Tue, Jan 11, 2000 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Election focuses education reform

Education reform has been officially on the government's agenda since 1994, so perhaps we owe it to the catalytic powers of an imminent presidential election that we finally see the shape that reforms can be expected to take. There are, actually, two sets of proposals, one by DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and one announced yesterday by the KMT's Lien Chan (連戰). There is little to choose between the spirit of the two sets; most of the difference between them lies in the speed of their scheduled implementation. Perhaps ironically, it is Lien and the KMT which appears to be the more radical reformer here.

Lien's proposition differs from Chen's in providing fixed dates for the enactment of popular policies -- the last joint high school entrance exam this year and the last of the annual joint college entrance examinations the year after. Lien also has a date for the implementation of a 12-year compulsory education system -- September 2003. While Chen supports the idea of a 12-year syllabus, he is more cautious. Chen points to the problems of implementing the nine-year compulsory education system in 1968 and cautions against making the same mistakes again.

Parents want what is best for their children and few these days equate that with the rigorous training in rote memorization and exam passing that has constituted Taiwan's examination system for so long. Those parents have been voting on Taiwan's education system with their feet, sending their children abroad to study in atmospheres more conducive to personal intellectual development and not hidebound by an education system which has long stressed discipline, regimentation and social conformity, more for political reasons than any pedagogical value.

For parents who want a better school life for their children, however, the window of opportunity is narrow. They want it as soon as possible, otherwise their children have passed through the system and they no longer need to care. Promising reform in say five year's time therefore has little influence on parents who have junior high school age children now, while parents of children who will get the benefit of the reform are probably not looking that far ahead. If educational reform is to win votes, it has to be promised very soon. In that sense Lien's tactic is a good one.

But is it the right one? While it is true that some 93 percent of junior high graduates in Taiwan continue to some form of higher secondary education, two-thirds of them attend vocational schools. The proposed reforms surely are not aimed at abolishing the exam system to substitute another form of rigorous selection in its place. The aim must be to make senior high school and university education more freely available, thereby raising the overall educational standard of the society. But this prompts some simple questions. Are there the classrooms and teachers available to cope with a sudden increase in the number of students?

Lien's schedule leaves no time for the implementation of any new teacher training program before the system changes. We must use the teachers we have. Are there enough of them? Are they adaptable? Are they even willing to support a system which, by doing away with the exam system, will also do away with the cramming with which so many of them supplement their salaries? And in a system where parents routinely slip red envelopes for teachers to guarantee their children get attention, what safeguards are there to prevent these methods not being used to influence whatever assessment procedures replace the joint entrance exams? A lot of questions and, according to Lien's timetable so little time. So while welcoming the reform proposals, we worry that something so important may be carried out with damaging haste solely for an electoral advantage in March.

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