The Ministry of Education should return to Its Main Duties
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 11, 2007
Ministry of Education officials announced yesterday that 15 year old students from the ROC participated in the OECD sponsored "Programme for International Student Assessment" (PISA). Among the 57 participating countries, they scored first in mathematics and fourth in science. These were brilliant achievements, they said. They hoped to take advantage of this to alleviate public anxieties about constructive mathematics and the nine year curriculum. Meanwhile, everyone's attention was focused on the Ministry of Education's demolition of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall "The Golden Mean, the Way of Righteousness" name plaque, and the Ministry of Education Chief Secretary's inflammatory political rhetoric. For a while, the Ministry of Education was on the frontlines of the Blue vs. Green battleground. Faced with hundreds of unsolved educational problems, the government agency charged with education was dedicating all its energy to political campaigning on behalf of the ruling party. How is one to rationalize that?
PISA is considered the International Olympics of education. The government often points to it as a political achievement, even as part of its "educational reform" campaign. It expends an enormous amount of time and energy congratulating itself on its successes. By contrast, officials and educators in Hong Kong and Singapore, which have also gotten good marks, immediately compare their scores against their original targets, discover problems, inform the public about the nation's educational weaknesses and recommend the necessary remedies. By means of self-criticism, they continually improve the quality of education. Meanwhile, our own educators are often busy campaigning for the ruling DPP, giving people the uneasy feeling they are neglecting their basic educational responsibilities.
For example, last month Minister of Education Tu Cheng-sheng touted the achievements of "educational reform," citing the Swiss World Economic Forum's (WEF) favorable ranking of our government's health and elementary education achievements (incidence of infectious diseases and elementary student enrollment). He failed utterly however to mention other issues related to student health and educational quality such as: physical fitness, nutrition, adequate sleep, physical growth rates, and incidence of myopia, according to which we rank behind other Asian nations. Due to insufficient sleep, nutritional imbalances, and lack of exercise, our elementary and middle school students' running abilities don't even compare to Japan's!
In fact, Taiwan students' positive PISA scores in mathematics and science may be the result of 15 year olds (9th and 10th graders) spending long hours in class, enrolling in extracurricular "cram schools," losing sleep, enduring pressures to make the grade, forsaking their personal dreams, suppressing their self-doubts, and putting their noses to the grindstone. Yet none of these problems have motivated advocates of "educational reform" to change their minds, to ask themselves why students prefer to read books not on the curriculum, why interest in mathematics and science is dropping, or why the academic scores of 30,000 fifteen year olds are increasingly polarized.
Everyone knows the answers to these questions. Even Ministry of Education officials acknowledge that the academic ranking of students on Taiwan is unrelated to class attendance figures. School hours are long (including supplementary classes). Children on Taiwan are good at taking tests, but few of them stand out in any specialty. The average person does not like to read. The Council for Cultural Affairs has learned that people over the age of 15 seldom read books. Forty percent of those who do, read only one book every few months. Half have not bought either a book or a magazine in six months. Forty-six percent of an average child's leisure activity involves playing video games on a PC or watching television. That's why according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), another literacy index, our fourth grade students' reading ability badly trail students in Hong Kong and Singapore. Nearly one in four never reads after school, far lower than the international average.
In addition, according to a survey by Commonwealth magazine, nearly seven out of ten students in the fifth and sixth grades, attend after school programs or "cram schools." Five out of ten spend over 6,000 NT a month for tutoring. Two out of ten receive tutoring in up to four subjects. By junior high, their childrens' education and its attendant costs have become parents' heaviest burden. Nearly seven out of ten junior high students are enrolled in "cram schools." One in four families must spend over 6,000 NT a month in additional tuition. Over half of all families must sacrifice their family's entertainment allowance to pay for their childrens' junior high educations. The "Taiwan Education Panel Survey" (TEPS) conducted by the Academia Sinica discovered that by the ninth grade (15 year olds), as many as 97% of all students in both urban and rural regions were enrolled in "cram schools." By high school the number was approximately five out of ten. Under such pressure cooker conditions, it's no wonder elementary and high school students seek relief by watching televison and playing video games. They don't read books. Those books they read are textbooks or reference books. Another index of student aptitude, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), in contrast with PISA, revealed that elementary and high school students generally dislike mathematics and science and lack self-confidence. This shows that children on Taiwan only know how to take tests.
The Ministry of Education has successfully demolished "The Golden Mean, the Way of Righteousness" name plaque. The garrulous Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Education is currently basking in his Fifteen Minutes of Fame. Green camp political candidates have even presented him with garlands. Few officials receive such adulation. Isn't it time for the good minister to quit while he's ahead, and return to his job of education? Otherwise, he may win his political struggle, but Taiwan's next generation will be the losers. Where is the honor in that?