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An Interview with Zoe Weil

The following interview is shared with you by both Zoe Weil and Isaac Graves. To learn about this interview series and reproduction, citation, and copyright information, please click hereTo find out more about Zoe Weil, click here and visit her organization's website here.

Zoe Weil

Zoe WeilIsaac Graves:  What does community mean to you? 

Zoe Weil: Community has several meanings to me. The first revolves around where I live. I’m part of a specific locality in rural Maine where I know and interact with many people because we share this region, depend upon one another in various ways, and come together for both celebration and fun and support and sorrow. I did not experience this sense of local community growing up. I was raised in Manhattan, sharing the equivalent amount of space I now share with barely 1,000 people with several million. Outside of family and friends, relationships with my “community” in New York were primarily transactional. Just a few years after living in my chosen community in Maine, which had ten years earlier created an alternative, Waldorf-inspired school my son attended, the 18-year-old daughter of my son’s Kindergarten teacher was in a terrible car crash, paralyzing her. Our local community raised tens of thousands of dollars for her and came together to make their home suitable for life in a wheelchair. This was a revelation to me. It was possible to not only have a community of friends and family who would come to one’s aid, but also a community based specifically upon locality. But I still hold another, important definition of community that is not based on proximal relationships. I am part of a large and dispersed community of social justice, environmental, animal protection, and educational changemakers and I consider this far-flung community to be core to my life and sense of belonging. Finally, as someone who has never found love of country to be more powerful than love of planet, I feel an overarching sense of community with the intricate and entwined and interdependent web of life on Earth.

IG: How does community play out in your life?

ZW: My son’s elementary school was a key factor in my developing sense of local community. The school exists as much through parent and community volunteerism as through tuition. Ours is a vibrant community of engaged citizens, artists, and neighbors. We have a community steel drum band that plays free street concerts (requesting donations in support of local charities and schools) every Monday night all summer long. We have a couple of thriving and ongoing open mic nights where community members gather regularly to share their talents. We have a Last Night celebration every Dec. 31, which I know is growing more commonplace, but ours is quite a big event for such a small community with two schools, two churches, a fire station, a Town Hall, a Grange, and a Legion Hall packed with people listening to storytellers and musicians, watching theater and magic, and dancing to bands. Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary) plays to a packed Congo Church when he’s in town on New Year’s Eve, and when he does, I think we all feel something rather extraordinary singing Puff the Magic Dragon out loud with a musical icon who happens to be our neighbor. Every year just before Christmas, almost two hundred people gather to sing Handel’s Messiah, brought to us through the leadership of the late Irving Forbes and the Bagaduce Lending Library, which furnishes each participant with the music. And everywhere there are people coming together to help, whether through our many volunteer fire departments, building and repairing homes, helping clear and burn brush, or digging out of the snow. Community means all this and more to me.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about community?

ZW: Everything I mentioned makes life where I live so rich and meaningful and connected, but maybe the most valuable piece is one I haven’t had to rely on to any large degree… yet, and that is this: I know that if I were ever in need, there would be people at my door eager to help. I also so appreciate that our community protects our gorgeous landscape. Between Acadia National Park (cared for in large part by the non-profit Friends of Acadia) and our local Blue Hill Heritage Trust, we have miles and miles of trails through some of the most beautiful land in the Northeast. 

IG:  What's missing in community?

ZW: I would like a thriving alternative high school. We did have a democratic high school for several years that served the needs of many kids for whom the local high school wasn’t a great fit, and we currently have a very small project-based alternative high school, but it’s got fewer than 20 students enrolled. I would love to see our local high school offer a couple of “schools within a school” to meet the needs and desires of students who would prefer a less traditional high school education.

I would also like safer and larger shoulders for bicycling. The downside of our rural community is that we have to drive a lot. I would bike more if it were safer, but living on a road where the speed limit is 50 mph and with no bike lanes in our towns, biking doesn’t feel like a viable transportation option.

