Professor Yong Zhao is one of the most respected experts in the world on the dangers of standardized testing. I reviewed his latest book in the New York Review of Books. I urge you to read the book, as it explodes the myth that Chinese schools have mastered some secret methods of producing high test scores. Zhao shows in fascinating detail how those scores are produced, how they hurt students, and how they undermine creativity and individualism.


I recently received an email with a post by Emily Talmage of Save Maine Schools. She  warned about the big profits embedded in the revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. These days, we have become accustomed to the entrepreneurs and lobbyists who put their fingers into public education funds, stealing money from classrooms. The author was rightly skeptical of the corporate sales pitch for “personalization,” which all too often means that computers will replace teachers and students will advance at their own pace through scripted lessons. We have all heard tech companies selling product with the phony promise of personalization, customization, and individualization, when it’s all about selling software with a scripted curriculum and making money, not about meeting the needs of students.


But as I read on, I saw that the author accused Yong Zhao of being deeply complicit in the “personalization” claims and furthermore of being a profit-seeker. I was very dubious that this was true. I have read all of Zhao’s books and have found him to be a deeply humanistic scholar who is technologically adept. I found it hard to believe that he was promoting companies in which he was an investor.


So I sent the post to Yong Zhao, who is one of best informed critics of standardized testing.


He responded with the following comment:


Dear Ms. Talmage,

I read your post about the ESEA reauthorization with great interest. Thank you for pointing out the potential financial motives behind education policies and defending the interests of all children against potential damages.

However, your characterization of my views and myself in the post is inaccurate.

First, my view of personalized learning is not the one you criticize in the post. There are different interpretations of personalized learning. The version of personalized learning I support in the Department of Education’s Ed Tech plan is not the Skinnerian approach you point out: “students progress at their own pace, moving from one lesson to the next when they have proven “mastery.””

I myself have criticized such views and a blind faith in big-data driven Skinnerian approach toward education. For example, last year at the COSN conference, I questioned the value and promises of personalized digital learning driven by big data in a debate with Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and now president of The Alliance for Excellent Education (, a DC-based non-profit organization that seems to an advocate of the type of technology in education you criticize (see its policy recommendations here: Some of the points made during the debate are summarized here:

I have also written about my views of education and personalized learning in various places; none would come close to the one you criticize. If you are interested, I just posted an excerpt of a chapter I wrote in a new book concerning personalized learning (the post is here: You can also find my views of personalized learning and student autonomy in my 2012 book World Class Learners. The essence of my view of personalized learning is to enable each and every child to pursue education opportunities that enhance their strengths and support their passion. I don’t believe in the idea of a one-size-fits all curriculum and approach.

Second, I am not the head an online learning company. Oba is not an online learning company. It is not even a company. It is the name of an online collaborative learning platform. It is designed to support learning communities organized by students and teachers. It does not deliver curriculum or instruction to students. Teachers and students use it to create lessons and collaborate with each other. It is an initiative within the University of Oregon. One version of it is completely free and the other version charges a very minimal fee of one dollar per student per year, which is much less than most commercial learning systems schools pay for. More important, I have no financial interest in Oba.

Third, my praise for China’s moving away from standardized testing is not to promote the version of personalized learning you criticize. It is to show how harmful standardized testing is and that a country that has long practiced the approach is moving away from it.

Fourth, my “touting” of ePals is specific about its work and intention to provide online learning communities across different countries to promote student-student understanding and mutual learning, not about it as an “online learning company.” The comment was made several years ago when it was about launch an effort for Chinese-English language learning. I do not know what the company does now. I never had any financial relationship with ePals.

Again, thank you for standing up for children. I hope this message helps clarify my stance on personalized learning.