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Yong Zhao’s NPE Speech, Transcribed– Part I

May 2, 2015

On Saturday, April 25, 2015, University of Oregon education professor Yong Zhao gave a keynote address at the second annual conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE). Zhao’s entire 55-minute speech can be found here.

It is a fantastic speech– truthful, yet also incredibly funny, and encouraging.

I was so impressed with Zhao’s words that I decided to transcribe his entire keynote. I believe his sppech is valuable enough to be preserved as a text. I also realize that many may not be able to srt aside 55 minutes to watch a video might be more inclined to read his words in more manageable installments.

I will post the speech in a series of five parts, each approximately 11 minutes long and consisting of under 2,000 words. In my last post, I will include a link to Zhao’s transcribed keynote in its entirety.

And now, for Part I:

Good afternoon. It’s great… you know, these kinds of gatherings, most of us, you did this in China, in Asian countries, would end up in jail. [Audience laughter.] Seriously, seriously. We are deliberately challenging the government. This is very serious, so, guys, better watch out with the airport tomorrow, you better consider. But, as I was telling Diane, I came to this country, this is the hope of this country: the individuals who think they can do something about something they don’t like, their government. We need a lot more of this; it’s happening [but] not happening fast enough.

I was very surprised over the last many years. As an immigrant I had to do this myself. I thought you guys were taking care of this country for me [laughter] [so] I had to do it myself. I’ve gotta do something.

[Points to projector screen] This is, uh, you can download. Those are the slides I use. This website, if you feel like to Tweet or follow me on Twitter, that’s fine. I don’t really tweet anything controversial, nothing [laughter] but just follow me anyway. It’s good, it’s always good to have. And, if you are on something, you can email me.

This gathering this morning, I was hearing some of the comments about what we do, what kind of discourse we should have. But before that, I want [to] tell you that I have a personal problem with No Child Left Behind. I still think George Bush owes me money. [laughter] It’s a real story. It’s real. I have two children, and this is my daughter (shows slide of a girl blocking photo with her hand; no face visible) [laughter] And right now, she’s applying for college now. I have another child now who lives in Chicago. My son, he just, uh, this morning I heard someone, undergraduate from the University of Chicago. My son just graduated from Chicago, from University of Chicago and now is working in Chicago.

The story, I said Bush owed me money, is this: My son had been [in] public school in Michigan for a long time and was perfectly happy, and one morning, about eighth or ninth grade, I forgot, says, we went to the quintessential American restaurant, Cracker Barrel, [laughter] [to] have a great American breakfast, and we were talking about education, and he said, “Dad, I really know how to get the best scores.” Anyone from Michigan here? MEAP. We used to have the MEAP test. So, saying that, “O man, I know how to get [a] perfect score on the MEAP.” I said, “How do you do that?” He said, “Well, you just write one statement and the three supporting statements.” I said, “Man, they’re ruining your education.” I said, “We’ve got [to] get out of here.” [laughter] That is why, so I had to send him, honestly, to a private school [3:00] and that’s really why Bush owes me three years of tuition. [laughter] That’s how I [got] started with this whole thing.

And then, you know, right now in the US, what are we trying to do in education reform? The most popular phrase today in the US is called “readiness.” [laughter] Right? Readiness, readiness everything. Ready for college, ready for career, ready for kindergarten, I mean, really, every “ready” for something else, just not life. [laughter] Ready to die. It’s like a “ready” for death, you know. We have all these standards, there’s “readiness.” So, it’s been ready, a lot of us, so, what is the purpose of education? I think that’s what we want to talk about. What is the purpose of, is the purpose of education to always be ready for something you will never be? So, now, you know, everybody likes the Common Core. I’ve been going around debating with people. They love the Common Core [for] all kinds of reasons: Because it gets you ready for life and a career, college, right? So, I have a son who was ready for college. He went to college; he got into Chicago and was very good, competitive. But he was so ready that he got in, but he was not ready enough that he didn’t get any money. I had to pay for everything. [laughter] That’s, that’s another thing about life, life is really funny. As a professor, sure you know in education, we are, this is the worst part of living in America, when you are in the middle, right? We make enough money not to qualify for any assistance, right? And, but we don’t make enough not to care about the money. So, we, he graduated two years ago, and, by the way, in the middle, he was going to become, you know, like any Chinese kid would try to be, you know. You want to study economics. [laughter] So, that’s, uh, the kind of predetermined pathway for China so you can be ready for a banking job. [5:00] And so you can be ready to make some money.

I didn’t object to that. It’s fine. Go for it. But then he went to Chicago. He’s somewhere nearby. I hope he’s not here, but I will share his story, anyway. [laughter]  He said after two years, he said, “Dad, I’m not going to study economics anymore.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, there are too many darn Chinese there, and, uh…” [laughter] “and, uh, they all are better at, you know, than me in math.” I said, “Okay, fine. Okay.” And, I said, “What are you gonna do?” He said, “I’m going to start something else.” I said, “What are you going to study?” He said, “I’m going to study, uh, uh, um, art.”

You know, that’s a very alien concept for a Chinese, but, [laughter] and so, I said, “What kind of art?” He said, “I’m going to do art history.” I said, “Why not? Why not?” I said, “Why not?” Right? I said, “Why not? No problem at all.” And, that’s, that’s, that’s fine.