IG: What is an ideal community to you?

ZW: Where I live is pretty close to the ideal. When we were looking for a place to raise our son we had four primary criteria: 1) a progressive, artistic, and engaged rural community 2) an alternative school that was aligned with our educational values for our son 3) a good food coop, and 4) a good library. We found all of that and so much more. I think that it’s difficult to create community in mega-cities filled with highrises, but communities can and do thrive in city neighborhoods. 

IG: What does a democratic education mean to you?

ZW: When I think of “Democratic Education” I generally think specifically of Summerhill, Sudbury Valley and other schools that do not have set or compulsory curricula and in which all decision-making is democratic with each student, administrator, and faculty member receiving a vote. But I think that democratic education does not need to be confined to only these specific examples of free schools. I can imagine democracy playing out in other ways that meld different progressive educational approaches.

IG: How does education play out in your life? 

ZW: For almost 25 years, I have been a humane educator – someone who teaches about the interconnected global issues of human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection in an effort to provide students with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a better world. I co-founded the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) in 1996 in order to advance the comprehensive humane education movement and train people to be humane educators. At IHE we believe that we need to embrace a much bigger goal for schooling than our current national iteration (to produce verbally, mathematically, scientifically, and technologically literate graduates who can “compete in the global economy”), and that this goal should be to graduate solutionaries ready and eager to play a role in transforming unhealthy, unjust, and unsustainable systems into ones that are restorative, peaceful and humane through whatever professions they pursue. I believe that education is the key to solving all our interconnected problems, and I have dedicated my life toward creating not only a vision for a new kind of schooling, but also in putting legs on that vision by providing the resources and training for people to bring humane education into their classrooms, communities, and range of educational venues.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about education?

ZW: I’m an avid reader. I read about 100 books a year and I read lots of news and information online as well. I’m also a big fan of TED/TEDx and other talks which are now so readily accessible on the Internet. These talks often lead me to books and articles and websites and changemakers so that I’m constantly learning, constantly invited to make connections. It’s very exciting. The ways in which my learning was so compartmentalized in school, through subjects that didn’t interrelate in any obvious way, have given way to a whole new way of learning now, where information from one source provides links to another and to another and to another so learning is a web of interconnections. I love this!

IG: What is an ideal education to you?

ZW: I like to distinguish ‘education’ from ‘schooling.’ Education happens everywhere and is a lifelong process. We humans are learners, and so we are always being educated. Some pursue learning avidly while others may find their world view solidifying in such a way that they avoid learning anything new, but wherever we are on this spectrum of educational pursuits, we are always learning. Much of the time when we talk about education, we are really talking about a specific kind of education – schooling – in which we are consciously imparting certain information and skills for the next generation. Even homeschoolers and unschoolers and free schoolers are still talking about a specific period of life in which the young are provided with collective wisdom and knowledge to prepare them for healthy, engaged, and prosperous adulthood. So I will answer a slightly different question: “What would ideal schooling be to you?”

I do not think there is an ideal school, although I do think that in today’s world, all schools ought to embrace the goal I previously articulated: to educate a generation of solutionaries who have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to contribution positively to the creation of a more humane and healthy world through whatever professions they pursue. Once such a goal is embraced wholeheartedly, I trust that a variety of approaches and curricula will follow. I am opposed to a one size fits all approach to schooling because I do not think any one approach – no matter how good it might seem – would meet every child’s needs, style of learning, or personal ambitions. Nor do I think there is one set curriculum every child must learn. I do believe there is core knowledge every child must have in order to become a true solutionary, and these include what we refer to as “the basics” plus a couple of others. I think every child needs to learn how to:

  • read and write proficiently
  • compute
  • be technologically literate
  • think critically 
  • think creatively
  • work collaboratively

I believe that there are important factors that come into play in creating “ideal” schools, including the following: 

  • We need creative and useful assessment strategies to ensure that students are receiving the “basics” I described above, strategies that differ from the current NCLB national, standardized, multiple choice tests. 
  • Teaching must become the high status, highly creative, well-paying, sought-after job it should be and that it is in other countries where students are often better educated. 

