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Yong Zhao’s NPE Speech, Transcribed– Part II

May 4, 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.

This insightful and incredibly humorous speech should not be missed.

I was so impressed with Zhao’s words that I decided to transcribe his entire keynote in five segments of approximately 11 minutes each, or roughly 2,000 words per installment.

On May 2, 2015, I posted Part I, a hilarious segment in which Zhao speaks of “out-of-basement readiness” and the “race to the big” as the cause of extinction for the native people on Easter Island.

Below is my second transcribed segment. I overlap the text a bit with the previous post to preserve context.


…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.

Remember, these children are not necessarily miseducated—are not necessarily poorly educated–  they’re miseducated—they’re educated with something that doesn’t exist. But let me go back to say, how were we, we’re so infatuated with test scores. But do test scores mean anything? You would say, “no.” But why don’t we believe this? So, you know, there’s several words I think this morning when Diane talked about Lakeoff’s [?] talking, there’s several phrases we should try to get out of our system. For example, it’s called, “underperforming.” What does it mean? You know, really? It’s based on test scores. Underperforming. We are an underperforming system, you know, so horrible. We use that to define. And other words, I hate these words: “evidence based.” What evidence? Whose evidence? What evidence? You know, we talk about this as though it’s good. “Data driven.” What data? Do you see? But sometimes we accept these words as if they are automatically great. You know, we think, “That’s it. That’s good.” You know, all these terms we use, and it’s very scary in many ways.

So, what we talk, when I was doing this research, trying to get my money back from George Bush, I was, and I was trying to understand this whole thing. So, what got sent America down this wrong path is precisely when they look at a number of the scores, either students, or individuals, or systems. [13:00]  And the scores, what made America, if you look at scores, I think this morning when Diane and I talked about America, if you look at test scores as [an] indicator, you know, American education is really unlike what the popular media says: “It’s in decline. It’s getting worse every day.” American education based on test scores is not getting worse, is not in decline. It has always been horrible. [laughter] Has always been, if you measure this thing. That is what Diane talked about this morning. If you look at some of these test scores, we have had horrible, horrible test scores for [a] long time: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and, uh, this is the data. You can have an interesting look at this thing. You just track all these international test scores. They have never been good. There was never a “good old day” in American education in the past. Never.

But the question you want [to] ask: Why is America still here? (Question is projected on large screen.) [laughter and applause] This actually is a Canadian question. They are constantly, the want to know all the time, “Why are you guys, why are you still here?” [It] is that they are not only here; according to a list, Obama, we are actually doing pretty good. That’s the State of the Union address; Obama says, “America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world,” which is true. This is fact, more factual than some of Obama’s other facts. [laughter] But this is real. What happened there? How do you explain this? It doesn’t really matter, we look at gaps. The gaps are true, but they don’t really matter. And Eric Hanuskek, who admits Americans [are an] anomaly. He was trying to predict the reason PISA scores is [growth?] and development, he cannot in fact explain America. Anomaly. What happened there?

And then look at, many people admire China. Remember when we talk about China? China has been Number One, you know, ever since China participate[d] in testing. Well, China, by the way, until 2009, China did not really participate in international tests as a nation, not counting Taiwan or Hong Kong. They are politically part of China, at least the Chinese believe they are part of China, but anyway. So, this [is] the first time that they took this thing called the PISA. It scored Number One in all three categories in Shanghai. People try to dispute, “Oh, they lie, they [use] bad sampling.” Maybe all of this [is] true. But even if it is true, what does it mean? [16:00] And China has had a second round, really, that’s 2012, it’s the same thing that’s participate this year. Chinese always can do this well. I’ve been saying this thing: If you measure by test scores, America is always about China surpassing self. China surpassed America before there was an America. [laughter] You know, China’s been doing this tests, we’ve been doing this since, like 600. You know, just doing this a long time, long time ago.

So, when you look at, this kind of, this data, you want to say what matters. And, of course, after the data came out, our beloved, or, not-so-beloved Marc Tucker came out with this great book called, Surpassing Shanghai. Don’t ever buy it. It’s really a horrible book. [laughter] And, uh, they, uh, they, even the title is horrible. I mean, it’s like “surpassing Shanghai.” This is something I’ve always, is really bothered me a lot about, when I just happened [to] arrive here, you say “Shanghai is better,” you mean I should move back? [laughter] It’s a, that’s a personal struggle for me.

