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