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Yong Zhao’s NPE Speech, Transcribed–Part III

May 6, 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.

On May 4, 2015, I continued with Part II and the deep question, “Why is America still here?” along with America’s ueber-love for China’s international test scores– which China does not celebrate, and ending with the question about why China has no “baby Steve Jobs.”

And below is Part III, continuing with China and its apparent lack of a Steven 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. So, this is the same thing. So, if you are look at this thing, a lot of people criticize American education for lowering test scores, for spending more but having less scores.

What is it that cultivates something? Why is [the] US still here? Why China can’t have a baby Steve Jobs, or Steve Jobs, as grown up?

So, this is the question I want [you to] think about, and now, you’ve stand long enough. You can come, [let’s] sing a song together. This is good. Okay. If I can make this work. [Adjusts computer to project song and lyrics to “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer.”] Can you sing a song together? [Do] you want [to] stand? Stand up, Come on. Sing a song. [Audience participates in singing part of “Rudolph.”]

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose, And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows. All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.

That’s enough. This is public education. We’ve got to take it very seriously. [laughter] [If] you guys have too much music, [it] might hurt you. [laughter]

Rudolph is Steve Jobs.

Remember Rudolph? Rudolph found out, why did people laugh at him? His nose is different. You notice that? And then Rudolph did not get to play the reindeer games. We are just trying to remediate his literacy. [laughter] We want to hook Rudolph on phonics all the time. [laughter] That’s the idea. Rudolph goes to special ed. [laughter] An education system, because what do we do in our education? Education, we use authoritarian prescriptions of curriculum and testing to identify kids, to select kids. If you happen to be doing what I want you to do, you’re gifted and talented. [25:00] Education has been trying to define children by their deviation from our authoritarian prescription of what we mean by “education.” And that’s our trouble. That’s where we come. [applause]

So. This is what our traditional education paradigm has been. It’s always about forcing people to do what some body of people prescribe them to do. And we happen to reduce that in this country to very few subjects, to only cognitive factors and testing. [Motions to the “Rudolph” lyrics.] And this is a great model of homogenization. The more successful you are at doing this, the more successful you are at getting rid of Steve Jobs. Or Rudolph. This is what we do. And today, we continue to fix this model because the best result of this model is good test scores. You know, a good system is supposed to produce higher average, smaller variation. And we ignore what you are and who you are. We say it’s all effort, it’s all teaching, with, actually, [the] Asian system never recognizes your innate differences, your family conditions. There [are] inherent social injustices in our systems, and we’ve bought the idea, saying, “It’s all effort. You haven’t tried hard enough.” Or, “Your parents don’t care about your education.” We have these excuses.

Everybody cares about education. But the problem is that we define “education” in our own way. So, if you look at this system, that’s why we have the worst test scores, America. This is what [is called] a “sausage-making” model. You get rid of these people (the “Rudolphs”). And, so, why is [it that] America’s test scores [have] never been good compared [to] other countries?

Because America is not a very successful “sausage maker.” It’s, uh, American education is what I call “a broken sausage maker that makes some bacon.” [laughter] That, uh, Rudolph just escaped the system. He escaped the system. Why, how did this happen? [Motions to new slide] You know, this is from the book of [the] race between education and technology from two, actually, economists from Harvard, talking about the traditional virtues of American education, which, by the [way], explains our not-so-excellent test scores but why the country is still here. It, what this is what you can see: This is what I call the “traditional,” the “traditional virtues.” And we are committing a suicide by destroying the traditional virtues. Public education. Public provision. That is, we allow everybody—we even allow Rudolph—to join the reindeer games. It’s a, that’s amazing, right? [28:00]

In other countries, you can’t. Other countries’ selection system: “If you don’t pass my kindergarten readiness test, you don’t get to come to kindergarten.” By the [way, the] reason it really irks me when people talk about “kindergarten readiness assessment.” Oregon, Oregon, we’ve got Oregon here, right? Oregon was… our governor was so proud of kindergarten readiness test. I said, “Last time I checked, kindergarten is not a job yet.” [laughter] You know, kindergarten should always be ready for me, my children. [applause] Right? Our schools… [continued applause] college education institutions are there to create opportunities for the individual, no matter who they are and where they are, and public education does that. Public education has done that. We are, in the US, one of the very, very few systems that allow everybody to play in the system for twelve years. That’s something amazing. We do not select. We do not judge, and that preserves the diversity of talents. Anyone get[s] to do it.

