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A Mother's Tale of Woes

Make Children's Sacrifices Worthwhile


Make Children's Sacrifices Worthwhile


One Taiwanese mom relates the travails of her junior-high son as he struggles to gain admission to high school, and shares her thoughts on how the new, chaotic system could be fixed.



Make Children's Sacrifices Worthwhile

By Rebecca Lin
CommonWealth Magazine

Hsiao Mi comes from a typical middle-class family. A graduate of Taipei Municipal Jinhua Junior High School, he did not make it into his choice of ideal schools when results of the "Comprehensive Assessment Program for Junior High School Students"

were released, even though he ranked near the top of his class. All he could do was try again in the "Academic Ability Test." The question Hsiao Mi's mother wants to ask is: can't Taiwan's education system provide students with a stable learning environment?

Here, in her own words, is her take on her child's tortuous path to a secondary education.

When the Comprehensive Assessment Program scores were announced, my son Hsiao Mi received four A++'s, one A+, got just 10 questions wrong in five different subjects, and scored a four (out of a possible six) on the essay section. This gained him admission to his third choice of schools, Heping Senior High School.

On the eve of the reporting date for students deciding to matriculate at the institution offering admission, I gave my son his junior-high diploma, identification card and a 500 Taiwan-dollar bill and said, "Tomorrow you can stay at school and study, or you can report to Heping High School. If you decide to report to the school you can take a taxi there directly."

Never one with a lot to say, Hsiao Mi said he could walk there from school.

Early the next evening he returned the 500 NT note to me just as I had given it to him. Hsiao Mi decided not to report to the school, but to sit for the Academic Ability Test instead.

Hsiao Mi said almost nothing about this outcome, only grumbling at one point that if the previous system were still in place he would only have to take one examination, but he would now be taking yet another. Based on the former Basic Competence Test for Junior High School Students, his score would be at least good enough to get him into the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University (the second most prestigious school), yet now he could only get into Heping High. And why should he be happy with that?

Everyone says the reason the National Twelve-year Basic Education System has stirred so much controversy is that parents and students are too obsessed with prestigious high schools. However, that's not a fair claim at all. If I wanted to make sure my child could make his way into a prestigious high school I would have had him go to cram school, but he never crammed at any time during his entire three years of junior high.

And it's not just him. A girl in his class that never attended cram school was first in the class the entire three years. She got only two questions wrong out of five subjects, four A++ and one A+ marks, and a five on her essay portion, yet she did not get into Taipei First Girls' High School or Taipei Municipal Zhong Shan Girls' High School (the first and second choices). Like Hsiao Mi, she only got into Heping Senior High.

Doesn't Society Urge Youths to Be Bold?

The best student in their class only got into Heping Senior High School, and all their other classmates with average or better scores decided to take the Academic Ability Test regardless of whether they were accepted at high schools like Datong, Yanping, or Fuxing. This is what has led to the horseshoe-shaped trend, where the matriculation rate at mid-level community high schools is quite low – just 39 percent in the case of Heping – because students believe that if measured according to last year's Basic Competence Test scores they would have gotten into better schools.

For a parallel example, given the choice of two companies, why should a young person only be allowed to choose the one that pays NT$22,000 per month, and when he goes for the NT$50,000 one, he's criticized for "being obsessed with prestigious schools?" Don't we encourage children to have ambition and determination? As mothers and fathers we know that getting into Jianguo High (Taiwan's top high school for boys) doesn't equate to a successful future, but it also doesn't mean that he shouldn't aspire to attend a good school.

Don't we like to say that we respect our children's choices these days? Wanting to attend a top school is also a kind of choice. Any system predicated on destroying something is fundamentally wrong. If the objective of the National Twelve-year Basic Education System is to destroy the top high schools, then that is wrong, because just because a high school is prestigious, that doesn't necessarily mean it's unfair or unjust.

Why Force 15 Year-olds to Decide Their Future?

The Ministry of Education says that students should choose high schools and vocational schools suited to their talents and interests, but what middle school student knows precisely what they aspire to as a career? Other than children with very strong inclinations in a certain area, most have no idea what they are going to do. The worldwide trend at the moment is for students to not focus on any one subject in their freshman and sophomore years so they get a broader learning experience, and wait until their junior year to declare a major.

Why force a 15 year-old child to decide? School guidance counseling and aptitude tests are completely useless. My son is not good at expressing himself and is not strong in the arts and humanities, but since he is very strong in the sciences, the top high schools actually suit him the best. But now young students are required to do hands-on learning, enter science exhibitions, or compete in physical fitness, but this isn't fair to certain children.

If the 12-year basic education system, as the Ministry of Education claims, is designed so that children do not have to strain themselves to the breaking point and pull all-nighters studying, then the differences between schools should not be so great. When the differences are small, there is less motivation for children to compete for a place in prestigious schools. Perhaps then they will complain less about how unfair the system is.

Information Opacity Causes Uncertainty

If a large gap separates famous high schools from community high schools, a lot of anger will be directed at the system's unfairness. The crux is the opacity of information. Kids lack sufficient information when they fill out the form listing their school preferences, not knowing which schools their scores are high enough to get them into, and also knowing very little about the schools.

 The entrance guide booklet given to middle school students only lists the official Web page URLs for each high school and vocational school. Am I supposed to go and look up each school and address questions to each individual school? We are not "monster parents" (who only want their children to go to the top schools). All we ask is for transparency of information. In their third year of middle school we should arrange for high schools and vocational schools to visit schools and give presentations on their unique qualities, thereby planting seeds earlier. Otherwise, when examination scores are released on a Friday and students are expected to report to their new schools on Monday, how are parents supposed to find anything out about the schools?

Some people advocate returning to the Basic Competence Test or Joint High School Entrance Examination of the past. Whilst I do not believe that to be appropriate, the Twelve-year Basic Education System should get back to the system's original intent and have sufficiently transparent mechanisms in place. Perhaps at the very worst Hsiao Mi will end up attending Xindian Senior High School, but I'm sure he'll do just fine. I'm willing to let Hsiao Mi be a guinea pig, but his sacrifice should mean something, so that the next year's students can be spared the same suffering.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman