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Child Soldiers in Classroom Combat


Education in Taiwan has become an all-out struggle, locking kids into competition at increasingly early ages. Why is it that the more the education system is reformed, the more it stresses exams?



Child Soldiers in Classroom Combat

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 395 )

The fresh green days of April are upon us, but Taiwanese kids remain mired in an emotional gray zone.

It's 6 p.m., and the lights are still burning in half of the more than 500 junior high schools up and down the west coast of Taiwan. Blackboards and walls display the inexorable countdown to the May 24 junior high school basic competency test, like the beating of the evening drum and the morning bell. In this nerve-racking atmosphere, everything, even laughter, is a crime.

Of Taiwan's roughly 950,000 junior high students, 310,000 are ninth graders preparing for the all-important competency test. A lot of the students are already at it by 7 a.m. and do not stop until 10 at night, passing a year of 700 takeaway lunchboxes. Even as early as the sixth or seventh grade, more than a few students are already adopting a military-style regimentation.

Article 1 of Taiwan's Education Act explicitly states that the purpose of basic public education is to cultivate well-rounded citizens by placing equal emphasis on the moral, academic, physical, social and artistic nurturing of students. Likewise, the educational reform advisory report of 13 years ago and the new Nine-year Comprehensive Curriculum for Elementary and Junior High Education, drafted seven years ago, further emphasized cultivating humanitarian concern, the ability to organize and integrate learned information, and an ethic of lifelong learning among Taiwan's children.

But one need only spend one day walking in the shoes of these kids, plying the same streets and school hallways, to know that education in Taiwan has now become a war, requiring kids to spend their full energies in a mortal struggle for grades not much different from that of days past.

Tears of the Children

Let us visit a couple of scenes in Taiwanese education that are painful to consider.

Scene 1: A "star" junior high school in Taipei City's Songshan District, where a group of students shares their true feelings.

At 9 p.m. a minibus pulls up to shuttle the kids back to their hometown of Linkou, in Taoyuan County. These students have crossed school district lines to study at the top-ranked school in the capital city. Many of their parents are medical staff at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital.

The list of graduates of this school who have gone on to attend top high schools is impressive and the faculty here is notoriously strict. In some grades, students may take more than nine exams daily, and the school posts weekly student rankings in each subject, for each class, for each floor of the school building, and for the entire school.

Not long ago, one teacher devised a sort of "talent show" format whereby groupings of four students were pitted in competition against one another. Whichever of the four scored lowest on the exam was required to remain after school for tutoring.

One of them, a student who scored in the top two in his class, says wearily and without a trace of youthfulness in his countenance, "I've already scored second, but the four of us still have to compete each day. I have to be careful in every subject, to avoid the humiliation of being held after school." Some of the more sensitive students have been known to burst into tears upon receiving their exam scores.

How much humiliation and suffering results from exams in nine subjects? How many tears must these kids shed?

Educational Rules No One Heeds

Taipei City Government Department of Education regulations state that junior high schools shall reduce their number of exams, which in principle should amount to no more than one per week per subject and no more than two subjects on any given day.

Full implementation of similarly worded regulations has failed to be realized not just in Taipei, but also in every other city and county school system.

Nearly 70 percent of the students at Taipei's Chung Cheng Junior High actually live in outlying school districts such as Sancyong, Yonghe and Sinjhuang. Their parents send them here because of the high ratio of students it sends on to top high schools. It is perennially the first Taipei junior high to fill its rolls when student enrollment for the following year begins each May. Principal Huang Jen-hsiang, a junior high educator for 29 years, says students today are taking far more exams than they did in the past. Teachers assign a heavy workload and give lots of tests to ensure kids are able to score high on the official competency exams and to prevent students from committing errors due to lack of focus, he says. The routine at Chung Cheng is not out of the ordinary, he asserts.

Not only does this unending practice destroy a student's appetite for learning, but exam scores in various subjects also isolate students from one another. Among classmates, a fierce competition exists, but a spirit of mutual aid is lacking. Students fear that if they help someone else, they will then be overtaken.

Class performance and test scores have erected a massive wall of alienation among junior high students.

The good students sit in the front of the class, while those in the back slouch or doze. It is as if they are not even present. "It doesn't matter – the teacher almost never looks our way," says one kid who seems to be bearing a few scars.

In 2004 the Ministry of Education ended the system of separating students into different classes based on levels of performance, instead placing all students into a single level of class. Yet this did nothing to reduce the practice, in an altered form, of dividing students according to perceived abilities. Indeed, it made the situation even worse.

