Taiwan is an island nation of 21 million people that has owned a perch near the top of international education rankings for the past decade—far above the U.S. I recently had a chance to visit an exemplary public all-girls high school in the bustling city of Taipei, and came away with a better understanding of why Taiwanese students perform so well. There are certainly some lessons in what I saw for schools in the U.S. First, some context. On the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results in science, reading and math, Taiwan ranked
fourth in the world, ahead of such education stalwarts as Finland, and far ahead of the U.S., which ranked 25th. Equally significant, just 8.3 percent of Taiwanese students were rated as “low-achievers,” meaning they scored in the bottom two levels on all three PISA tests. The U.S., by contrast, had 13.6 percent of its students rated as low-achievers. Junior and senior high schools in Taiwan mandate seven classes per day for all students. There is also an optional eighth, elective class, for which students pay about $60 U.S. per semester. Subsidies are available for students who can’t afford the fee. The elective fees help fund teacher salaries.
They Cram a Lot of Learning Into Their Days
“Students can opt out, but they do so very rarely,” said Dorothy Chen, a comparative education professor at National Chi Nan University. The electives in Taiwan's schools tend to have an academic focus than the ones offered in U.S. high schools. At Taipei First Girls High School Grades 10-12, located a block from the presidential palace, electives include Chinese literature, social studies, fabrication laboratory, music and arts and birdwatching, among many others. In core classes, students study a balanced curriculum of humanities and sciences in 10th grade, then focus more intensively on one or the other during their final two years. Once juniors have chosen their track, they remain with the same small, homeroom-sized group of students throughout the day. My three student ambassador tour guides told me this creates a close, sisterly bond among students. The 2,682 students at First Girls High School take a pride in their school so profound that it boggles the American mind. “We consider it the best honor to wear this uniform,” student Sonia Huang said as she showed me around the campus. The one 20-minute break students get each day (apart from lunch) is spent cleaning the six-building, five-acre campus. Needless to say, there are no discarded chip bags or gum wrappers in sight. And during the two-month summer break, students return twice to give the campus a thorough scrubbing. “We love our school and we want it always to look its best,” said Zoie Lin, one of the student ambassadors who showed me around the school for a couple of hours on a steamy November afternoon.
Intentional Changes = Big Results
In recent years, Taiwan has revised its curriculum so students do less rote learning and test preparation, and take classes that develop and hone their critical thinking skills. While U.S. schools pay a great deal of lip service to the development of higher-order thinking, the level of student disengagement in many classrooms is far higher than in Taiwan. At First Girls High School, students interested in the law read complex texts, including statutes, then travel to a nearby courthouse and observe a trial from beginning to end, tying their observations to the texts they’ve read. Similar opportunities exist in all subject areas. The school recently opened a fabrication laboratory, with 3D printers, a laser cutter and other expensive, state-of-the-art equipment. “It is important to get to know the new technologies early,” teacher Charlie Chen told me. “This is already one of the most popular places in the school.” U.S. schools shouldn’t necessarily emulate everything Taiwan does. Students face enormous pressure on a daily basis, spending almost 10 hours each weekday in school, and then attending university exam “cram schools” until as late as 10 p.m. each night. The ultimate goal: admission to the elite National Taiwan University, or a prestigious school abroad. “Yes, there is pressure, but the pressure makes us stronger,” student Cindy Chou told me. High expectations, a strong sense of community, and plenty of opportunities for learning outside the school walls. Those were some of the keys to Taiwan’s educational success I observed during my too-brief visit.
Photo courtesy of author.
Alan Gottlieb is a veteran Colorado journalist who has covered education at the Denver Post and as the former editor and co-founder of EdNews Colorado and Chalkbeat. He's currently a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant at
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