Yong Zhao is one of the scholars I admire most. He turns out book after book, each saturated with remarkable scholarship and learning. He is also a superb speaker, who fills his lectures with learning and humor.

He recently posted the introduction to a book he published last year called Reach for Greatness. 

In it, he wrote about America’s obsession with “the achievement gap,” which is based on the belief that someday the bell curve, on which all standardized tests are normed, will close. The test score gaps can be reduced, as history shows. The biggest narrowing of the gap occurred at the high point of racial integration (late 1970s, early 1980s). For the past decade, the black-white gaps on NAEP have been unchanged.

The gap may narrow but it is designed never to close because bell curves  are intended to rank people from best to worst, highest to lowest, most to least.

Here is part of Yong Zhao wrote:


The Achievement Gap Mania in America

For nearly two decades, since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) (“No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,” 2002) in 2002, America has been suffering from “achievement gap mania” (Hess, 2011). Closing the achievement gap has been the commanding, almost exclusive, goal of education in America. All educational efforts, be they in policy, research, or practice, must be justified on the grounds that they can help close the achievement gap. As a result, the nation has devoted all its educational resources to the campaign to narrow the chasm in test scores and graduation rates between students of different backgrounds, particularly in income and race.

The campaign has been a futile one. The gap between the poor and the rich has not narrowed significantly, nor has the chasm between children of color and their White counterparts (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2013; Curran & Kellogg, 2016; Plucker, Hardesty, & Burroughs, 2013)—in fact, it has widened (Ostashevsky, 2016; Reardon, 2011). The drastic policies put forth by NCLB, the billions of dollars, the numerous instructional innovations, and the tireless efforts of educators did not seem to have turned schools into an effective mechanism to alter the trajectory preset by children’s family background before they arrive at school. Today, factors associated with a child’s home remain much more powerful predictors of their future than do schools (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010; Bailey & Dynaski, 2011; Curran & Kellogg, 2016; Duncan & Murnane, 2011; Fryer & Levitt, 2004; Reardon, 2011).

Worse, the campaign has been counterproductive (Hess, 2011). Beyond the squandered resources and opportunities, “achievement gap mania” has significantly changed American education for the worse. It

has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform (Hess, 2011).

It has also turned American education into test preparation, resulting in massive “collateral damages” (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). It has demoralized educators and students (Nichols & Berliner, 2008; Smith & Kovacs, 2011; Wong, Wing, & Martin, 2016), and it has deprived many children, particularly those whom the campaign was supposed to help, of the opportunities for a real education (Carter & Welner, 2013; Tienken & Zhao, 2013). Furthermore, it has reinforced the deficit mindset for minority students and concealed the real cause for educational inequality (Cross, 2007; Jones, 2013; Ladson-Billings, 2007).

Nevertheless, the campaign continues. The well-evidenced failure and damaging consequences of efforts summoned by NCLB to narrow the achievement gaps have apparently not caused American policymakers to change course. Although NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 (“Every Student Succeeds Act,” 2015), closing the achievement gaps remains the commanding goal of education. Despite the mechanical changes, the purpose of the new education law “is to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps” (“Every Student Succeeds Act,” 2015, Section 1001). Barring any significant changes, achievement gap mania will continue to reign over American education for the foreseeable future.

Rudolph and Me

Rudolph had a red nose. It is a deficit because the standard nose color is supposed to be black in reindeer country. So all efforts were applied to fix his nose color. And of course, the poor red-nosed reindeer was not normal and did not meet the standard. The other reindeers with black noses were the good ones and did not want to mix with the bad kid. But all the children around the world should be grateful that no one fixed Rudolph’s red nose because his red nose was the very thing Santa Claus needed for his sleigh on a foggy Christmas Eve.

I am grateful that no one tried to fix my deficits either. I am able to write this book not because I had planned to be a professor in the United States, but because I was not forced to fix my lack of ability and interest in becoming a farmer in China. I was born in a Chinese village and thus destined to become a farmer like everyone else in the village. But from a very early age, I discovered that I was not cut out to be a successful farmer. I was physically smaller and weaker than other boys. I could not drive water buffalos or climb trees or manipulate the hoe nearly as well as other boys. I tried to learn, and my father was a good teacher, but I was unable to master the farming skills. By any standard, I was way below the average of all the boys in terms of farming knowledge and abilities. There was a clear achievement gap in farming capabilities between me and the other boys in the village.

Luckily, my father did not try too hard to close my achievement gap. He gave up on me early. Instead of pushing me to become a better farmer, he sent me to school. In school, I discovered what I could be good at. My ability to handle reading was much better than my ability to deal with a water buffalo. After all, I could be good at something. And I liked that feeling. However, no one, including my father and myself, knew how I could make a living without farming at the time, when China was in the midst of a disastrous political campaign called the Great Cultural Revolution. The campaign dismantled the formal education system and sent the educated elite to remote rural areas to be “reeducated” by farmers. Education was thus not a way to get out of the village for a better life, like it is today. In other words, it was not the remote chance that education would bring a better life that motivated me to go to school. Instead, it was the feeling that I could be good at something, and the desire to avoid doing something I was not good at, that sustained my motivation to walk barefoot to school every day, in burning summers and freezing winters.