He graduated two years ago with honors. He really was passionate about that, but, uh, so, we were talking about this graduation, and he said, “Dad, I kind of feel sorry for you.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, how are you going to explain to your parents that I majored in art?” I said, “Your friends…”… because that’s considered a Chinese family shame. [laughter] Because, they only believe… well, you cannot do anything else [so] you majored in art. They wouldn’t believe anyone would choose to do something like that. I said, “Don’t worry. You know, that’s fine.” He said [I] must feel like such a failure as a Chinese person. And I said, “No. You live in America, and a failed Chinese might be a successful American.” [laughter and applause] That might work. And, uh, I also told him that if you look at me, I was born and raised in a Chinese village, I’m the most unsuccessful Chinese peasant. I’m a failed Chinese peasant. I said it didn’t work out for me because…. And so, the whole thing, but, I said, one condition, I said, “Whatever you do, it doesn’t matter. Now, you’ve done everything everybody else asked you to do. You were college-ready; we paid for you, and you were ready to graduate with honors. Just can you do one thing: Not return to my basement?” [laughter]

So, that’s what I call the “readiness”: Out-of-basement readiness is the best kind of readiness for education. [laughter and applause]

Now, what does that mean? What does that mean? That means something actually fairly simple: Every individual be, develop the capacity to live independently, as a contributing member of a society. Financial independence, psychological independence, and social independence. That you are actually a member of a society. I don’t care what you do, to do something. By the way, he is happily out of my basement now. He is in here (Chicago) working in the Arts Club of Chicago. Visit him, you can see, over there, and you will find out there are not many Chinese working there. [8:00][laughter]

But, uh, now, with that, so actually, so I want to come back to talk about outcomes. Why I titled this, called, “America’s Suicidal Quest to Outcome.” As you know, historians will tell you that– I think Diane is a great historian [who] will tell you—civilizations really do not die from murder, not this invasion or got killed by others, it is really we die by suicide. We kill ourselves. And this is a perfect example of a, some kind of a suicidal mission. Many of you may have seen these stone statues. [Easter Island slide on screen]

easter island

This is from the Easter Islands. Many stories [of] what happened there. One of the stories is about, it was a thriving civilization two thousand years ago, before the Europeans arrived. It was really good, but on the island, the tribes there got into this thing called Race to the Top. [laughter] And they all, or Race, Race to the Big. They had somehow believed, whoever can build a bigger, more gigantic, more significant, more magnificent stone head, it shows how well the tribe is doing. But, more importantly, it’s going to invite gods to deliver them future prosperity. That’s how they believed it.

And, so, then every tribe got into this. They abandon everything, all focus their resources on building the best, the most magnificent stone head. As you can imagine, they abandoned agriculture, farming; They focus all their resources, and they build this thing. [pointing to slide] So, they neglect everything else. In the end, it caused deforestation, desertification, [unintelligible], and, mostly, it destroyed trees because they have to cut down trees to transport these big stones, erect the big kind of statue. That’show it happened.

American education has done this since 1983, A Nation at Risk. I can go back [to the] 1950s. We’ve been going after the wrong goal. We’ve been building these gigantic statues, which is called “test scores.” Can you imagine making our school system today, we have [been] basically trying to say, “Whoever can produce the best test score is the better teacher, the better system, and whoever has the better score is the better student. But that’s what we’re talking about. I think that [in] our discourse this morning, we talk about, the discourse that got us on the wrong path is the narrow definition, the mistaken definition of what educational outcomes should be. I think that my “out of the basement” readiness is much better than career and college readiness [applause and laughter] because [11:00] you may be ready for college, but college is not guarantee for “out of basement” readiness. You know, in the US today, we have over 50 percent of recent college graduates are back in their parents’ basement. We call that they are “unemployed” or “underemployed,” right? And they’re not only back in your basement; they owe some people money, right? [laughter] We have an average college debt of over twenty thousand dollars in the US. That’s scary. That’s very scary. [11:35]

I hope to transcribe Part II this weekend. Stay tuned.

For those who are hooked and do not wish to wait for my transcription, you are welcome to view Zhao’s entire keynote via the video linked here.

A truly incredible speech.

yong zhao


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has her second book available on pre-order, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, due for publication June 12, 2015.

CC book cover








  1. permalink

    Fantastic idea! I’d started to watch it a few days ago, but wasn’t able to commit to watching full speech in one sitting. Thanks so much for breaking it down & transcribing!

    -Cheryl Hill


  2. sarah permalink

    I love this guy! I’ve read some of his writings before. He’s got it right.

  3. The video is great, but I wish his slides were visible… is there an electronic copy of his presentation anywhere?

  4. What a compelling character he is. This transcript is great but I would recommend everyone watch at least a little of the presentation to get some sense of the man,

    I loved his perspective on the difference between country test results and good educational outcomes, using the lack of Steve Jobs in China as his example. There is no doubt that today’s pressure-filled schools, focused more and more on test results, are far less likely to produce a Steve Jobs than in pre-NCLB, a sad thought indeed.

    It seems we are headed in the direction of China — more of a factory approach where we hope to get all of our little widgets to common core standard — while China is headed the other way, concerned it does not develop creativity in its schools. Fascinating.

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  1. Highlights from the 2015 Network for Public Education Conference - Education Tips

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