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In this podcast, we are joined by Dr. Yong Zhao, the Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education. Dr. Zhao and I talk about building a movement that ends standardized testing in the United States and how to build classrooms that invoke a student's innate desire to learn. Perhaps the grueling, “rigorous” standardized testing system is actually harming students, not helping? Most teachers seem to understand this, and a recent analysis by Harvard University seems to confirm it.
Dr. Zhao has written and spoken extensively on how testing and test scores harm students. And he’s done the research and work to back up everything he states. It’s up to teachers - those in the field - to actually make change in this endeavor. There’s a lot we’re up against! It makes all the difference.
Dr. Yong Zhao, the Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. Zhao was the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at University of Oregon, and a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. Further, he's served as the founding director of the Confucius Institute and US-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast, is available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Mary Walls, Jeremiah Henderson, and Sheila N. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello and welcome to Season 3, Episode 21 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. In this podcast, we are joined by Dr. Yang Zhao, the Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. Zhao was the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon, and a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. Further, he served as the Founding Director of the Confucius Institute and U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence. Not to mention, he's also the author of over 100 articles and 30 books, many focused on turning away from standardized tests and focusing on personalized learning for all children. Zhao and I will talk about building a movement that ends standardized testing in the United States and how to build classrooms that invoke a student's innate desire to learn. You recently wrote this article about PISA scores, and I know that a huge part of your career and speaking has been about the issues of standardized testing and the what works may hurt approach of increasing those scores. That information's out there. We talk about it all the time, and I think a lot of teachers recognize this. How do we then convince institutions, as well as students and parents, to actually change how they assess or change how they look at standardized tests?
Yong Zhao: Well, I think that's the struggle. You and I and there are many other uniting people I've seen through the test scores, even in college admissions, why college admissions use SAT scores, SAT scores ready as a way to discriminate against disadvantaged minority kids. They don't mean money in any sense. Also, there are kind of business scores or PISA scores, any of those things, the willingness. But what I think we need to do is to just tell more of the story. We do see the power of public opinion. I think as teachers, even though you're under the right now, the authoritarian regime of test scores in your district, but it doesn't stop you from sharing the message, sharing the articles, sharing the evidence with parents, with school administrators. It's going to take a while to move the public opinion about it. We used to have a much healthier, sufficient test scores. I think over the last 23 years, we've lost that. But I think the only thing we can do is talk to people, keep talking, keep repeating. And I do see the change in the movement over the last several years. Actually, you look at ESSA, which still has a lot of testing in it, but it's definitely relaxed after more relaxed and no child left behind, I would say. So we do see the change of this. Just keep working, keep talking. Like you do, you know?
CM: For sure. I mean, you see that too with ACT and SAT scores, even though it's a little bit different. I mean, there's a lot of institutions that are no longer accepting that. We're seeing that a lot recently.
YZ: Yeah, make it optional. Like 48% of US four-year colleges don't use it anymore.
CM: And with that kind of being said, do you have any suggestions then for teachers to communicate this message in a way that it would actually matter? Like as in, is there a certain strategy or idea that you would offer teachers to get those ideas out there?
YZ: Yeah. I really think Chris is important too. Even though I don't have the book in my book, What Works May Hurt, I think there are several messages you want conveyed. That's enough clear evidence to show that test scores at any age, at any scale, either SAT, SAT, PISA states do not predict a children's future success. Okay. So that's the first thing. So you struggle all the time and you try this. It does not really guarantee a kid's success. And second thing does not reflect your teacher's ability. That's not an evidence to show that. You know, like I was treating an article out done by a group of economists talking about how this value-added model, people are trying to push that to punish teachers. But actually, this study showed that student heights are related to teachers. And that's impossible. That's an absurdity of this. You can show this evidence. But the third point is that not only test scores don't mean much for college success, for future success, but it's also causing damages. That's why I was exposing in the PISA. And for Chinese kids and Asian kids, they may do very well on test scores, but they are really hurt. But the confidence is low. They do not value the subject. They're not interested in school. And they're psychologically distressed. So what do you want? I think those messages are worth painting. You know, they don't mean much. They cause damages. And therefore, it's not worth pursuing. That's a lot of evidence. I would create charts, create PowerPoints, share the messages to others, you know. And you always have a chance to do it.
