Solutions to Taiwan's Education Woes
The Government: Five Urgent Tasks
After a decade of reforms, Taiwan's education system is reeling with more problems than ever before. Here is a shortlist of the most important undertakings awaiting the new administration.
The Government: Five Urgent TasksBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 395 )
When Taiwan's new government under President-elect Ma Ying-jeou takes office on May 20, it will have to face up to the inescapable reality that the country's education suffers from a serious functional imbalance.
Over the past 10 years, Taiwan has tried using its examination system to change the very nature of education in the country, with tests guiding teaching content. Many believe that the negative impact of this grand experiment has far outweighed the positive.
If the national consensus in Taiwan favors developing students with broad intellects and accommodating every student's talents, which requires greater diversification of academic institutions, then five issues need to be urgently addressed.
Issue No. 1
Creating a Systematically Diversified Environment
Diversification cannot be merely an admissions-driven goal. There needs to be a return to diversity in classroom instruction and evaluation and a commitment to discovering the value of every child.
Former education minister Kuo Wei-fan has branded Taiwan's education reform implemented in recent years as "70 percent of the children keeping the 'princes' in the top 30 percent company while they study,"arguing that the new system is only suitable for elite students.
A system is genuinely fair only when it can satisfy individualized needs. Classrooms need to embody diversified values, but to do so they must receive sufficient funding. Taiwan's funding for education at the national level, however, is grossly inadequate.
Issue No. 2
Investing in a Solid Foundation
Taiwan's spending on primary and secondary education has declined as a percentage of gross domestic product, from 3.2 percent in 2003 to 2.6 percent in 2006, a figure far below the average 3.9 percent registered in OECD countries.
Finland, the world's biggest education reform success story, invested its education resources in "areas of greatest need,"which happened to be middle-school students and slow learners. Finland allocates the equivalent of NT$250,000 for every junior high school student per year, dwarfing Taiwan's average investment of NT$98,000.
During the seven years from 2000 to 2006, spending on junior high school education declined from 3 percent of government expenditure to 2.5 percent, with the average resources dedicated to each student also on the decline. (See table)
Ho Cheng-hong, the dean of student affairs at National Tsing Hua University, says 90 percent of Taiwan's spending on elementary and junior high school students is allocated to personnel, with only the remaining 10 percent available for discretionary use, an indication of the system's severe constraints.
Taiwan's national education system is much like a low-cost manufacturing enterprise that can only afford to invest in its best-selling items. It forces schools to invest their limited resources in the top students who have the highest value-added and score the best in the Basic Competency Test (Taiwan's standardized high school entrance exam), which leads to a major lack of fairness in the system.
Issue No. 3
Upgrading Community-based High Schools and Vocational Schools
Based on their observation of the market's supply and demand, a number of education experts believe the source of junior high school students' hardships is the lack of high quality high schools and vocational high schools. Only by upgrading the quality of these institutions can the pressure on junior high students to get into a good high school be relieved.
Former education minister Ovid Tzeng stresses that the problems with Taiwan's high schools and vocational schools have already bubbled to the surface. Their complete lack of quality control is what is causing junior high students so much torment, he says.
The Education Ministry is aggressively improving high schools and vocational schools in poorer, remote areas at present, but if the government wants junior high students to study at high schools in their community (as opposed to competing aggressively for openings in a handful of elite high schools, as is currently prevalent), it must put more effort into elevating the overall quality of all high schools.
Issue No. 4
Buttressing the Engineers of the Soul
Under the reformed education system, the ability of teachers is seen as the key to learning, with an emphasis on instructors creating their own teaching materials and bringing diverse skills into their classes.
But for many years, education authorities have not made an honest effort to build a system to manage teachers and help them grow.
"To be honest, if a person woke up after sleeping for 50 years, he would see that society has changed, but teachers have remained the same,"says one section chief of a local government's education bureau. "Education is a relatively stable system. The education reforms did not make an effort to change teachers, so whatever changes they did introduce were destined to fail."
When the Ministry of Education organized a trial "Teachers' Professional Development Evaluation"program, for example, only 213, or 6 percent, of the country's 3,400 elementary and junior high schools applied to participate.
"If teachers are not committed to learning on their own, how can students learn?"bristled Taipei Municipal Zhongxiao Junior High School teaching director Lin Chiu-hui.
At Zhongxiao Junior High, many teachers, including Lin, have obtained multiple teaching certificates, but the education system has not provided incentives to encourage continuing education.
Issue No. 5
Establishing an Education Research Institute
The fifth urgent task to improve the country's education is to establish an education research institute that will scientifically track Taiwan's education policy. It would provide a systematic feedback mechanism that would follow the process from the policy-making and evaluation stage, to trials, policy revisions and student reviews.
In the past, Taiwan's consideration of policy has for the most part relied on ad hoc task forces to tackle narrowly focused questions, but many believe that needs to change.
"We should consider policy from the final stage of the process and manage earlier stages in the process based on the results you want to attain,"asserts Wu Ching-yong, the principal of National Yilan Senior High School. "If you first define clearly the abilities a university graduate should possess, then you will clearly understand what skills high school, junior high school, and elementary school students should have."
Only through diversified classrooms can there be a substantive degree of fairness in Taiwan's education system. The question is, will the new government take to heart the five urgent tasks needed to bring about better results?
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
Chinese Version: 拯救國教 新政府的五個迫切