Friday, March 23, 2012

The Future of American Education?

I recently had the opportunity to read Yong Zhao’s Catching Up or Leading the Way.  The book was an interesting look at our past, current, and future educational system in relation to that of our countries, in particular, China’s.  The premise of the book is that though the American system has its share of challenges, it isn’t in quite the hot water that we believe it to be.  The premise of the book is interesting, and parts of the book itself are intriguing.  In this simple short review, I want to focus on a few items, and then, if you like, you can read it yourself and let me know what you think.

Zhao does an excellent job of condensing American education into a few short pages and he focuses on the many policies and initiatives that have brought us to where we are.  This isn’t a history lesson by any means, but he approaches our educational growth from a “policy of fear” in a very intriguing way.  The first few chapters were quite informative.  I did question a few items Zhao mentioned early on.  First, he states that the American system is a true example of contest mobility because students are not sorted early on into different tracks.  As a classroom teacher from 2001 – 2011, I couldn’t disagree more.  Tracking in some sense started in our school as early as the sixth grade, and in many districts in my region, math and science are tracked as early as seventh and eighth grade.  That’s early in my book.  In addition, while this book was written in 2009, I wonder whether the claim about there still being a lot of support put behind the ideal of an “American Dream” exists.  How has the national economic crisis and media impacted this?  I would be curious to find out if most students (and most Americans) still believe the “American Dream” is attainable for everyone.  I would hope so, but I’m seriously left wondering.

Zhao’s chapter on China is wonderful.  It gives a great sense of why China is attempting to “Americanize” its educational system, and what led the Chinese down that path.  He uses this as a great juxtaposition to ask, “Why then is America going the other way?”  It was very well done.

I was less enthused by the following chapters and felt the book took a terrible turn.  I found it challenging to read and very repetitive.  In fact, it began to sound a lot like every other globalization book on the market.  I’m curious why Zhao took this route as I was very pumped up by the first few chapters only to be disappointed by the next few.  Zhao talks too much about the virtual versus real worlds, and the impact (or not so much) of job loss and overseas employment.  His claims are worth mentioning, but the three or four chapters devoted to it weigh the book, and its message, down tremendously.  In fact, by the time Zhao attempts to tie everything together, I was so tired of reading about globalization, that I couldn’t bring myself back to the true point of the book, where America is and whether we’re heading in the right direction.  It was a shame.  There are some intriguing aspects to these chapters, though.  For instance, his segment on core assumptions of globalization and keys to “globalization education” are great discussion points for contemplating how schools can truly engage the next generation and beyond.  In addition, I really found his proposed indicators of “input-oriented accountability” (a more “big picture” approach to measuring school quality) exciting.  I also gave a thumbs-up to his emphasis on personalized learning and the simple fact that today it pays for education to be “global.”  No one can argue with that.

Sadly, despite all these intriguing ideas, the book seemed to become an advertisement for the services of Michigan State University (Zhao’s place of employment) towards the end.  While I would hope that Zhao did not mean it to be this way and was just citing information he was professionally close to, as a skeptic and good “bias-finder,” it really seemed to be a conflict of interest.  I was also shocked with the research he cited showing no difference in effectiveness between online and face-to-face instruction.  Anyone research or study these areas that can confirm?

All-in-all, while I’m glad I finally got the chance to read this book, I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy more of it.  With a premise that solid, the book should have been much better.

As always, let me know what you think.

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