Most important, if you look at a lot of the response from the US has been amazing, amusing, and very astonishing, and actually, quite scary. Arne Duncan, reading this data coming out of China, said, “This is a” what? “this is, this is a wake-up call.” By the way, if you look at media, Arne Duncan has had many “wake-up calls.” [laughter] Is he awake? [laughter] No! You get a wake-up call, you don’t have to wake up. That’s the thing, It’s, uh, I love the politicians want to that say, “It’s another wake-up call.” Um. Like early morning, it’s the alarm clock [motioning arm like hitting snooze button] ah, I’m not going to wake up. I’m going to continue to do this thing. But, yet, you know.

And, uh, and President Obama, of course, has said the Sputnik moment has arrived. Some of you [are] old enough. Remember Sputnik moment? [Audience answering.] The Soviet Union, right, yeah, okay? Good. The Soviet Union hovering over. Who were, by the way, making color TVs. It was much better than [their] satellite. But then it was, scared Americans. At that time (the time of Obama’s comment), 2008, 2009, China was really on the rise in the Olympic games, was, so many people were believing China had everything right. Even Thomas Friedman said, “Can we be China for a day?” Really. He wrote in the New York Times. He said, on NBC. He said the same thing. So, everyone was admiring China, and, not only us, many people. In Australia, the Au Gratis [?] did a report. I was actually helping them coordinate a summit with their, in Melbourne, and their producer report[ed], said that Chinese kids are two years ahead in math than Australian kids, which is true. By the way, a lot of data is true. But truth, what does it mean? That’s a different story. So, listen, it’s very scary.

Anyone here from Pennsylvania? [19:00] Remember your former governor, Ed Rendell, okay? Ed Rendell, from Pennsylvania. [In] 2009 or 2010, I think the Eagles had to postpone a game, right? Remember that? Okay. Remember that time, right? And you had to postpone a game. Snowstorm. Football, Eagles, Philadelphia, Rendell. Nothing to do with China. But purely because China’s kids score so well, it has everything to do with China now. So he went on radio, this governor, two-term governor went on radio [and] chastised all Pennsylvanians, and this is what he said. Actually, to not only Pennsylvanians but Americans. He said, “You know, we’ve become a nation of wusses. [laughter] The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? [continued laughter] People would have marched down to the stadium. They would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on their way.” [laughter] This is, uh, the infatuation is amazing. Remember, [simply ?] two test scores, or three test scores. That’s it. Really, this is fabulous.

And not only Pennsylvania. If you moved across [the] Atlantic, go to our mother country, England, they were as stupid as us. [laughter] But, uh, secretary of education Michael Gove visited China and Singapore, and he wrote in the Telegraph, “I’m happy to confess, I’d like for us to have a cultural revolution just like the one [had] in China.” [laughter and moans] He needs a history lesson, but (continuing quote) “Like Chairman Mao, we’ve embarked on a long [march ?] to reform our education system.” So, you guys say to this, “Why? Why?” And how did the Chinese react to this? Nothing. Nothing. The Chinese say, “We hate our system, and we don’t want the PISA,” and so, China never did have a big party to celebrate. [Slide on screen reads, “Why Didn’t China Have a Big Party?”] They did not say, “This is something that’s worth celebrating. No, we don’t…” And the Chinese know very well that their education system is not very good because they look at a different set of indicators. The former Chinese premier at the time, Wen Jiabao, said, “We want our Steve Jobs.”

Steve Jobs is not necessarily, you know, everybody loves him, not necessarily. But the idea is that we need entrepreneurial, creative people. So, China had a big argument, a national debate, almost, and said, nothing. There’s no real debate in China; that’s why “almost a debate.” [laughter] So, people asked the question: Why can’t China have a Steve Jobs?

Theoretically speaking, if smart, intelligent, or extremely exceptional people are born [22:00] randomly distributed in any population, China, with 1.3 billion people, should have four Steve Jobs born. [laughter] Four times the population of the US. What happened to the four Steve Jobs, the baby Steve Jobs? [laughter]

It was squeezed out. [22:22]

Stay tuned for more discourse on China’s “baby Steve Jobs” in Part III. However, know that you do not have to wait for my transcription. You are welcome to view Zhao’s entire keynote via the video linked here.

yong zhao 2


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

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