"In order to get more kids to pass admissions tests, dividing the students by ability is practiced in disguise, and that is a systemic betrayal," former education minister Huang Jong-tsun sighs. The best teachers don't go to the underachievers but to the academic stars, he observes.

Over the past five years, the number of parents of elementary and junior high school students opting for home schooling has risen from 436 to 940, more than doubling despite virtually no publicity. (Table 1)

Scene 2: Dajia Elementary School next to Jhenlan Temple, where a group of grade school students and their parents have gathered.

It is a rare opportunity for local kids to hear a lecture on learning how to speak English well from Ruby Hsu, a prominent teacher of supplementary English language classes.

A month previously, Hsu had placed ads in major newspapers claiming that "fourth, fifth and sixth graders are completing the junior high [English-language] curriculum."

According to Hsu, after the formulation of the nine-year integrated curriculum, elementary and junior high English education became a mess. Primary schools now only require students to learn 200 vocabulary words, but junior highs require 1,000, and high schools demand 7,000.

"Primary school teachers are unaware of this fact and teach overly simple material. I can remedy that situation," Hsu says.

More than a few of the parents of older primary school students gathered in front of the stage that day were keen to invest in their kids early because their futures rely on the "decisive junior high battleground," where gaining admission to a good high school is tantamount to a seat at a national university and good personal connections. The parents seem even more on edge than their kids.

Why is it that the more education reforms are introduced, the more stress is placed on school admissions and exams? What is it that locks Taiwanese kids into increasingly early childhood competition and causes them to say things like, "I don't even want to go to junior high"? And what has thrown faculty, students and parents alike into collective anxiety?

The Test Monster Gobbles Diversity

All of these distortions stem from the beastly basic competency test that determines high school and vocational school admissions.

The basic competency test is different from the past universal entrance exam and is even more intensely competitive.

The old universal entrance exam divided Taiwan into 15 districts, with each independently distributing and scoring their own exam papers and no comparison of scores among the different regions.

With the basic competency test, all of the more than 300,000 test takers receive the same exam questions, lumping together the urban and the rural, northern Taiwan and eastern Taiwan, mountainous regions and the plains, kids from Taiwan proper and those from outlying islands on the same platform, comparing them with the same yardstick.

"With hundreds of thousands of students being measured using the same yardstick, everyone within the system naturally has become more sensitive to academic performance," Su Te-hsiang, director of the Ministry of Education's Department of Secondary Education, explains.

But aren't academic admissions programs supposed to be diverse? Can't kids of varying intellectual abilities gain admission to high school through a variety of different channels?

The fact is that the program to create diversity in high school admissions has run into serious problems, and diversity has degenerated into an illusion.

The process originally sought to change the previous system of the universal entrance exam as the sole basis for admission to one where the basic competency test would be but one threshold, while also taking into account evaluations of other diverse capabilities in determining admission standards.

But the intent to pursue greater diversity was insufficient to resist social pressure intent on the pursuit of fairness.

Multiplicity of Channels, Monolithic Core

When it comes to high school admissions diversity plans, "Fate is full of barbs," says Department of Secondary Education director Su Te-hsiang, who was a middle manager in the department when the plans were first drafted. He recalls how several different ministers back then hoped to increase the number of admissions channels, with one plan having as many as six, but whenever public hearings would be held there would be a public outcry and pressure from public opinion representatives. Ultimately, only three channels have been retained: Students can apply to schools directly based on first-round test scores, lower-level schools can recommend outstanding students for advancement to higher-level schools, and students can be allocated slots in schools based on their scores on a second round of tests. But the proportion of second-round test-based allocations remains high, to avert public suspicions of unfairness.

Looking back now at the state of high school admissions, Taiwanese society lacked the necessary fundamental trust at the time, and even today it is not ready to accept the whole idea of diverse admissions channels.

Seven years ago in the early stages of implementing academic admissions channels emphasizing diverse capabilities, high schools began to boldly accept letters of recommendation, academic and arts competitions, class representative participation and other campus achievements as criteria for admission. What was unforeseen was how readily the teachers and parents of junior high students would resort to all manner of extreme measures to give their kids a leg up, and how materials would often be exaggerated or even falsified.

With no way to establish tools for evaluation that are both diverse and objective, the emphasis on admissions diversity has gradually become in name only, and the key criterion for admission remains, as before, the basic competency test.

Wu Wu-hsiung, an educator for 40 years and now nearing retirement, impatiently notes that whatever means schools wish to try – essay writing, oral examination, lab work, etc. – for admissions selection, all will be met with accusations of unfairness.

This is why what appears to be a diverse three-track admissions system at its core remains single-track – the examination track.

These concerns about fairness led to admissions diversity being sacrificed in the name of an appearance of fairness.

After seven years of the admissions diversity program, the proportion of students advancing to high school careers during the initial phase stands at 35 percent, with nearly 60 percent of students having to go through the agony of taking the basic competency test a second time and being allocated a slot based on their test scores.

With admission through examination, it is the score that counts.

Declining birthrates resulting in high schools having more seats than students to fill them should greatly reduce academic pressure. So why are students and faculty continuing their jostling, nerve-wracking battle over exam scores?

The cause lies in the mythology of educational branding, the belief that a school's ranking is a guarantee of academic advancement and a secure future. In the analysis of National Taitung University Department of Education professor Huang Yi-chih, this intense academism is a uniquely Taiwanese phenomenon.

"Higher education and good schools are status symbols. In other countries, if you are capable and have a good income, academic background isn't that important," Huang says.

"It is now not an issue of opportunity for academic advancement," says Dr. Wei-fan Kuo, who during his tenure as education minister pushed for a regional six-year integrated junior high and high school curriculum. "Now it's the struggle to gain admission to one of 20 or 30 [top-ranked] high schools with nearly all the most coveted university spots almost entirely monopolized by these 20-odd top high schools."

A Truth the Numbers Don't Tell

With the intensified competition over test scores educational reform has wrought, has public education made Taiwan's kids more competitive?

On the surface, today's students are more energetic learners than those during the authoritarian period, and academic performance has progressed. This veneer of improved performance, however, has come at the cost of students spending more of their precious youth in its pursuit.

The ten years of educational reform have also been a period of explosive growth in the cram school industry. In that time, cram schools have multiplied more than fourfold, from 4,387 to 17,424 (Table 2).

There are also those who point to the outstanding performance of Taiwanese students in international competitions as evidence that Taiwan's public schools are turning out competitive kids, but this smacks of more mythology.

In recent years the Ministry of Education has been fond of publicizing the Program for International Student Assessment conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, testing to evaluate the abilities of students under 15 in reading, math and natural sciences. Out of more than 50 countries evaluated, Taiwanese students rank fourth in both math and natural sciences.

But if the figures are analyzed in greater detail, Taiwan ranks just 17th at forming scientific hypotheses, trailing Finland, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. On the other hand, Taiwanese students ranked third in their ability to explain scientific phenomena. (Table 3)

Su Te-hsiang reckons this means Taiwanese kids have first-rate comprehension and memory skills but are weaker in formulating new hypotheses and creativity.

Wu Wu-hsiung, principal of Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School for the past decade, agrees.

Last year, Jianguo High students received 139 Olympia Institute awards for mathematics achievement, the most of any school. In Wu's observation, however, Taiwanese students seem to perform well up through the high school level but are not an overwhelming success at the university level, seeming to indicate a problem within the system.

What Legacy Are We Leaving Our Children?

The truths the numbers leave unspoken remain legion. But as first-hand observers, teachers and parents are most concerned that the physical and emotional health and well being of the students are suffering.

At the physical dimension, nearsightedness among students has worsened considerably. During the past 10 years, nearsightedness among sixth graders has risen from 44 percent to 60 percent. (Table 4) Among ninth graders, the proportion of nearsighted students has reached 73 percent and continues to worsen each year.

At the emotional dimension, information provided by the John Tung Foundation reveals that the Department of Health received 232 reports of suicides among young people 15-24 years old during the first half of last year, accounting for 17.3 percent of total suicides. Suicide is now the number-two killer of young people in Taiwan.

Wu Zi-ying, director of guidance counseling at Taipei Municipal Zhongxiao High School for the past eight years, feels students have become less able to handle stress, from the considerably more distracting environment in which they now grow up and from peer and academic pressure.

At around 12 years the brain of a child begins to change as he or she begins to establish full recognition, reasoning and expectation capabilities. But under the pressure of the daily examination scramble, Taiwan's kids lack opportunities for exploration and adventure.

With a month to go before the basic competency test, a lot of junior high students are burning the midnight oil in cram schools all over Taiwan. Other than the numerical value of a test score and an addiction to a narrow range of performance, what has the Taiwanese education system given them?

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy