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Solutions to Taiwan's Education Woes

'Star' Schools: Gleaning the Wheat Left Behind


Taiwanese education is known for its obsession with teaching students how to test into a handful of elite schools. What can these "star" schools do to make the system more diverse?



'Star' Schools: Gleaning the Wheat Left Behind

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 395 )

Taiwan's elite high schools and universities bear the primary responsibility for reversing the excessive emphasis junior high schools have come to place on high admission test scores.

How do officials heading the universities, high schools and vocational high schools at the top of the scholastic food chain feel about this responsibility? To find out, CommonWealth Magazine interviewed National Tsing Hua University dean of student affairs Ho Cheng-hong, Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School principal Wu Wu-hsiung, and Taipei Municipal Daan Vocational High School principal Chen Ching-kao. How do these "star" schools view education reform at the junior high school level and what advice do they have? CommonWealth Magazine presents their views in their own voices.

National Tsing Hua University's Ho Cheng-hong

Change the System of Harvesting Elite Students

I believe efforts should now be concentrated on the methods universities use to select students and the guidelines they use to admit them. How this issue is dealt with will reverberate throughout the system.

If admissions offices use proper methods in selecting students, this will deliver excellent results with a minimum of effort. Schools prepare their students based on the admissions criteria of the schools their students aspire to attend, so for them to reinvent themselves without the help of universities is rather difficult.

Over the past 10 years, the only institutions that have been making an effort are junior high and elementary schools. Have the universities done anything? Not that I can see. So if junior high and elementary school reforms fail, can you honestly say that universities are not in any way responsible? They actually must shoulder a large part of the blame.

The simplest and most common method we use to evaluate applicants is to focus on their college entrance exam results in five core subjects: Chinese, English, math, science, and social studies. We figure they are 80 percent accurate in assessing students' academic abilities.

But as our society has grown increasingly diversified, the accuracy level of that simple formula has declined because different kinds of talent are in greater demand. Many young people enjoy design, for example, but it's hard to imagine how talent in design can be encompassed in a student's test scores in the five core subjects.

Why do universities have a motivation to change the way they screen applicants? Frankly, it's mainly because of internationalization and fierce domestic competition. With families having fewer children, universities want to lure the best students, including some who may not have been admitted using the traditional criteria, much like gleaning heads of wheat that have fallen to the ground in a field.

In the past, influenced by the predominance of Taiwan's manufacturing sector, society sought to standardize and did not permit differentiation. Over the past 10 years, we have sliced across an entire field with a single blade, and we've left behind many heads of wheat. But then again, 20 years ago, the wheat didn't have the same quality soil to grow from, so we simply called those discarded heads of wheat "imperfections" and let them go.

Today, the environment is different, and the soil has changed. Those heads of wheat left behind are now very important to society, so we need to give children a diversified environment in which to grow.

Jianguo High School principal Wu Wu-hsiung

Educational Elites Affect Those Below Them

Achievement tests are the product of society, and our societal values remain too uniform. When children take up their future professions, they will enter society, so how society recruits and selects talent will impact how educational institutions prepare their students.

Without a doubt, higher-level schools influence schools at a lower level. University diversity, for example, affects high school diversity, and high school diversity affects junior high school diversity.

When high schools decide which students to accept, they rarely base their choices on grades. The children themselves are diverse, but paths for admission have not become truly diverse, which is why our education system force feeds students.

Jianguo High School is working on improving the channels through which students can gain admission, giving them extra credit, for example, for physical fitness, public service, or having served as elected classroom leaders. Because Jianguo High School is the target of many junior high school students, we have the responsibility to guide junior highs toward a new type of value system. Four years ago, we created a physical education class. At the time, many people opposed the idea, wondering why we rejected a student who scored a 281 on the Basic Competency Test and instead accepted one who scored an 81. We were able to pierce firmly entrenched values.

I hope that the new government, aside from making the economy a priority, will quickly undertake an overall review of the education system, and actually sit in on junior high and high school classes. If Taiwan remains stuck in a system dominated by an "intellectual ladder," I will be very worried about students' creativity and capabilities.

Overhauling Taiwan's education quality will not likely have an immediate impact, but its effect will be wide-ranging. Taiwan doesn't have any assets other than its people.

Daan Vocational High School principal Chen Ching-kao

Technical Vocational School Systems on Par with High Schools

I have previously organized junior high achievement tests in Taipei and Keelung, and I remember Taipei parents were absolutely obsessed with getting their children into the "star" schools. As soon as a list of the test results from the competency tests were posted, the phone started ringing off the hook. The parents would ask, "Our neighbor so-and-so got into Jianguo High School. Why couldn't my son make it?" The parents were far more nervous than the children themselves.

In recent years, I have actively visited a number of junior high schools and told many principals in Taipei that some students tend not to be academically gifted and can be encouraged to attend vocational high schools. The reason I've pushed so hard is because I have a sense of mission. If Daan Vocational's results can be driven higher, the vocational schools ranked below us will also be lifted up. I want to make everybody understand that if the technical-vocational system can suitably develop students, it will not necessarily be inferior to high school.

Junior high school education is compulsory. Are we really only educating students for the elite high schools? They don't take in even 10 percent of all junior high graduates, but we have designed diverse criteria and test questions catered to those 10 percent that have become the standard by which all junior high students are judged when they try to get into high schools.

Last year, I recommended to the Research Center for Psychological and Educational Testing at National Taiwan Normal University (responsible for holding the Basic Competency Test for junior high students) that they could strengthen the weight of practical skills in the test, giving children with practical abilities the opportunity to get into vocational schools.

The value of education is to lift up every child. If we continue to make high school the first choice and vocational high schools the second or third choice, we will have sacrificed many children. A society should have its elites, but it must also have those at the basic level.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Chinese Version: 明星學校 有責任拾起遺落的麥穗