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School System Reform

Return to the Essence of Education


Return to the Essence of Education


The pain inflicted by Taiwan's new high school entrance system is rooted in its failure to eliminate the hierarchy in which parents and students place schools. What is the path forward for Taiwanese education reform?

Return to the Essence of Education

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 551 )

The three-story red building gives off a simple, old-fashioned flavor.

Just beyond the gate of Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, a wooden sign board with an arrow pointing left reads: Academic Ability Test Registration. About three meters from the entrance, two young ladies hold forth over an otherwise unremarkable booth, calling out to passers-by, "Academic Ability Test questions, three for NT$700."

The morning nearly over, few of the thin exam question booklets randomly placed on a wooden holder remain now, as they have sold the bulk of the nearly 1000 mock examination question packages. The scene is all too familiar to any Taiwanese from the generation that grew up taking exams, from the Basic Competence Test (for high school) through the Joint University Entrance Examination.

Taiwan's National Twelve-year Basic Education System has gotten off to a shaky start, beginning with the broad controversy stirred up by the first wave of school entrance selections. It is widely held that while changes in the entrance system have been instituted, substantive changes have been neglected in education as a whole. Even more people wonder what kind of talents Taiwan will cultivate in the future? What direction should Taiwan take in education, that "endeavor vital for the centuries to come"?

Solution 1: School Parity, General Enhancement

Whether or not each and every high school and vocational school can reach a level of parity will ultimately determine the success or failure of Taiwan's new 12-year Basic Education System.

"What has caused everyone so much grief this time around is the failure to improve the quality of all the schools equally," says Dr. Hong Hocheng, National Tsing Hua University president and a long-term educational reform activist. In both parents' and students' minds, a hierarchy among the schools still exists, and entrance indicators will never affect the demand to get into a high-ranked school.

The Ministry of Education initiated a high school and vocational school quality enhancement program in 2007, investing NT$6.6 billion since that time, and claiming that nearly 90 percent of all schools have received funding to help develop unique curricula and thereby bridge the gaps between schools.

However, even the National Alliance of Parents' Groups, the strongest advocate of examination-free school admissions, finds progress glacial. Alliance president, Wu Fu-bin, wonders if standards could have been set better, and if evaluation is fair and equitable.

It is difficult to see serious concern for high school and vocational education based on the distribution of educational funding in Taiwan.

Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, considered the standard bearer of high school education in Taiwan, has a miniscule annual budget of NT$1.08 million for teaching equipment and laboratory supplies. Chairs in the school's laboratory bear serial numbers indicating that they were purchased with United States aid to Taiwan (note: official US aid to Taiwan ended in 1965). With an awkward chuckle, Jianguo principal Chen Wei-hong relates, "Students have to wait for university to do any sort of advanced laboratory experiments."

Looking over Taiwan's education budget, the state invests around NT$113,000 per annum on each high school or vocational school student, not only substantially less than the average NT$200,000 for university students and NT$150,000 for elementary and middle school students, but just 40 percent of the reported average for secondary school students in OECD countries.

For substantive change to be manifested in Taiwan's new 12-year Basic Education System, investment must be made in enhancing the quality of schools equally.

Hong Hocheng holds that the government is merely pouring funds into its "free tuition policy" (tuition-free education at private high schools and vocational schools), and going around offering endless aid. This amounts to just spending away its cash, and despite very poor marginal benefits, it cannot be stopped. Only by enhancing the quality of high schools and vocational schools can the marginal benefits be improved. "Otherwise, it will just demonstrate political meddling in education once again," he states frankly.

Solution 2: Striking Balance among Clashing Values

The turbulence raised by the admissions system requires striking balance amidst different clashing values. Sustaining the new 12-year Basic Education System requires finding viable solutions that weigh both ideals and reality amidst conflicting values within society to forge the possibility of even more fundamental reform.

National Taiwan University sociology professor Kuo-Ming Lin has undertaken a comparative analysis of the scores on this year's Comprehensive Assessment Program for Junior High School Students, compared to last year's Basic Competence Test. He found that 6000 students in the Greater Taipei-Keelung area achieved five A's, for a Percentile Rank of over 92 percent. Six thousand is equivalent to the quota of students allowed into the top six schools under the previous system, and "the difference between those in the 92nd and 99th percentile is marginal," he offers.

If the new system goes from ranking schools on an individual basis to ranking them in groups, it can naturally blur the order in parents' and students' minds, implying the possibility of completely eliminating examinations.

"Ultimately, we'll return to the new system's original intent of diverse entry criteria and evaluation, where student selection is not based solely on grades but takes assorted aspects into consideration," he adds.

A total assessment of the shortcomings of the recent Comprehensive Assessment Program for Junior High School Students (entrance exam under the new system) is also necessary as the basis for improvements next year.

Solution 3: Career Guidance, School Promotion

More than mere lip service must be paid to helping middle-school students explore career possibilities and develop according to their individual strengths. Students at Yangming Middle School in Zhanghua, with 25 classes in each grade level, only visit one vocational school during their three years there.

Believing that students' needs are still not satisfied, Yang Ying-hsia, a senior-class lead teacher at Yangming, rallied other teachers and invited top professionals on campus – from auto mechanics to balloon experts – to help students understand the general environment out in the job market.

An increasing number of mid- to low-ranked high schools are taking the initiative and undertaking on-campus promotions. Yucheng Senior High School, located in Taipei's Nankang District, undertook a strategic analysis based on student origins and their travel routes, collaborating with junior high schools along the way to introduce unique curriculum offerings to them on campus, while also attending high school and vocational school fairs.

Further, they leveraged school clubs so students could return to their former middle schools to lead group events that could further recruitment efforts. Chang Guang-yuan, director of academic affairs at Yucheng, believes that the school's matriculation rate of over 80 percent this year is a clear indicator that promotional efforts have succeeded.

Perhaps the 12-year Basic Education System should return to education's roots. Especially with new revisions to the Curriculum Guidelines expected to be implemented only in 2018, it is as if the new system is in place and the runners are already off the starting line and on their way, yet the contents of what they are being taught are still undergoing adjustments. This is unacceptable to many parents and teachers.

From curriculum guidelines to course contents, from teaching to learning environments, those are the areas in which the Ministry of Education must invest more time, resources and effort, not just spin its wheels over the entrance examination system.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman