visiting China on a trip sponsored by the College Board and the Hanban Confucious Institute. It was eye-opening to visit schools and see the duality of a test driven system espousing a focus on the whole child! I saw first hand how the Chinese schools are racing toward what we are racing from.

  • Carla Bellis said:

    I am a school counselor and have been an educator for 28 years. My principal heard this message at a conference this week and it is so encouraging to hear someone in a postion to influence others saying what good teachers have been saying for so long. Public educaton in America is not perfect but we are doing an amazing job every day teaching students from all backgrounds and all abilities to be better than they were. We are helping them reach their individual potential, whatever it might be. I have some students who come from homes with virtually no resources either financial or emotional. I have seen these students, with nothing going for them but the public school, graduate on time, with confidence and a plan for the future. I see students with incredible abilities in art, music, and drama inspire, entertain and motivate those around them. My own son has had the opportunity to actually build an energy efficient car from top to bottom at his school, drive it in a race and win. He wants to be an engineer. What better way to supplement his science and math classes than to actually make decisions about the weight of materials and shape of the hood for wind resistance etc. America is a gigantic nation of individuals to whom the rest of the world looks for inspiration. Life, liberty and the puruist happiness…. may be never forget!

  • Haisen Zhang said:

    Thanks for your insights, Professor Zhao. I couldn’t agree with you more, particularly on what the US is trying to shake off in education is just what China is trying to achieve. Let me give you an example, if I may. Right here in Beijing, a lot of firms are able to make millions of RMB , if not dollars, every year when they are selling the concept of the US education system. One advertising sign on a magnificent shopping mall in my neighborhood says, “Go to a US school in China.” I would say, kids love the US form of education, parents love it, and the community loves it. For now and the foreseeable future, you will find a lot more Chinese kids at US local schools, especially at high schools and universities.

    I’d see educating kids at schools like burning candles. If you burn them early, they die out early. I personally think that Chinese kids are cultivated a bit too early. They wither when it’s time for them to blossom. I’d argue that the timing is critical for kids to grow. When it’s time for them to play, schools need to pave the way. When it’s time for them to learn, schools need to help. Just you said in your earlier blog article, the US education cannot afford to “[pick up] a sesame seed … [while losing] the watermelon.”

  • Human said:

    This is certanly a fascinating topic, and the author has touched it from a variety of perspectives and linked with important ideas. For example, “Test scores are hardly indicators of what students have learned and what they can do in the future” — this links directly to the notion of transfer, and alternative ways to assess students’ capability for future learning, vs. performance in a fixed setting or based on a fixed body of knowledge.

  • Ed Reform and Sputnik | Andrea Zellner said:

    […] voice we have about this very issue in both his book and his blog.  One post in particular, “Who will invent the next Apple or Google: My (imaginary) speech at NBC’s Education Summit,” takes accurate aim at the misinformation and misconceptions in our current reform debate. I […]

  • Deborah Heal said:


    May I quote part of this blogpost including the title of your book on our ‘4J Forward” FB page? 4J Forward is a local group of interested adults, students and parents interested in providing an enriched educational experience for students here in Eugene that protects and preserves a child’s native curiosity and wonder about the world. We are hoping to help shape the outcome of our current School Board’s economic decisions to vastly change the educational landscape here by closing 5 neighborhood schools, laying off 160 teachers, grouping students by age blocks and holding to very standard testing curriculum.

  • Mary Robinson said:

    My colleagues and I were fortunate to hear you this week at the NCCE conference in Portland. There is no simple “fix,” as you said, to the challenges of public education. But I have 1 suggestion. Put you in charge. Thank you for the work that you do.

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