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Teachers' Dilemma in Taiwan

Trying to Adapt to the 21st Century


Trying to Adapt to the 21st Century


Expectations for teachers have gone up in the 21st century, but Taiwan, without a viable teacher development system, remains stuck in the Dark Ages. What are the prospects for change?



Trying to Adapt to the 21st Century

By Rose Sheu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 536 )

When Hsinchu Guang-Hua Junior High School teacher Chien Chih-hsiang received an "Outstanding Teacher" award from the Ministry of Education three years ago, it should have been a proud moment.

Instead, he was shocked to find out that "it didn't matter whether you're outstanding or not. As long as you have taught for 10 years, you automatically get an award like this," says Chien, who ending up seeing the award as highly absurd rather than as a badge of honor.

There was a time when Chien was unwilling to let people know his choice of profession, fearing that outsiders perceived teachers as a bunch of serious bores.

When Jhong Jheng High School Chinese teacher Liao Mei-juan was in junior high school, she often asked herself as she gazed out the window while sitting in class, "Why do I have to be sitting here?"

Now that Liao is a high school teacher, "I see many students like me back then who are gradually losing the glow in their eyes. I hope they can think to themselves, 'going to class is fun; why wouldn't I come?'" she says, revealing an increasingly strong resolve to change how students are taught.

Whether it's the ability of students raised in the digital age to go online to learn at any time or the widening gap in students' levels as the launch of a new 12-year national educational system looms, Taiwan's teachers are facing an education system in greater upheaval than at any time in the past. Many are willing to change to confront these challenges but may be ill-equipped to do so because of the glaring problems in the system and structure used in Taiwan to cultivate the professional growth of teachers.

A report published by the OECD in 2012 titled "Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century" explained what they are up against.

"A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last for a lifetime of their students.

"Today, where individuals can access content on Google, where routine cognitive skills are being digitized or outsourced, and where jobs are changing rapidly, education systems need to place much greater emphasis on enabling individuals to become lifelong learners, to manage complex ways of thinking and complex ways of working that computers cannot take over easily," the report said.

"In the past, different students were taught in similar ways. Today, teachers are expected to embrace diversity with differentiated pedagogical practices.

"The past was curriculum-centered, the present is learner centered. Teachers are being asked to personalize learning experiences to ensure that every student has a chance to succeed and to deal with increasing cultural diversity in their classrooms and differences in learning styles, taking learning to the learner in ways that allow individuals to learn in the ways that are most conducive to their progress," the report said.

"The kind of teaching needed today requires teachers to be high-level knowledge workers who constantly advance their own professional knowledge as well as that of their profession," the report asserted.

With expectations of teachers set so high, the professional knowledge and skills they need to succeed are vastly different than those they possessed in the previous century. Judged on that basis, Taiwan's system and environment for preparing teachers lag far behind those of other countries, including China.

A clear example of this are the two main examinations people who want to become teachers face – the national teacher qualification examination (to receive certification) and a local teacher screening test (to get a job). Both exams seem stuck in ancient times.

At a time when Shanghai is using open-ended questions to assess the ability of third graders to think and express themselves, and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is throwing aside textbooks and directly testing the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds around the world, Taiwan continues to rely on multiple choice questions in qualification exams for elementary and junior high school teachers and teacher screening tests in counties and cities.

One example: "If a parent's knowledge on education is limited but the parent still frequently interferes with a teacher's teaching of students, this represents a challenge to what kind of teacher authority? A) Traditional authority; B) Patrimonial authority; C) Professional authority; D) Charismatic authority – The answer is C."

Teachers have no idea what skill, knowledge or ability this kind of question is trying to test.

"Comparing these tests with the PISA test, I feel really embarrassed," says Wang Hui-chih, with a sense of shame. Wang, who teaches at a private high school, finally made it through a teacher screening test last year.

"This kind of test basically eliminates the best people," says a concerned company president who saw representative test questions.

The widespread criticism of Taiwan's teacher assessment system may finally be getting through. Chang Ming-wen, the head of the Ministry of Education's Department of Teacher and Art Education, which is responsible for testing and verifying teacher qualifications, and the National Academy for Educational Research finally announced in early November that the qualification exams would be radically transformed starting next year. The tests will focus more on the practical application of knowledge by significantly reducing the proportion of multiple choice questions and adding situational and essay questions. 

But the qualification tests are only one hurdle on the road to getting a teaching license. The real battlefield that decides whether or not applicants get a job is the screening test held by local governments. Most people who have taken the screening tests complain that the questions are even more trivial and outdated than those on the national qualification exam. Consequently, reforming these tests has become even more urgent.

"I will work hard to coordinate with others on the issue, but the screening tests involve the authority of the MOE's K-12 Education Administration and individual counties and cities," says Chang with resignation.

"In fact, we have little control over how teachers are cultivated and evaluated," says Chang, who seemed to want to say more about the chaotic division of labor in Taiwan's system to prepare teachers but decided to hold back.