CM: Yeah. I think that that matters a lot, too, especially when our students are so anxious and depressed, and just in general are going through a lot right now. That high-stakes pressure of assessment certainly is contributing to at least some of that. I wanted to refer to your work, Counting What Counts, where you and a bunch of others talk about alternative means of measurement. I'm assuming that there's probably always going to be some form of assessment with schools, at least at the national level. And you talk about motivation, for example. Do you see any organizations or tests right now that are being used or spread that do alternative forms of assessment?
YZ: Well, I'm very cautious of recommending any kind of assessment, honestly, because once they become... What if you use one test to hold teachers accountable? You're dehumanizing teachers. You're trivializing education as a technique. So even in that book, Counting What Counts, there are many other things you can measure. You could measure, like, creativity, entrepreneur thinking. Now, we can measure growth mindset, grades, motivation. You can measure all kinds of things. But most of those things should really be based on, I would say, actual authentic work and teacher observation. I'm very suspicious of anything. Actually, I'm right now examining the PISA Creativity Test. I think it's going to be a horrible way to actually kill creativity. So I would really go back to a time to trust good teachers' professional judgment about kids' progress. I hope, actually, some organization is developing tools to help teachers become better judges of the students' progress, become better reporters of that. I know many schools say, oh, taxpayers give money, they give a lot of money. We've got to hold schools accountable. But a lot of times, when you hold teachers as students, you use any questions and measures to hold teachers accountable, you are going to corrupt the process. That's called Campbell's Law. Donald Campbell, as Samuel said. So I'm ready. I think that book and many of my arguments is always trying to say, OK, there are other options, but those options should not replace, become like the new thing. It's like now I'm making a lot of social-emotional learning. I love people doing social-emotional well-being. But the social-emotional learning as promoted now is very problematic. The SEL promoted now. They're putting into state standards hold teachers accountable. That's very problematic. It's as bad as the common core, actually. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, a lot of that seems to be tied to the financial implications. Like, as an education company, I mean, you could make so much money right now by just selling some motivational curriculum to make people feel, quote, unquote, good about themselves. Yeah. So what I mentioned, I always want to look at other possibilities, not to say, oh, do motivation. You know, there's companies trying to sell mind jobs, selling growth finances. I mean, it's silly, actually. I want to return a power to teachers and human beings that run a human business. You don't need all of those kind of things. Yeah, I mean, learning is very complex. So the idea of taking it down to like one point at any time doesn't make any sense to begin with. And one of those things that I always struggle with personally as a teacher, because it can be slightly demotivating or scary, which is it's a group of teachers that tend to not be very well respected in society versus this giant like neoliberal test taking industry with so much power and wealth. And sometimes it can be very demotivating, for lack of a better term, to think about if that's ever actually going to change. What advice would you have for educators who are participating in this work that feel like they're kind of up against the Goliath, they don't really know what to do next? I think we have power. We do change. We do make a difference. Giving up is not an option, especially if we are in this profession, giving up, blaming others. That there's nothing we can do. I think I'm more like, you know, in many ways, it's like even non-inherent ideas. We have a moral purpose to drive, to change. We're the public intellectual. And once it's going to change, we can't expect another great guy come in to deliver new policy and new ideas. We have to work at it. I don't really believe the system itself is going to change. You know, like people talk about social mobility. We always recommend policy changes. Policies don't change themselves. Statisticians change and politicians have to respond to what we do. You know, politically, I don't like what's going on in this country. Washington, D.C. is such a mess. But who I blame, I blame our voters. I blame our educators when I taught our voters good enough to say we got to fight, we got to keep doing this thing. And I don't really have a lot of hope to say things will change just because of me. But I want to tell you because we work towards something, public opinion changes, then that changes the politicians and the public policy. It relates a lot to what we're trying to promote at Human Restoration Project, which is systemic change over just a different type of strategy. There's a lot of professional development and I mean, authors, booksellers, etc., who are trying to just say, if you just teach this way, you'll see like 10 percent better classes or, you know, like your day will be slightly better. But at its core, educators really need to be mobilizing to change entire systems like, for example, equitable education systems with funding or grade-less learning or, you know, things that radicalize how the actual structure of a classroom is seen. I think, you know, you need to resist your group of teachers. I want teachers to resist the mechanization of teaching or trivializing teaching as engineering a simple technical process. It's a human endeavor that engross all the humanity of teachers in the process. It's not teach this way, lesson this way. I don't think we understand. A lot of the PD have said, a lot of the books written for teachers, the trivial teaching has little tiny tricks. It's not a trick, you know, it's a wholehearted with the soul, with the body, with the heart. You actually, you build a relationship with another human being. That's what I think. I want your group teachers to think about this, you know, your restoration of humanity the right thing, resist the technique kind of way of doing things. Yeah, and it's kind of the exact same thing, too, what's going on with students, which is the idea of teaching only for career or as some kind of financial gain or economic gain, which ignores all the complexities of human growth and probably the reason why we're seeing so many different social emotional issues in general when your entire value is tied to, you know, your finances and kind of in the exact same vein. I know that you mentioned that you have a new book coming out surrounding self-directed education. What do you then see as the role of an educator day to day within a self-directed classroom? Like, would it work in the standard 25 people to one room class that we see now? Well, you know, the book is coming out from ASPD, it's called Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners. I co-write this with Michael Wehmeyer, who is a really huge expert scholar in special education, you know, so that's, and there are several other books I've written that include this one, and it's really, first of all, we're talking about students, not student voice, not student ages, students as human beings deserve the right to self-determination as anybody, that's anything that means. As teachers, too, you have the right to self-determination, self-determination of your goal, your outcome, your environment. So how do we help students to develop as human beings? The center of teachers, it's like autonomy, so, and I would say teachers back off from looking at the teaching process as implementing the curriculum standards or transmitting the content, but rather you look at every child to see how they grow, and if children can take responsibility to grow for the learning environment, actually you can reduce that. I'm running experiments of similar methods in China, in Australia, think about in China we got a class of 60 kids, and I've convinced actually U.S. teachers to do it and Australian teachers to do it in China, and they're doing fine, we just, you reorganize, you organize the students in a very different way, but the key is to have students to take ownership, to be responsible for their own learning, they'll work with you, and they just have you have different specialties. And when you go to these schools and you propose these ideas, what do you say to those that offer pushback that say things like the students quote unquote need certain types of knowledge or need that traditional style of learning in order for them to do anything? That sounds kind of gross, but I mean... First of all, I actually, I do different kind of talks, but people always ask, if they ask those questions, I will give them evidence today, or look at this, this is evidence one, evidence two, how it's been done, how it's been done. So I can talk about that, but more importantly when I work with schools, I'm not kind of talking about, I have my invitation on that, not in possession. I always believe I'm going to invite people, the ones who are willing to try to do it, like your organization, your podcast, it's more like invitation. So I do not try to spend too much time trying to find students. So I think a lot of them may want to say examples. I always believe there are teachers who are not happy with what they're doing, who believe what we are talking about intuitively. Everywhere I go, there's somebody who wants to try it, and that's where I work with the ones who are willing to try. But more and more people, you know, the social movement happens is that when a few people like it, they do it as an example, they say alternatives, they're not going to follow. I'm thinking about teachers that might be listening to this that are maybe younger, maybe just started teaching, and they love all these different ideas, but they just really don't know where to start because there isn't necessarily like a set step by step guide on what to do in order to change everything that it is that you were taught in terms of teacher education. There's a lot of examples of how teachers can get started, and there's a lot of teachers started just out of the blue because they're tired of teaching the old way. I mean, I would say the first thing you can say, okay, start with one tiny project. People always say, how about a passion project? You've been teaching eighth grade English. You ask kids, okay, and this one assignment, you can do whatever you like, you know, then that's how that goes. And there's other projects that I'm involved in that I always try to tell, can your kids