Book Review of “Catching Up or Leading the Way”

Zhao, Yong (2009). Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

The premise behind the book was originally supposed to be a focus on the Chinese educational system and what it would take for the Chinese government to make the necessary moves to improve it. Somewhere along the way the author began to think of the US system and what is necessary to reform it. As he dug into the subject, Yong Zhao found that in the US many educators are calling for a system more like that found in Asia (greater standardization), while in Asia, governments are declaring a need to be more like the United States in providing more critical thinking.

Zhao attempts to demonstrate the overreaction of those in the U.S. calling for great sweeping reforms to our educational system by calling for more standardized testing. Instead, he argues for a new model. The summary of the book is….

In the first three chapters the author gives commentary on the United States educational system. He outlines the problems that have plagued our system for the past 60+ years and supports the reformers call for radical change with some pretty daunting statistics. However, the author defines several gaps that exist between different populations in the United States and suggests the reason our system looks like it is in dire straights is because the standardized tests being used are inaccurate and evaluating the wrong types or incomplete data sets.

The author does not try to suggest the educational system in the United States is perfect, however, he clearly demonstrates how special interest groups have seized certain moments (never waste a good crisis) to push their own agenda concerning education reform. Zhao gives several examples of how political motives have driven education reform and also cites the succeeding failures of those reforms, referencing No Child Left Behind as an example of a failed policy.

With a declaration of not being apologist for the Unites States educational system, Zhao does begin to suggest what is right with the system, and while he agrees reform is needed, it is not the type of reform that is being called for by the education reformist. He identifies the individualized focus given to children in the US, the philosophy that children are like popcorn; they will pop when they are ready! This approach allows, in the authors thinking, all students the opportunity to develop in critical thinking and innovation. However, the author cautions that because of a limited ability to test “creativity” students in the US are not growing as completely as they could be.

The author argues in chapter four that because of the continued focus of the Chinese system to reward only those students that do well on standardized tests, that China as a global threat is no where near being a force to be concerned with. Zhao contends that when the Chinese began to require students to pass increasingly more difficult tests in order to be placed into positions of influence, that China at that time began to lag behind the rest of the world in innovative and critical thinking.

In the next several chapters Zhao paints the new perspective of the “globalized world” by referring to it as “flat”, implying that because of technology, a company can have it’s main offices in one place, manufacturing in another, and research and development in a completely different place. He then begins to describe the virtual world and how very few countries are really preparing their students to exist in such a place.

With this warning, the author suggests solutions that he feels will remedy the situation. All schools, regardless of location, culture, or country must be called into a higher accountability in the following areas: facility, curriculum, educators, leadership, innovation, and personalization of education for the pursuit of specific and various talents. He also endorses the Education for Global Citizenship’s direction of bilingualism, biculturalism, and duo-pedagogy. If schools will endorse the 3e approach (explore, experiment, express) and intentionally prepare students for the global world of the virtual age, they will, in the end, be successful. Rather than catching up, they will lead the way!

I found that the premise put forward by the author concerning Chinese education to be accurate and fairly clearly stated. According to one of our hosts, critical thinking is not being taught in the Chinese schools leaving them hard pressed for leaders that can think through various situations that confront them. Students seemed overly stressed and spending inordinate amounts of time preparing for standardized tests. This focus of memorization has depleted the country and its educational system of true constructivist learning.

Zhao contends that the U.S. is also in a difficult spot because we are failing to prepare our students for the globalized world they are about to compete in for their lively hoods. His assertion that schools must rethink how they prepare students is his proposed roadmap for leaders to follow in endeavoring to reshape and evolve global education. Overall, the visit to China seemed to substantiate in my mind the arguments that Zhao puts forward the currently the U.S. is leading the way, but China is on the verge of waking up and changing their system.

The question has been asked, “Has the author proved his thesis?” Based on the things I have read, the interviews I have participated in, and the environments I have observed, I would contend that he has, indeed, met the mark. Zhao points to detractors of the US system in saying that point out the following gaps that exist between Americans and the rest of the world:

  • 38% of all undergraduates in South Korea receive their degrees in natural science or engineering.
  • In France the figure is 47%
  • China has 50% of undergraduates in these fields
  • Singapore 67%.
  • In the US 15% of undergraduates receive degrees in natural science or engineering.

The author argues that while these statistics may suggest a gap, the truth is that there has to be some criteria to better make that judgment. His question is, “Can achievement gaps predict future success and be used as indicators of the quality of education a particular school system provides?” Zhao contends that when you begin to look at the end results, those students in other cultures may have a degree, but they have no place to use it. Further, he contends that the global market requires multiple intelligences, not just the ability to memorize or do well on standardized tests.

This point was driven home in China when a chance encounter with a professor allowed us to understand that in the Chinese system they don’t teach critical thinking. The students confirmed that they are seldom asked to process a problem and challenge the thought that was being offered by the professor. My interview with Maxine Chou also confirmed Zhao’s theory that Chinese education produces students adept at data analysis but not creative or critical solutions.

Zhao also asserts that while reformers in the U.S. are calling for more standardization, our Asian counterparts are realizing that they need a paradigm shift and have begun to impose reforms in their educational systems such as eliminating entrance exams for middle school, developing new methods for evaluating and assessing schools, forbidding local governments from imposing admission rates on schools, and reforming college entrance exams.

In my opinion, Zhoa carefully evaluated both systems and made strong arguments for why both Chinese and American systems of education are flawed, and goes on to suggest was to improve each, declaring that a paradigm shift is needed in both systems before we can truly tackle the future of globalized education. The author references Thomas Friedman’s quote, “Honey, the world is flat!” and to that point I must agree. Realizing that a short 12 hour flight put me in the heart of China, demonstrated that the ability to arrive in almost any market within a day is a sure sign that globalization is here, and we must deal with it. I found the arguments to be clear and backed up with sufficient data, the critique to be even handed, though somewhat pointed at U.S. reformists, and the solutions to the problem thought provoking. Improvements could have been provided by perhaps more interviews with Chinese officials about challenges and solutions they see to their educational system.

Suffice it to say, Zhao, in my opinion, makes a strong case for why we need to rethink education in our schools. I agree with the 3e (explore, experiment, and express) approach to education. This approach is further supported by the Spirit of Prophecy’s contention that our schools should be developing thinkers, not reflectors of men’s thoughts.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book as an overview of education in the US and utilize it to start conversation on what can be done to enhance our classrooms. I would not use this book as a road map only to opinions and reforms. I found the middle part of the book tedious and somewhat boring. The discussion of the virtual world and the details of web based enterprises brought little to the discussion in my opinion. However, the views of the US system, past reform attempts as well as current attempts, and the overall Chinese system were interesting, thought provoking, and pretty accurate.

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About morgness

Education consultant
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2 Responses to Book Review of “Catching Up or Leading the Way”

  1. Linda Small says:

    Having now read the book report and the reflection paper, I’m wondering, what would a small school classroom teaching bilingualism, biculturalism, and duo-pedagogy and using the 3e approach look like? Looks like I have food for some interesting bainstorm sessions. How would we deal with parental expectations/re-education? Having taught at Stroudsburg for 8 or 9 years, I think I have a glimmer of the biculturalism part at an elementary level and we did a lot of exploring,experimenting, and expressing while we were working on learning to cross cultural lines, become not just tolerant but accepting of the differences, learning to evaluate whether accepting a cultural difference would compromise our relationship with God, etc.
    I have no problem with the bilingualism though I haven’t the skills to teach it at this point. I have experienced repeatedly the need for a second language. But the duo-pedagogy- what would that look like at the elementary level? Need to find the book & read it.

  2. Rick Roberts says:

    Dave…I’m impressed to say the least. You’re making me wish I had chosen to be an educator back when I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Hopefully your influence will be felt across state lines or better yet…move back to MD and take on Adventist Education at the General Conference level. Me neighbor is selling his house. I’ll cut your grass and shovel your snow! LOL!!!

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