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Yong Zhao Explains America's 'Faustian Bargain'

02/19/2015 09:36 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

In one sense, I can understand why some Americans have flirted with the "Faustian bargain" that is high-stakes testing. As Yong Zhao explains in Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon, the authoritarianism of a single, test-driven ladder to economic success has an enduring power. But I don't understand reformers who whistle past the graveyard, gambling that they can grab the benefits of a single, controlled path to improving education outputs without losing our creativity, individuality, diversity, and innovative talents.

Reformers apparently believe that our democracy is too weak to compete with Chinese authoritarianism in the global marketplace. But they pretend that we are too invulnerable to succumb to the inherent dangers of data-driven institutions of social control.

It's been a long time, but let's remember Sputnik. Many fearful adults insisted that my generation was too soft and could not compete with the Soviets. Even in elementary school we were often urged to put down our childish books, knuckle down, and become nascent engineers. That dread, it later became clear, was a legacy of adults who had survived the Great Depression and World War II.

But we children were also bolstered by the dynamism, courage, and democracy that overcame those ordeals. Plenty of other adults nurtured us, urged us to "be ourselves," and challenged us to "learn how to learn." Despite memories of extreme poverty and the war against totalitarianism -- or because of those memories -- my generation often prospered in schools that fostered "creative insubordination."

Reading Zhao's account of the "rising tide of authoritarianism" created by high-stakes testing, I once again pondered the seemingly inexplicable. Why is it not obvious to reformers that "the damage done by authoritarianism is far greater than the instructional time taken away by testing, the narrowed educational experiences for students, and the demoralization of teachers"? Why are they even tempted to emulate "a survival strategy the Chinese people developed to cope with thousands of years of authoritarian rule"?

Sadly, I believe that the worst of school "reform" is rooted in more than the fear that America can't prosper in the 21st-century global marketplace. Reform also grew out of a sincere but second-rate effort to help poor children of color. My generation saw education as a civil rights campaign designed to give all children the same rights and opportunity that was bestowed on the most fortunate Americans. Starting with the bifurcation of the United States accelerated by Reaganism and supply-side economics, too many Americans lost faith that equity could be achieved by democratic means. School reform began as a quest for a corporate governance that would ensure improved "outcomes" for disadvantaged children.

If these true believing reformers question Zhao's characterization of test-driven accountability as "authoritarian," perhaps they should check their assumptions. They assume that an aligned and coordinated battery of tests can be assembled, and that they can accurately identify the one "right" answer to all questions. They hope to teach all children to give the right answers on these all-important tests, but they supposedly hope to do so without teaching them that each of life's questions has one "right" answer.

Reformers seek educators who will all be "on the same page" in teaching to the same tests and not doubting or dissenting from the single-minded mission, supposedly without driving the clash of ideas from the teaching profession. They believe the toxic stress of poverty can be overcome by the stress of competition-driven schooling. Ignoring history, they assume that adults can accept taking all of the stress and punishment of high-stakes testing on their own shoulders, and that none of the venom of "disincentives" will flow down on children.