go out and say, okay, can they find a problem? That's worth solving. And whatever subject you're teaching, use that subject to solve a problem for the community, for others. You know, I'm doing language. For example, I'm working with kids in China who are learning English, and I've got involved Australian teachers to have their students to be writing English materials for Chinese kids, you know, and co-writing recipes, co-writing history books, and bilingually, that's kind of work you can do. Just start with something very small or start with the kids who really don't like your class, the kids who are disengaged, you know. Maybe start with them, ask them what they would like to do and what chance they would like to make. And also the kids who you really feel challenged, you know, put them in charge because put them in charge to make them help you to do something. Kids always like to be valued and like to contribute to something. I would say do not try to do big changes. Start with one little project, a few weeks, start with a couple of students, and you probably see amazing things, you know. Another thing I've done myself in my teaching, if I have to teach, let's say, this class, I would tell my students maybe one third of the content I have decided is good for you. Everybody has to learn. One third of this you can decide on yourself, but have to justify why you want to learn it. Another third maybe have to be negotiated among your colleagues, among your friends, why you have to learn. So just make it relevant, make it authentic, and then really trust the kids can do something. You can gradually relinquish your control to them. Yeah, I think that that brings up a lot of great points surrounding the dangers of labeling students, and when we have grades and standardized tests and report cards and things of that nature, we tend to see students who aren't performing academically very well in that system as the quote unquote bad kids, and as a result, I think that they get less attention or at least frequent negative attention, and that's not going to help anyone in the situation. I mean, I know I've given students that who traditionally don't perform very well in school some like assignments they want to do or a project that they want to do, and all of a sudden they were obviously the leaders in the classroom, which I doubt in the teachers' lounge is how they were described in the past, and that is a serious issue with like assigning a number to someone or assigning a value to someone based on something. Well, let them shine everywhere. I mean, if I were a teacher or school principal, I always say, you know, does every student in your class, in your school, feel that good at something? That's already an important measure for me. You feel that good at something. Yeah, I feel like that should be a normal thing about school. The fact that that wouldn't be a normal thing about school is shocking and worrying that someone wouldn't feel like they're good at something, but sadly that is the case. I have a final question for you, which is what goals do you have personally or what organizations have you seen that you feel would be great for a school to partner with or something that you're working on that could help change how education is currently working and how we're using data and everything of that measure? Honestly, I've seen many organizations, I haven't seen one that I would highly recommend, but I think it sounds like your group might be the one. Okay, I'll take that as an endorsement. I'll put it on our website. I really like to see teachers taking charge because, you know, right now I have a lot of young teachers. I really want them to become social activists, you know, advocate for just and fair education for all children. It's like an environmentalist. Now the youth is a big movement, right? I think the youth, I want the teachers to partner with students to create a new kind of community, a coalition, social movement, training, bringing humanity out of education. You know, education is a science, we know, but education is also value-driven science. There's a lot of value in it, you know, so that's why when I wrote the book, what worked may hurt is to show that it's not only so-called evidence or not only patriotism, it's value. You make a judgment about it, you know, so yeah, I haven't read anything anyone particular, but I guess there's so many organizations, people can work together, but anybody can, social organization can work. Yeah, trust me, you're speaking to my heartstrings. I love that idea of building a new future and kind of making others kind of step out of the way because that's what it's going to take. It has to be a little bit more forceful. It can't be baby steps when it comes to systemic change. It's always going to have to be, you can't tinker around utopia, essentially. You got to just do it. Yeah, like for example, teacher unions, and I mean, teacher unions have different functions, but a lot of them, teacher unions problem needs to be focused a lot more on the moral purpose of teaching the professionalism of it too, you know? Exactly. Yeah, the idea of like actually changing what school is, not necessarily just protecting someone's job. There's a lot more to it than that. Exactly. Yeah. Because if you are indispensable, then you will have, you'll be miserable, right? Yeah. Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope that this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.