In early 2014, under procedurally and professionally questionable circumstances, and despite reservations voiced elsewhere, the Ministry of Education forced through adjustments to the humanities and Chinese language curriculum. Changes made to the history and civil society curriculum guidelines, in particular, were met with fierce opposition from academics and the public.
Last year, just before textbooks printed in accordance with the new curriculum guidelines started to be used in schools, high-school students added their voices to the protests.
Neither the ministry nor the officials in President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration felt that the protests in any way warranted any changes to what were being referred to as “minor curriculum adjustments.”
However, external political circumstances have changed somewhat. At the Jan. 16 legislative and presidential elections, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a majority of seats in the legislature and the incoming government, led by president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), is to take office on May 20.
Reform advocates have renewed their hopes for transitional justice and scrapping the curriculum changes would undoubtedly be the first test the process faces.
As the new legislative session was approaching, DPP Legislator Cheng Li-chun (鄭麗君), who has been concerned with the changes, launched a petition with her colleagues, collecting 65 signatures, demanding that the adjustments be abolished and ongoing work to implement a 12-year national curriculum be put on hold.
The Cabinet and the ministry agreed to the latter, but regarding the curricular adjustments, Premier Simon Chang (張善政) told the legislature that the ministry would not retract the changes of its own accord, but that it would respect the legislature’s decision.
On March 29 the legislature debated Cheng’s demand agreed that the discussion process would not continue until the end of this month, as the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) caucus demanded that it be referred to political party negotiations.
Given that this month and next month high schools are to choose the textbooks they are going to use, and the third set of adjustments are still being reviewed, the situation is hardly conducive to the reform process.
Meanwhile, the ministry’s approach has been to continue defending the curriculum changes.
Deputy Minister of Education Lin Teng-chiao (林騰蛟) has said that the issue is of major importance and that it must be decided by the incoming government.
However, there is a risk that a vacuum would be created, given that the old curriculum had already been scrapped, if the new system were to be abandoned, too, he said.
The ministry would need to reinstate the 2012 curriculum, in line with the National Academy for Educational Research curriculum development and review committees.
In other words, irrespective of whether the legislature decides at the end of this month to scrap the curricular changes, the ministry would not necessarily comply with its decisions.
While on the surface the ministry’s position looks as if it is respecting due processes, it is actually trying to prevaricate and to stymie reform. The talk about the risk of a vacuum is disingenuous to say the least. Scrapping the changes at this point is not going to affect teachers’ ability to choose textbooks.
The textbooks that passed reviews in 2012 were licensed for six years. They are still well within their “sell-by” date. Also, using the textbooks that were used last year is perfectly in line with the law, but if the ministry respects the legislature’s decision and scraps the curriculum changes, it would essentially be acknowledging that there were flaws in the process of changing them in the first place and that the ministry had no legal basis at the drafting stage, which is clearly problematic.
Furthermore, there is no need for the School Curriculum Development Committee or the Curriculum Review Committee to review a decision by officials who are authorized to make adjustments to the administrative system.
Academics are calling on the incoming government to return the nation to the track it was on in 2014 and last year, and to announce that, due to flawed procedures and practices that led to the announcement of the curriculum changes, it would abolish them as soon as possible.
This would enable the public to avoid uncertainty and minimize the damage the curriculum changes would cause, as well as the unnecessary costs to textbook publishers. It would also express the government’s willingness to correct inappropriate administrative decisions, its respect for expertise and its preparedness to protect the rights of students.
Finally, until the necessary administrative and legislative procedures have been completed, it can only be hoped that teachers, based on considerations of academic expertise, would use their right to choose textbooks in a reasonable manner and prioritize the demand that the textbooks approved in 2012 be selected to protect the students’ right to education.
Hsueh Hua-yuan is a professor in the Graduate Institute of Taiwan History at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Paul Cooper and Perry Svensson
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