With the swirling messages around education–Flat Earth theory, 21st Century Skills, NCLB, unschooling, homeschooling, accountability, standards movement, common core, charter schools, Global Achievement Gap, 2 Million Minutes, etc.–it’s easy to get confused. Now a new voice enters the fray with a fresh perspective. Fortunately, Yong Zhao’s Catching Up or Leading the Way has a clarifying effect rather than further muddying the waters.
The first section of the book examines modern educational reform dialogue. It traces the reform movement’s roots to the Race to Space of the 1950s and shows “how the current reform efforts are the result of a history of flawed reasoning based on incomplete information, driven by unfounded fear, and influenced by politics” (181). Zhao highlights the strengths of American educational practice and debunks many of the attacks on our educational system. He follows this with an in-depth examination of the weaknesses of the Chinese educational system that we’re striving to compete with, convincingly arguing that China’s educational leaders desire to imitate our system which we’re simultaneously (and ironically) discarding in favor of adopting the outmoded methodologies of China and India.
The next section of the book attempts to examine the future of work. For those familiar with the 21st Century Skills, Tony Wagner, or Daniel Pink this section may contain little new information. My colleague who loaned me the book, on the other hand, found this section to be fascinating. She felt that it really helped her to understand the job market and world that we’re training students to enter. Zhao certainly does a wonderful job of showing recent and current examples of “new” prosperity (power E-bay sellers, World of Warcraft item farmers, Second Life real estate mavens, google entrepeneurs) and uses these to re-imagine what the job market may look like in the future.
Finally, Zhao envisions an educational system that will prepare students for this new global economy and pitches his vision of personalized learning that “recognizes that every child has different talents and different needs, and educational institutions and educators should be responsive to individual children instead of treating them as a collection of products” (186). One weakness of the book, in my opinion, is that Zhao’s solution and vision is encompassed within a single chapter. The majority of the book concerns itself with a setup for the pitch at the end. I would like to see as much energy devoted to the proposed action (and how to implement it) as to laying the foundation for the action. Perhaps that will come in subsequent books from Zhao.
I think what I find so compelling about this book is that Yong Zhao effectively challenges many baseline assumptions behind our current school reform movement. While we’re certainly in competition with China and India for prosperity in the global economy, should we try to play their game or should we pave a new way into the future?