In addition to embracing a bigger goal for schooling described above, there are some things that I can say would be ideal for all schools, including:

  • An atmosphere of excitement and passion for learning (rather than fear of failure or pursuit of reward)
  • Healthy, ecologically friendly school buildings and humane, healthy, and sustainably produced food (eliminating from every school fast food franchises and junk food vending machines)
  • An atmosphere of respect and a commitment on everyone’s part for personal responsibility for their actions (and zero tolerance for bullying and disrespectful behaviors whether by students, teachers, or administrators)

At the Institute for Humane Education we are working to open a Solutionary School in New York City in 2015 which will put all these ideas into practice for the first time. It’s very exciting! 

Watch Zoe Weil's TEDx Talk, "The World Becomes What You Teach" here:

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VIDEO: Re-Imagining the Experience of Education and Schooling

The MacArthur Foundation backed the Digital and Media Learning Hub (University of California Humanities Research Institute) to re-imagine the experience of education and schooling. In the last 5 years they have spent close to $100 million in research. Connected Learning is the outcome. Nic Askew made this film to articulate its findings and possibilities.

See the rest of the short films in the series at

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An Interview with Bill Ayers

The following interview is shared with you by both Bill Ayers and Isaac Graves. To learn about this interview series and reproduction, citation, and copyright information, please click hereTo find out more about Bill Ayers and his work, click here.

Bill Ayers

billayersIsaac Graves:  What does community mean to you? 

Bill Ayers: Well, I guess “community,” like most compelling and layered terms, has a contested meaning, both in the world and within myself. I think when we say “community” and when we feel ourselves to be within the positive embrace of  a community, we tend to think of community as loving and accepting, representing our perspectives and values, something inclusive and nourishing. But it’s important to recognize that every community is also a wall. And that means that only some are in the community, and many others are not—they dwell outside the community.  When we get carried away with the loveliness of community as we imagine it, we can miss the fact that communities by their nature are exclusive; this is true even when we talk about the universal community or the ecstatic community or the beloved community or  the human community—those constructions also cut out a good deal. So I think we should always be aware when we long for community, and most of us do, when we reach for others who are  needed if we are to thrive as human beings, we should be aware of what we’re cutting out and ask ourselves if it’s appropriate and if it’s exactlywhere we want to live.

IG: How does community play out in your life?

BA: I live life in multiple communities and always have, and I think if we examine our lives more carefully, most of us do.  Again it’s something we’re not always aware of.  In our natural narcissism we may think that where I go my community is with me, but the fact is that we live in overlapping, sometimes excluding, groupings. For me without my family I would find myself bereft and lost—so that’s a very close-in community.  I also have other communities.  I have communities of resistance, I have communities of struggle, I have political communities.  Starting in the middle 1960s I was drawn to and have lived off and on ever since in intentional communities—utopian communities. I was part of the commune movement in the 60’s, and I’m still a member of a community that has land in common in California where we raised our kids and now our grandkids. We share a lot, but we only share a lot for a few months a year. That's a kind of community, but it doesn’t overlap with my political community in Chicago particularly.  That community gives us a place to develop, a place to rest, a place to think, a place to work out ideas.  And I think in the world of political thinking and political struggle sometimes “just us black people” or “just us women” or “just us queers” have to go into a room where we can be a community of a very self-defined specific type. But as soon as we go into that room we begin to recognize that the particular identity that forms that particular community is a fraction of who we are and if we can see that and recognize that we still might tactically need to be with a specific intentional community—but aware that that intentional community is a limitation as well as a liberation.  It’s both.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about community?

BA: Well none of us lives as an island, none of us is all by oneself. And the more we develop that kind of narcissistic sense that’s it’s me alone, entirely self-sufficient and completely self-reliant, the more we lose in terms of the value of community.  Because community is what brings us alive and what allows us to be both more enlightened and more free. I think of Fred Rogers who used to say on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, his children’s  television show, “Think about the people who loved you into being.”  Well, I think communities do that, I think they love us into being.  They can also be an illusion.  They can also delude us.  So one of the things that I guess I want to always be conscious of is the way in which a community not only has this dual aspect that I mentioned earlier, but also the ways in which any single community, any single identity is entangling.  And if you inflame your identity, you know, “I’m queer,” “I’m white,” “I’m a male,” “I’m old,” whatever identity you’re representing – as soon as you inflame that you do damage to yourself. I think that for me the various communities that I’m a part of in various overlapping ways help me to negotiate and earn myidentity.  It’s what allows me to strive to become more human.  So that without my granddaughters on a weekly ba-sis, taking care of them, I would be missing a certain part of what is very central to my life.  On the other hand I am now retired, I’m a grandfather, I do take care of my grandkids, but as soon as I say, “I’m a retired grandfather taking care of my grandkids,” automatically all of these socially-constructed assumptions descend upon me, those labels which are themselves so diminish-ing and limiting.  So what I want to argue for is gaining from each community a piece of your humanity and a part of your personhood, and giving to each community as much as you can because it’s in giving to community that we realize the fullness of ourselves. And then, to return to the central contradiction, let’s  not get stuck in kind of a totalizing community, an inflamed community or a dogmatic community.

IG:  What's missing in community?

BA: I could name some communities that I interacted with in the last few days and every one of them had and has its limitations. And every one also brought as-pects of what I live for.  For example, yesterday I met with a community that’s in the process of creating an intentional space in Chicago where we can be much more productive and get on with the business of movement building. So does that community of place have love and ecstasy and joy and culture?  Not exactly.  But that’s something very important at the same time. The night before my partner for forty years and I hosted a birthday party for a very close friend; we brought food and flowers and homemade cards, and we formed a circle where we talked about our lives together.  And there were maybe thirty or forty people there and we had a fire going.  But that community brought a lot, but it didn’t bring the kind of intellectual stimulation that might be more apparent in another place.  The day before that we had retreat of a political formation that I am a part of and we spent a lot of time on the question of access, not just for folks with disabilities but for folks with different languages and so on.  That community brought a kind of challenge to me.   So I could go on but you get the gist of what I’m saying. Living a life merges and creates intersections between communities and gives meaning to the fullness of your existence.

IG: What is an ideal community to you?

BA: The phrase undermines itself. When we talk about community there is no ideal. Rather there’s a quest, a journey, something that’s much more about process than point-of-arrival.  And as soon as we say something like my ideal community meets every Thursday at 4 o’clock  we’re already going off the deep end; we then begin to codify and create a dogmatic response to the desire for community.  It’s the most human thing in the world to long for community, and I think the ideal community is in that longing. But too often we settle for institutions. It’s the desire for community that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other and keeps us moving down the path more than the idea that you could actually define the shape of it once and for all.  I think that the draw of our workplaces and classrooms,  the draw of our churches and synagogues and mosques – the draw of all these things is that desire for community.  What we end up finding in those places is too often a fraction of what we were longing for and we end up getting a lot that’s not worthy of our deepest dreams for community.  

IG: What does a democratic education mean to you?

