Reform Fattens Cram School Coffers
After a decade of education reforms, Taiwan's private afterschool schools have grown in number to 17,400, comprising an underground education empire.
Reform Fattens Cram School CoffersBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 395 )
The greatest irony of Taiwanese education reform is that its only benefactors have been cram schools – private tutorial firms known locally as buxiban that provide extra studies on top of students' official classroom regimen.
Over the past two years, community cram schools for elementary and junior high school students have even sprung up in Nantou County's Puli Township and a number of remote towns in Yunlin County.
Famed cram school English teacher Ruby Hsu, who not long ago set up an alliance with several cram schools outside of Taipei, in both urban and rural areas, found that she gets a better reception in the countryside. Hsu understands the niche market created by the chaos of education reform, and promises to give her students "the same level of tuition received by Taipei's top magnet schools."
In a decade of education reform, the number of cram schools has grown over 400 percent in Taiwan, from 4,300 to 17,400.
What has fueled the rise of these informal institutions as indispensable second schools for students?
Parents want every advantage for their children, but the kaleidoscope of education reform policies implemented over the past ten years is the main impetus for their prosperity.
Cram schools play a different role than schools, focusing on helping students pass examinations and get into better schools.
Fighting for a Piece of the Pie
Taiwan has implemented a comprehensive curriculum from first to ninth grades, but it fails to teach certain things students are expected to know in high school. Furthermore, the deregulation of textbook policy has allowed public schools to choose one of several different textbooks for each subject. The result has been uncertainty about exam content, paving the way for high profits at cram schools.
Upon the implementation of the comprehensive nine-year curriculum, teachers struggled to keep up as the amount of time spent on each subject decreased. Cram schools were then able to build on and exceed these foundations. "Completing ninth-grade courses in eighth grade, and starting course review in ninth" became a common slogan.
The many gaps in syllabus design between elementary and high school creates yet another niche for cram schools.
For instance, while students are required to learn just 200 English vocabulary words by the end of grade school, the number hops to 1,000 in junior high, then leaps to 7,000 in high school. A staple of ninth-grade mathematics in the past, trigonometry is no longer taught to junior high students, who need to know it for advanced mathematics courses in high school.
Sheng Shih-kang, a director at Kao Kuo-hua, the island's largest cram school for junior high school students, tells us that their programs fill in the gaps between what students learn in the official nine-year curriculum and what they are expected to know in high school.
The deregulation of textbook use in 2005 created many of these gaps.
The problem originates in elementary school, where schools select different textbooks for the same topic. Yancen Lin, a graduate student at the National Taitung University Graduate Institute of Education who works as a substitute English teacher for three elementary schools in Taitung County, tells us that there is great discrepancy in the levels of tuition in the three different textbooks used.
Should the local elementary and junior high schools use different lines of textbooks, elementary students are then confronted with textual inconsistencies upon entering junior high school, leaving them no choice but to attend an afterschool cram school to amend the problem. These programs often teach up to six different versions of Chinese and English language textbooks.
There is now no single official textbook published by the Ministry of Education to which junior high students can refer when preparing for exams, and the Ministry of Education stresses that it only tests proficiency indicators for areas within the overall curriculum framework, not textbook-specific content. Nevertheless, new problems have arisen.
Chinese literature exam topics, for example, are derived more from external texts not taught in school. Last year, classical Chinese, modern Chinese, and miscellaneous texts comprised 30 percent of the exam. According to analysis by one cram school, not one text incorporated in any textbook since 2005 has been used in the exam.
This takes a great toll on Chinese literature and social studies teachers. "Not a single text you teach will come up in the exam, so the students refuse to memorize anything. There's just too great a range of possible topics," says one.
But cram schools will employ dozens of editors for their Chinese language & literature classes alone, scouring traditional texts, as well as newspapers and periodicals, to compile student study guides. Their efficacy is difficult to gauge, but at least they serve to ease parents' minds.
Taking advantage of parental fears, cram schools reap handsome rewards.
Futile Rescue Effort
Many cram schools have recently introduced summer and winter vacation boot camps, in which students are given military-style instruction daily, from 7:30 to 22:00, for the duration of their school vacation. Over the course of a 15-hour day, students are not allowed to talk, nap, or twirl their pens; lunch boxes are ordered and eaten en masse, even bathroom breaks are taken together.
But all work and no play make a very dull boy.
One cram school teacher tells us that as learning habits are usually fixed by the eighth grade, cram schools are only a "futile rescue effort" that can merely ease parents' minds.
The great discrepancies between the quality of cram schools, as well as their occasionally extreme tactics, have become a legitimate worry. As witnesses to their efforts and prosperity, are government authorities recognizing the need to overhaul the education system?
A vice chairman of the Formosa Chemicals and Fibre Corporation recently participated in a parent-teacher meeting at a cram school. His thoughts on the meeting? "Cram schools put great effort and thought into communicating with parents, and in teaching parents to help their children through the high school entrance examination process, much more so than public schools."
Ruby Hsu, for example, keeps her cell phone on 24-hours a day to answer parental inquiries.
Sheng Shih-kang, who joined the cram school market after returning from studying abroad, believes that cram schools need to put extra effort into their work to meet student needs. Without clear results, you lose students.
Teachers in cram schools are subject to tests, interviews, and student surveys. Their paychecks reflect evaluation criteria including admissions results and student retention and re-registration rates. They call each student three times a semester to maintain a good grasp of their individual progress.
The government must then also answer this: Why must junior high students who spend eight hours a day, five days a week at school also spend large amounts of money supplementing their education?
My Savings for My Son's Future
With NT$68,000 in her hands, Mrs. Jiang, a mother and cleaning worker in the Taipei Rapid Transit System, waited in line for ten hours through the night to enroll her son into a cram school. She says she wants her son to at least test into a public high school. Already attending an extra supplementary class at the end of the school day, he also takes the bus from the suburb of Yonghe into the city daily for an afterschool cram class. Mrs. Jiang's hard-earned savings of NT$68,000 have turned into nothing more than a thin receipt and a seating slip.
The average Taiwanese citizen believes that if they do not pay for cram school, their child will fall behind. Is this not the greatest irony of reform and the existing education system?
Translated from the Chinese by Ellen Wieman
Chinese Version: 10年教改，肥了補習班