By Ray Rossomando, CEA Research and Policy Development Specialist
Teachers around the state are kicking off the school year hearing a variety of messages from a variety of convocation speakers. Madison teachers heard from internationally renowned education scholar Dr. Yong Zhao who presented an inspiring convocation address, saying that what students will need to be successful in the future cannot be measured by a test score.
With humor and insight, Zhao talked about the transformation we are experiencing in the information age and noted how job demands shift as new technologies evolve. Imagining the example of Google’s driverless car becoming common place, Zhao envisioned no taxi drivers, no truck drivers, fewer state troopers, no stop lights to manufacture, and no accidents, “except when the Google car runs into the Microsoft car,” he joked.
Zhao’s message was clear. American policymakers are focusing too much on trying to produce graduates with identical, narrowly focused skills. Education policies since No Child Left Behind was enacted have narrowed the curriculum at the expense of developing students’ true capabilities.
Zhao commended Madison’s collaborative and innovative approach to developing the whole child, especially elementary and preschool students. Recognizing Madison’s preschool program that encourages play, Zhao received resounding applause when he noted that “school readiness should not mean that a child is ready for school, it should mean that the school is ready for the child.”
Madison’s back-to-school convocation was an inspiring event filled with stories of many moving successes that will never appear on a teacher’s evaluation, a report card, or a statewide testing report. Madison Superintendent Tom Scarice said that the focus on statewide SBAC test scores is unfortunate. Scarice noted the absurdity of the message at the bottom of the SBAC report that will say to an 8-year-old, “You’re not on track for college and career readiness.”
Madison social studies teacher and curriculum leader Paul Coppola was moved by Zhao’s message. “I really enjoyed how Zhao embraces the diversity of the learner, but emphasizes that schools and departments of education should not ‘sausage grind’ students into ‘readiness’ benchmarks. It is about cultivating students’ talents through opportunities that enable them to shine.”
Madison Spanish teacher Minette Junkins said that Zhao’s message really resonated for her and her colleagues. “Everyone enjoyed his presentation and loved his sense of humor. I loved his message of teaching to individual students, personalizing their education and nurturing their passions and interests.”
Zhao humorously recounted his first days living in the United States. In Chinese grocery stores, Zhao pointed out, there were few choices—one shampoo, one brand of soap. Commenting on a picture of a shampoo aisle in an American grocery store stocked with many different products, Zhao remembered, “When I went to a grocery store in America to buy shampoo, I didn’t know what kind of hair I had—oily, dry…” Zhao observed that “choice defines this country,” and that the skill set necessary to provide choices is very dynamic, and very different from the skills schools are being asked to develop today.
As Coppola recounted, Zhao’s message to teachers and educators was clear. “Choice is what our classrooms should strive to allow. We must speak to the strengths of the individual student and not narrowly prescribe what they must learn.”
Junkins said, “I am so happy to be working in this district because we are doing the right thing.”