BA: A democratic education is an education based firmly in the culture of democ-racy, which is a radical proposition. A fragile but precious ideal powering every authentic democracy is the belief that every human being is of incalculable value.  That ideal too-often runs hard against the institution of schooling in which value is constantly being calculated, the value of this person and that person is constantly being parsed and sorted.  A democratic education begins with the premise that everyone is of incalculable value. We are equal in rights, and we are each an unruly spark of meanin-making energy. And it moves from there to a belief that the fullest development of each of us is the condition for the full development of all of us.  And the reverse is true as well: the fullest development of all of us is the condition for the full development of each of us.  And those things have huge implications for policy for establishing equality and justice in schools and society. If you assume the incalculable value of every human being then you have to think that curriculum is much more about initiative, courage, imagination, entrepreneurship, and much less about obedience and conformity.  It’s much more about opening windows and opening doors and learning from the world, not so much learning about the world—learning from nature not about nature, learning from democracy not about democracy.  Democracy and education are the same; freedom and education are the same. This is beacause education at its best stands on two legs: one leg is enlightenment, and one leg is liberation. They work together: we want to know more, we want to explore more and experiment more and under-stand more because we want to do more.  And it’s those interactions that make democratic education a reality. I resist the notion that education is strictly a K-12 or K-16 affair.  I reject the idea that education is for the young and that therefore a preparation for real life.  I think education is life itself, and education for democracy is the art of living and growing.

IG: How does education play out in your life? 

BA: I have devoted most of my life to education in a formal sense.  I’ve been a teacher or as I prefer to say I’ve been a person who’s been experimenting with and trying to become a teacher.  I always tell my students that “teacher” is a word they can put on their tombstones, but until then we are all simply working away at it. For me a teacher in a democratic society—even an aspirationally democratic worldis of necessity a learner, and the fundamental challenge of teaching is to become a student of your students. And I think of education as something more than formal schooling—it goes on 24/7 inside and outside, in the community and in our daily interactions.  So one of my most astute teachers these days is my three-year-old granddaughter and her six-year-old sister and they teach me all the time and some of it is silly and funny and memorable, and some of it is profound and life altering.  Yesterday my three-year-old granddaughter came into the room with a book behind her back and she said, “Guess what I have.” And I said, “Is it A Birthday for Frances?” and she pulled it out very triumphantly and said, “It’s your favorite.” And what cracked me up because I think of it as her favorite, but she thinks of it as my favorite. And somehow we negotiate this space where we are in cahoots but I think it’s marvelous that her perspective is that she’s doing something for me by bringing me a book that I love that I can read to her…  If you strive for a certain wide-awakeness, you’ll be awakened every day by something.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about education?

BA: I have spent a lot of my life in the last couple of decades fighting for the right of urban kids to have access and equity and increasingly to have recognition of their humanity in the schools, and it’s been a difficult battle characterized by the trumpeting of a narrow concept of education for the masses of the people while the wealthy and the powerful and the people promoting corporate school reform are demanding for their own kids all kinds of other experiences and opportunities.  So it’s a difficult time right now,  but we must remind ourselves that education and school reform and urban education are necessarily contested spaces and any time you feel like “Oh, we’ve lost and we must get in to the bunkers and barricade ourselves,” you’re making a huge mistake. We need to see this as a moment when the goals and values of education are very much contested, and we leave the field at our peril—we should stand up with great confidence and articulate a different frame on the question of education than the one being foisted on us by the powerful in politics and from influential foundations and the media.  I can give you one very simple example which is familiar to all of us in the recent presidential campaign.  Every time John McCain got to a microphone and said, “We need to get the lazy incompetent teachers out of the classroom,” I felt myself nodding dully as did millions of other people.  Who’s going to stand up and say, “No no I want the lazy incompetent teacher for my granddaughter.”  Nobody.  He wins the argument by framing it. If I got to the microphone first and said, “Every kid in a public school deserves an intellectually grounded, morally committed, compassionate, caring and energetic, well-rested and well-paid teacher” I would win the argument.  So part of our problem is how are we framing and re-framing the discussion about education today.  How are we thinking about it?  Then how are we not being bamboozled into accepting a frame that is unacceptable up to and including measuring our success by these silly and backwards test scores.  So my encouragement for myself and the reward to myself is to keep fighting and the reason to keep fighting with confidence is because it is contested space, because we are living in a dynamic history and the more noisy and shrill and over-powering the folks seem who are defining the agenda on education the more we should recognize the weakness of their case. I don’t think they represent the majority in any sense at all, and I think that we should fight for a robust public space in a more vibrant and participatory democracy.  I’m not optimistic because I can’t see the future, but neither am I pessimistic—again  because I can’t see the future.  Rather I want to promote a politics of hopefulness and confidence, and get people out there speaking up and speaking out so that we don’t barricade ourselves in either a defensive posture or a self-righteous posture.