I am a big fan of the “growth mindset” (Dweck, 2008). I strongly believe that anyone can learn anything. But I have tried not to apply the idea to everything in life. I have avoided applying a growth mindset in football, for example, although I know if I indeed put 10,000 hours into it, as Malcolm Gladwell (2008) suggests in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, I could become better. But I also know very well that even if I put 100,000 hours into it, I will not be playing for the NFL because my 5’6” height and 150 lb. weight are way below the average height and weight of NFL players. No matter how hard I try, I probably won’t get there.

I have also avoided applying it in other undertakings. I gave up on putting 10,000 hours into painting quickly after I discovered that I could barely draw a straight line and the Chinese characters I produced always looked like the footprints of a chicken. I gave up studying math in high school because I did not enjoy math and I was not good at it. I received 3 points out of 120 in the College Entrance Exam in 1982.

I was able to go to college without studying math because of a policy that forgave my poor math performance. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Chinese education was recovering from the damages of the Cultural Revolution, it allowed students to major in foreign languages without being good at math. Math was not counted toward the total score of the College Entrance Exam for those applying to study foreign languages. To run away from my poor math, I chose to major in English in college. I was lucky because the policy ended in 1982. Math has since become a required core subject in the College Entrance Exam, which means Chinese students can no longer run away from math if they want to go to college.

I have been fortunate to be able to avoid virtually everything that I have no potential for being good at or I am not interested in. More important, I have been fortunate to have had the space to explore my passions and experiment with different undertakings to discover my weaknesses and strengths. Most people are not born knowing what they are interested in and can be good at. They can only find out through experiences.

But experiences have costs and risks. Every experience requires time, and some require money and extra effort. Thus, adults want every activity their children experience to be positive, to lead to some desirable outcome. They don’t want their children to waste their time, energy, or money, or worse, to have experiences that may have a negative impact. Responsible adults naturally have a tendency to prescribe experiences for children. The result is that many children are allowed to have only experiences deemed to be beneficial and safe by adults.

I was fortunate to have broader and more diverse experiences than most children. Although my experiences were severely constrained by the lack of resources and remoteness of my village, I enjoyed more freedom. As soon as I started school, my illiterate parents did not feel they could guide me anymore and thus allowed me to pursue whatever I thought appropriate throughout my life. My teachers in the village school were not well trained to make me follow a prescribed reading curriculum, so I was able to read anything I could find instead of a series of carefully selected graded reading materials. The assortment of used books, magazines, and newspapers my father collected for wrapping noodles in the village noodle factory not only taught me to read but also, more importantly, exposed me to a broad range of topics, way beyond what a very carefully designed curriculum can offer.

Neither my parents nor my teachers attempted to force me to do things they wanted or forbid me from doing things they did not like. I was free of external judgment and never feared it. So I got to have many different experiences, some more beneficial than others, but all were necessary for me to find my passion and strengths. In college, instead of devoting my energy to studying the English textbooks in the classroom, I spent more time reading English books and magazines on psychology, linguistics, and education. Rather than spending time memorizing English literature as required, I took on computer programming. Instead of worrying about my grades, I spent a tremendous amount of time programming a piece of statistics software for a research project. In the end, I developed great proficiency in English by not following the prescribed program.

I have learned to be very open to new experiences. I have always been willing to explore new opportunities. When opportunities present themselves, I jump right in as long as they look interesting, but I am not one who would keep at it at any cost when I realize that it is not something I can be great at or enjoy doing. For example, I tried making fish tanks after college but gave it up when I discovered I have no talent in engineering. I quit being a college teacher to join a translation business, but gave it up despite its success because I did not find it interesting. I returned to be a college teacher afterwards because I found that that was ultimately what interested me.

I was lucky on two fronts. First, I was lucky that my parents and schools did not force me to fix my weaknesses according to whatever their definitions of strengths or weaknesses were. They were very forgiving of my weaknesses and appreciative of my various adventures. Second, I was lucky that the massive societal transformations in China and the world over the past few decades made it possible for me to use my strengths and interests, just as the fog on Christmas Eve made it possible for Rudolph to change his fate. If China had not restored its education system after the Cultural Revolution, it would not have been possible for me to go to college. If China had not opened to the outside world, it would not have been possible for me to migrate to the United States. If I had not come to the United States, my passions and strengths would not have found as much value.

Fortunately, the changes I experienced in China are now widespread for everyone. In other words, the foggy Christmas has arrived for all due to technological changes. But unfortunately, the accidental great educational experiences I had are not widespread. To enable every child to be able to explore, experiment with, and enhance his or her strengths, education must change.