Reviewed by Sandra Yaegle, Education Librarian
Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, by Yong Zhao, is a thought-provoking book that makes a significant contribution to the debate on what is right and what is wrong with American education.
Dr. Zhao, who was born and raised in China, is a noted professor at Michigan State University. His familiarity with both the American and Chinese educational systems provides him with a unique perspective as he shares his views on why we may not really want to adopt the Chinese system of education. He argues that, “American education is at a crossroads. Two paths lie in front of us: one in which we destroy our strengths in order to catch up with others on test scores and one in which we build on our strengths so we can keep the lead in innovation and creativity.”
The author points out that the American educational system has historically placed an emphasis on the importance of the individual. This has fostered an educational climate that has encouraged creativity and promoted critical thinking. However, the author believes that the pendulum has swung in recent decades, particularly since the early 1960’s, to the point where education reform in the United States is increasingly focused on raising standardized test scores. He states that the Chinese and Indian systems are not better than the American system and in fact are moving away from an emphasis on standardized testing. He notes that China, India and other Asian nations are reforming their systems to be more like the traditional American system.
Dr. Zhao is an advocate for personalized learning. As an illustration, the author asks the reader to picture two groups of ten students. The first group focuses all of its efforts on studying math. In the second group, each member studies something different. It would be expected that the first group would outperform the second group on math tests, but would do poorly in other subjects. The second group reflects a group that is much more diverse in its skill set and more prepared to engage in a global society and marketplace. He believes personalized learning allows for the development of the learner’s intelligence in multiple areas.
The book moves on to focus on the future of American education in respect to preparing its citizens to be globally competent and to have the digital competence to live productively in an increasingly virtual world. Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization is an important comparative study of the American and Chinese education systems. Teachers and education administrators should find thought-provoking the question posted by the book’s title—is American education leading or merely catching up?