IG: What is missing in education?

BA: I want from education based on the full recognition of the humanity of every-one who walks through the door.  And that means that the questions, the problems, and the contradictions kids bring into the classroom would become the stuff of education.  So every kid from the moment that they’re born is powered forth with questions and confusion and uncertainty.  And education is a place – education is the place – formally and informally where we can search for answers.  So if you think about the teacher.  I was a young teacher during the Freedom Schools that swept the South in the mid and late 60’s and those schools were powered by questions.  The curriculum of the Freedom Schools was a curriculum of questioning.  And the questions were profound.  “Why are you and I in the Freedom movement?”  “What do we hope to accomplish?” “What do we want to maintain that we have?” “What do we want to have that the majority culture has?” On and on and on, a curriculum of questioning. And those were serious, profound, life-changing questions because they allowed people who were beaten down and stepped on and pushed to the bottom to ask the big questions of their lives.  “How did I get here?” “Where am I going?”  “Where do I want to go?” Those are the questions that ought to power all education and I can parse that out in tiny as well as in giant ways, but that’s what’s largely missing.  Kids are denied, people are denied the right to think for ourselves about the circumstances of our lives and how they could be different.  That’s what an education for freedom is all about.

IG: What is an ideal education to you?

BA: Well again I’m going to have to trouble the question because “ideal” is both worth striving for but wildly indistinct—I don’t want to diagram a set of iron clad orthodoxies. I want to think about education as always responding to the reality before us, and always a process and a quest and a journey, always dynamic and growing.  But the contours of that dynamism have everything to do with being able to develop the capacity to ask questions of the universe and that means good teachers and good friends and good lovers are folks who help us formulate and develop and encourage the questions that will make our lives deeper, more meaningful, richer, and more open.


Bill Ayers delivered a talk, "Democratic Education for Social Justice," at the 2003 International Democratic Education Conference in Troy, NY, organized by AERO. Watch this talk below:

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The Real Shanghai Secret

by Ann Qiu

In response to Thomas Friedman’s October 23rd Op-Ed in the New York Times

When I got a link of "The Shanghai Secret" on 27th Oct. and was asked to write what I know about Shanghai as a local born, locally educated, independent educator, I was hesitant. One reason was it was not so easy for me to access the New York Times because of the "G. Wall." (If you visited the Great Wall, you can imagine how powerful the Golden Wall is for blocking the Internet.)

However, when I finally read what Mr. Friedman said to the American people through this very influential newspaper, I couldn’t help feeling upset. As a famous American journalist, how much was he allowed to explore in Shanghai? Being blocked by language, how much was he able to hear and understand of what was really happening around him in his short visit? An American who has interests in China at least should have some basic understanding of Chinese contemporary history.

To me, Mr. Friedman is not such a person. Indeed, he is a real foreigner. The worst thing is misinterpretation when a person just wants a surface answer of the enviable result achieved by Shanghai students in 2009 to support the standardized testing based education model, and persuade American students to "beat" the Chinese in phony competitions.

Please be aware that a lot of young Chinese are studying abroard! This number is rising annually, and the students' ages are increasingly younger. It is common sense to Chinese people that we cannot change the monopolized and red-coloured education system; but now, we can, at least, vote with our feet.  Please ask yourself why the wealthy class of Chinese parents want to spend a large amount of money on "the worse education" in the USA? Are they really fools? They must have their reasons!

The major reasons for pursuing educational opportunities outside of China are rather obvious to us Chinese: less compulsory, less homework, less boring mechanical exercises, less standardized questions and answers, and less threatening requests. Children can be treated as human beings instead of being force-fed homework, rote learning and standardized tests. Children have freedom to learn, even the opportunity to make mistakes. Children are encouraged to think critically and independently. Children can explore their curiosity.

That is what well-to-do Chinese parents are paying for: freedom, openness and humanity!

Through Mr. Friedman’s introduction, I became curious about the Qiangwei Primary School. In order to know a little background of its background, I tried to baidu it (Every Chinese Wangmin knows why we use baidu instead of Google.), and I was shocked because I found the local newspaper was also influenced by Mr. Friedman’s introduction and praised this school just three days after the news released. The school suddenly became world famous. I suppose this key school in the Minghang District will have a longer waiting list next year, and the property around it will continuously go up in cost despite those property known as Xuequ Fang [Note: Xuequ Fang is generated by a policy that urges students to enter the nearest school. Every applicant must bring Hukou or the rental contract to prove that the child is living in the property located the school admissible area.often implies ridiculously higher price, which indicates such a successful school actually is rare in Shanghai. Friedman also mentions the schools that attended the PISA exams in 2009. The truth is that the majority of Chinese parents and teachers who are able to think critically and independently, laughed at such a hollow achievement because Chinese students are trained to do on-paper exams almost from kindergarten. And ironically, the Chinese government wants to change the current one-size-fits-all system because of the lack of creative and innovative young adults who are needed for energizing the economic growth machine.

However, even if those students from a very small portion of "key" schools have achieved all the acknowledged standards of high-performing set by an organization that regards children as a "baby workforce," it will not change the real hidden secret: the tremendous health and sociological costs!

The truth is that Chinese teachers, students, and even parents are seriously suffering from the current highly standardized compulsory and no-choice education. While Mr. Friedman was applauding a deep involvement of parents in their children's learning, Chinese parents, in fact, feel kidnapped by it. Their own basic daily life is lost. Every afternoon, after school time, before dinner time, on a mother or father's mobile phone, a homework list is sent by the teachers who often are in charge of three major subjects: Chinese, math and English.  At the same time, children at the first grade start writing down the list of homework in a special diary that is a checklist for parents to sign off on. Through these tools, teachers pass their duties to parents because it then becomes the parents' job to ensure that their children complete the homework. Without the parent's signature, or just by making a few mistakes in a notebook or on an exercise sheet, the child will be in serious trouble the following day. An "irresponsible" parent is often asked to the teacher's office, and blamed in front of their children. It is not uncommon to hear about a mother being shouted at in front of a classroom, then breaking down and crying because she is busily working day and night to provide the basic needs of her family. Moreover, teachers are allowed to use the most powerful psychologically hurtful weapon: that is to ostracize a "rebellious" (really just someone who doesn’t fit the mould) student, thus forcing parents to see their children receive the ultimate kind of painful suffering until they agree to toe the line.

When Mr Friedman applauds "a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development," I am not sure if he ever questioned the real motivation of these teachers. But, he certainly does not know the change of role of a teacher in contemporary China when he appreciates our "culture that […] respects teachers." Chinese intellectuals used to be an independent social class that only pursued the facts and the truth in a monarchical institution with a long history. Teachers, being respected, used to teach with their own understandings of the world.

They worked for maintaining the independence of intellectuals. Unfortunately, today, Chinese teachers have already lost these rights and their own voices. Yuan Teng Fei, a high school teacher, was imprisoned because he taught his students his own critical understanding about Chinese history. A Chinese language teacher who works in a primary school expressed self-guilt privately in front of me since she was unable to carry out her assignment without using psychological force. A math teacher, also a vice principal of a primary school in the Yangpu District, admitted she should, but was unable to, slow down her teaching schedule to fit the real needs of her class of students that she had just taken over from her colleague because the competition between teachers in math group would result in the loss of her bonus and other rewards. A teaching schedule must strictly follow the regional curriculum and instructional procedure and arrangement. Now, teacher’s payment is strictly related to their students' scores only assessed by the paper-based examinations and tests, which force teachers to catch up to the teaching schedule instead of pay attention to a student’s learning pace; which also generate a certain amount of tension between teacher and those lower performance students and their parents. Indeed, teachers have become agents to deliver the will and philosophy of the Party to students and their families, and ultimately to the entire society.

It is not a happy job. But, even so, to be teacher is still attractive to many college graduates while millions of new graduates are jobless, while teacher’s pension can be paid at the salary level, just like a civil servant thereby reinstituting another powerful, privileged class in our dictatorial social system. It is a really stable job if teacher keeps up the routine and makes sure that children do not to take any risks in school. "It is just an ordinary job for survival, same as a cashier in supermarket!  I just deliver the body of textbooks, I don’t teach children any other matter." The spirit of being a teacher as an independent intellectual is so weak that the moral issues consequentially become the major social problem in the current China.

While Mr. Friedman applauds "China's 30 years of investment in [..]education," I am really doubting whether he ever took a close look at these “investment,” what has been invested, and how much real contribution to children’s needs and growth that cannot be measured in our official statistical reports. E-learning and IT supported learning were new and potential large businesses around 2000, but only a few companies have made money from the market. That "you need Guan Xi to get the government's money" was common sense to businessmen in this field. I have a friend who runs a big company that sells whiteboards to schools. His major job is to corrupt decision makers at every level to ensure orders and payments. It is all tied into the GDP and the growth of the large companies. All this technology but no real change in teaching.

This is also why so many well-decorated and fully-equipped buildings have appeared in recent years in schools and universities in Shanghai and China. If Mr. Friedman and those educators had some basic idea of what real teaching and learning are about, why would they tout just the way the system looks from the outside? Are they not aware that investment in buildings and teaching tools does not lead directly to the improvement of student’s learning?

The communication obstacle is unshakable, particularly when people just want evidence to support their policies regardless of what the whole picture is. In China, we say: "a tree leaf close to eye makes you blind." We Chinese are too familiar with standardized testing-focused education, the reasons for it and the dangerous results of its tyranny on students.

Shanghai has no secrets, nor does China. Whoever is able to read the Chinese language and access the Chinese Extranet, can clearly find out about all of the fallout of the high stakes, one-size-fits-all system and the human wreckage of standardization. Whoever can personally talk with Chinese principals, teachers, students and parents in Shanghai streets about education, can find the hidden secret of Shanghai.

Please add following facts to understand the Shanghai secret:

  1. In 2013, less than 30% college graduates can get a job in Shanghai while the local GDP grew 7.5% in 2012, less then 40% in China while the GDP grew 7.8%, which proves the indicator of college-level human resources to the economical growth could be a lie.
  2. The suicide rate among young students in China is the highest in the world and it is continuously rising. In Shanghai, 24.39% of students in primary and secondary schools admit they have had an intention to commit suicide, 15.23% considered the suicide methods, 5.85% seriously planned suicide, 1.71% committed suicide. (reported in 2011 by the 39 Network, one of the biggest health network in China)
  3. The physical health of children and teenagers is continuously worse in the past 30 years. The rate of near-sighted students in China is also the highest in the world. Mr. Yang Rengui, the deputy chief inspector of the Ministry of Education of China, admitted in 2006 the anxious pursuit of performance and the lack of physical exercise time are the major contributors.

If a "successful" education system is based on shaping students as conformists and passive learners without any confidence in their own creativity, imagination or human potential, then the Chinese school system is, indeed, remarkably efficient. However, if the Americans want to emulate our model as a way of competing in the global marketplace, please beware. We Chinese know the real secret of our system that has been kept over 50 years, and it’s absolutely not a pretty picture.