Once we privatize, once we allow people to select, no matter in what name. Not in the name of “cognitive readiness,” in the name of “social-emotional readiness,” it’s not working. Once you begin to select, you exclude people, and you exclude people normally too early. You don’t know who they might become. Look at back, look at your students. Who is going to become the next great person? We have no idea. And that’s why this is beautiful. We have the public provision, we have the public-funded—provision is important—not only “public-funded,” but “provision”—because any privatized entity can have the right to choose to reject.

We are not running a country club. We are running a public education system. [applause]

And that, that is, [continued applause] that is for the prosperity of the nation and the [common good ?] of the individuals. No one has the right to judge another person’s life too early… another thing, two big things right here I want you to focus on: It’s called “local control and decentralized system.” Local decentralization does not necessarily do very well in terms of efficiency but does greatly to preserve the viability. People have said now, American have condemned, America say now, “Teachers have too autonomy. Districts have too much autonomy. What if they do the wrong thing?”

Who is going to judge? Do you trust these Washington to make the right decision [rather] than the local? By the way, I’ve always said a good government is a government you can ignore—it’s over there. [waves hand] They always, well, government, they always make the wrong decision, and, uh, so when we admire the Chinese system for so efficient, actually Jeb Bush wrote this one in an article, said, “You know, were still debating about the Common Core; China, they’ve got millions of children going to school. [31:00] No one debates what’s the standards.” That’s precisely the problem. [laughter] That’s precisely the problem.

So, local control allows professional autonomy over the accounting of education. We define, that’s called “diversity.” And we have an open, forgiving system. Anyone can bring advice, can have a choice. Now, we’re trying to fix all of this. You know, “open, forgiving” is really amazing. It allows you the ability to make mistakes; correct them, change them. You guys still haven’t told your parents everything you did, you know, in school. [laughter] It allows you forgive your youthful transgressions, to explore, to find out what you may or may not be good at, what you may or may not be passionate about. And this [is] what I explain this one.

Now we are destroying, in essence, all of this. All of these things. But. Those things are what will build for the future. So, I am going to take you to the next one to talk about: You know, one of the arguments today is to talk about “global competitiveness.” Our education reform is justified on the basis of global competitiveness, about 21st-century skills, all those things, talking about.

Basically, what’s, what’s the 21st century like? Why aren’t our children out of our basement? Why do we have a “boomerang” generation? You know, in a boomerang generation, you threw them away; they come back [and] never leave. [laughter] That’s the, why do we have that? What is actually happening, and why American education needs [to] build on its strength, [to] move forward, and at the same time, need to change? But the change is not to fix the past. We are “fixing the past.” We are trying to make our curriculum more homogeneous. We’re trying to test our children and narrow the goal to truly buold this gigantic stone statue but when we should have thought about Rudolph again.

Do you remember the next line of Rudolph? Do you remember that?

[audience begins to sing it, an Zhao plays song and projects lyrics on overhead screen]

Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, “Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” Then, how the reindeer loved him, as they shouted out with glee….

Those reindeers are really nasty. [laughter] Then suddenly, Santa likes him, now we all like him, right? That’s like test scores: Now you get an A, good student now, [motions like clapping] you get awards…. [33:43]

More of Zhao’s marvelous speech to come. However, if you do not wish to wait for my continued transcription, feel free to watch Zhao’s entire keynote via the video linked here.

Rudolph won’t mind.



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.


  1. thanks of much for getting this onto our “lap top’ or computer devices. There are so many key points in this speech.

  2. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    For an edgy version with many of the same points, see John Oliver’s treatment of the testing mania with solid facts and a treatment of the realities ( e.g., what to do if the student vomits on the test booklet) that is also memorable. Oliver’s performance begins with You Tube videos of teacher and student-made promos for doing well on tests, cheerleaders, mascots. and the rest.

    This is not meant to take away from the Yong Zhau’s presentation, which I watched in the final cut. It has a special appeal to me because I work in arts education and Steve Jobs famously credited his “non-credit” studies of calligraphy for the success of Apple.

    One of the milestones on the way to success was changing the little green pixels that formed letters into proportionate fonts and styles, a feat accomplished because Jobs had a eye for visual nuance, plus the savvy (and financial backers) enabling him to hire people who could execute on his vision. Jobs was a college drop out. His account of the importance of his study of calligraphy is documented in a graduation speech for Stanford. It is an easy find on the internet.

    There are other example like this, origami folds–beautiful, providing lessons in geometry, easily judged a trivial interest– the basis for surgical stents and for some astonishing work in materials sciences, in addition to the virtues of keeping alive the classical forms of this kind of artistry.

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