Lacking a Merit System

Under the system imposed in Shanghai, teachers are required to prepare classes and discuss courses together and leave the door to their classroom open to allow their peers to observe them teach. The city's teachers are divided into tiers that give them incentives – and pressure – to climb the ladder of professional development.

In Taiwan, in contrast, no tangible system exists to reward good teachers or weed out those who are not doing a good job.

Schools conduct annual performance appraisals of teachers, but they are short on objectivity or standards. More than 90 percent of Taiwan's elementary and junior high teachers regularly receive "A" grades on the appraisals, a phenomenon that has long been criticized but never reformed.

"Unless a teacher has taken too much time off, there are practically no teachers who will be given a grade below an "A" on their appraisals. That's because the members of teacher performance appraisal committees are almost invariably peers who do not want to offend their colleagues," says one principal of a New Taipei junior high school bluntly.

The lack of a truly objective evaluation system based on clear standards that determines teacher promotion and demotion has engendered campus cultures that cajole teachers to simply toe the line.

"In Taiwan, there are some teachers who teach very well but have never been recognized for it; there are others who are veteran teachers but who are nothing more than average. There is no way to separate good and bad. Taiwan's campus culture leads good teachers to be infected by this race to mediocrity. Everybody is the same, so why bother teaching so well?" explains Hsieh Sheng-lung, the principal of Taipei Municipal Xin Xing Junior High School.

Looking at systems around the world, teacher evaluations have been in place for years in many places, including Britain, Germany, the United States, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Although Finland does not have teacher appraisals, it does have extremely strict standards in place for training and appointing teachers, and principals, parents and teachers frequently discuss how well children are doing. Also, because teaching is one of the professions with the highest social status in Finland, it attracts some of the best talent in the country.

In Taiwan, on the other hand, no merit system exists. Taiwan's government has drafted an amendment to the Teachers' Act that would incorporate "teacher evaluations," but it has been blocked by special interest groups and remains stalled in the Legislature. With the bill shelved, there is no way to tell when a process accepted around the world will be implemented in Taiwan. 

A major difficulty confronting Taiwan's education system is the lack of openings for full-time teachers, meaning that even if more high-caliber teachers are developed, they have nowhere to go because incompetent teachers remain in their jobs.

Lacking a merit system to reward good teachers and get rid of the bad ones and faced with Taiwan's low birth rate, which translates to falling enrollment at schools in the future, local governments have been inclined to keep a lid on tenured teacher openings, instead opting for substitute teachers or teachers paid by the hour to fill staffing shortages and save money.

In a cover story in July titled "Who's Teaching Your Child," CommonWealth Magazine sounded the alarm to this toxic phenomenon. It cited a report issued by the Control Yuan late last year noting that of every six elementary and junior high school teachers in Taiwan, one is a temporary employee, whether a substitute, a contract worker or a part-timer.

Also, of the nearly 30,000 contract workers in the education system, the majority are "teachers paid by the hour" who earn below NT$22,000 a month, the report found. They often lack professional teaching certification and generally sport a high turnover rate.

The problem is particularly severe in remote parts of the country, where schools find it nearly impossible to hire teachers at the low hourly rates they offer. Lanyu Junior High School on Orchid Island off Taiwan's southeastern coast, for example, has hired as many as 10 substitute teachers in one semester. No sooner do students get familiar with an instructor than the person is preparing to leave, a scenario emblematic of the sad state of the country's education system.

A System Needed to Develop Good Teachers

The well is being further poisoned by public perceptions. Negative stories about the teaching profession blanket Taiwan's sensationalist newspapers and TV news stations, leading to a decline in teacher dignity and social status. As a result, teacher-parent communications are increasingly plagued by a lack of trust, and teacher enthusiasm and morale has fallen to new lows.

A survey conducted in 2011 by the Taipei Teachers' Association found that the stress level had reached critical levels in 43 percent of the city's teachers, while 36 percent had depression indexes high enough to suggest that they needed professional help.

On campuses, many teachers have long expressed the desire for change and that change was a necessity.

"The culture that has teachers fearing others coming into their classroom to observe them teaching is a systematic problem. Teachers are not unwilling to accept evaluations because they want to prove they are capable. We can't allow teaching to simply be left up to teachers' consciences," says Chien Yue-ying, a veteran teacher at Banqiao Elementary School in New Taipei.

"I feel that those who want to continue in this profession all have a special trait in common. They all want to get better. But the existing environment is unable to support their passion," laments Hsinchu junior high teacher Chien Chih-hsiang.

Many countries around the world are treating teachers as the core of education quality, investing major resources to draw the best talent to the profession and building a sound teacher development system and an environment that encourages professional growth. Many countries that is except for Taiwan.

So where is Taiwan's system to cultivate good teachers or an environment that stimulates teacher enthusiasm? And who should be responsible for the system falling further out of touch and into a state of indolence? If Taiwan wants to have teachers and students prepared for the challenges of the 21st century, it will have to quickly find answers to those pressing questions.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier