Be careful what you wish for

Taiwan (a.k.a. the Republic of China or Chinese Taipei) has much going for it in the education realm, particularly its sky-high results on international assessments, but it also has plenty of problems in this sphere. Some came as no great surprise when I visited. The country has too many universities, for example, especially as the population shrinks, plus a fixation on everybody attending them even if their life plans don’t require it. That government schools charge tuition, however modest, for compulsory education, strikes an American visitor as peculiar and slightly unfair. I surely don’t love the practice of letting teachers select their schools with the principal having almost no say in the process. Even worse: It’s all but impossible to redeploy, reassign, or dismiss teachers, however inefficient or ineffectual (or just plain unnecessary) their present roles. It also struck me as questionable to lump gifted students into special education—but then give nearly all the dedicated resources to the disabled kids who share that overarching designation. Gifted education ends up getting short shrift.

All worrying, yes, and definitely worth reforming, but not mind-bendingly unexpected. Here’s what was: Besides its influential teacher union, Taiwan has a powerful parent union that now appears to cause at least as much harm as it does good. (In private, the educators I met all agreed with this judgment.)

Walk through the front door of a Taiwanese public school—the door I first walked through belongs to one of the most respected high schools in the land—and one finds on one side the office of the teacher-union representative and on the other side the office of the school-site parent union.

You think parent participation is a good thing, right, and schools should have more of it? Of course you do. Just as you surely want parents to have more choice among schools. You may even favor the parent-trigger mechanism for freeing a school from its district and turning it into a charter. Me, too.

Here’s some of what I’ll bet you don’t want: parental pressure tying school leaders and teachers into knots such that they cannot discipline or punish students, cannot make them stay after school, cannot under any circumstances expel or suspend them, cannot even confiscate their cell phones—and only at their peril can give them low marks or words of criticism.

Yet all of those woes and more now beset Taiwan’s public schools—and it was parents, their union, and its influence with politicians and lawmakers that gave rise to much of this distressing situation. (Teacher unions, of course, gave rise to most of the rest—the handcuffing of school leaders in the human-resources realm.)

I asked a couple of veteran principals why anyone would want their job if they little say over staffing and can’t discipline the kids, all for scant pay (compared to what senior teachers earn.) They said, in effect, “you really have to want to serve children.”

More surprising still was how this erosion of authority came about. It turns out that this “democratization” of Taiwanese education dates to the late 1990s and is largely the policy handiwork of a chemist, one Yuan T. Lee, who won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for important research done at the University of Chicago and at Berkeley in the esoteric field of chemical kinetics. He also became a U.S. citizen.

After winning the prize, however, he renounced his American citizenship and returned to Taiwan, where he was—and is—lionized. He is the country’s first and, so far, only Nobel laureate, is referred to by a couple of people I met as “a god,” and is taken very seriously in his pronouncements on innumerable topics, many of them a considerable distance from chemistry.

These topics included education policy. Appointed by the prime minister, Dr. Lee headed an education-reform commission whose 1997 report called for universalizing, expanding, and “democratizing” Taiwanese education on multiple fronts. Unlike many commission reports, this one turned out to have considerable sway with influential political leaders and policymakers, and most of its recommendations became law.

There was, of course, good reason for moving in this direction, as Taiwan had only just exited from decades of authoritarian government, including control of its education system at all levels. Liberalizing the system and making it more responsive and accountable to the citizenry made sense. At the time, I have no doubt, it also made sense to give more voice and freedom (and autonomy) to teachers and to empower parents as education partners. But fast forward a decade and a half and invoke the law of unintended consequences and we see that the “democratizing” reforms of the late 1990s have yielded a rigid set of “rights” and “powers” that now go miles too far in the name of combating “authority.” Indeed, they may now be almost as paralyzing to the effective operation of Taiwan schools as were the repressions of yesteryear. But nobody in sight has the gumption to challenge, reverse, or modify them. Those parents and teachers wield much clout at the polls, and the politicians are responsive. (At the moment, they’re also busy bickering about other matter.)

There is much that I don’t understand about how the parent union actually functions. And maybe I’m wrong that the present situation is out of hand—but those in charge of actually leading the country’s schools don’t seem to think so.

Two postscripts must, however, be added:

  • Despite all the parent power, there’s not much school choice, at least not until high school. Private schools are few and not great and the government schools expect you to remain within your district of residence unless you’re disabled (or gifted) and opt to move your child.
  • Those international test scores remain mighty impressive. Parents do push their kids to learn. Parents really do matter. But, like chemists, perhaps they should stick to what they’re really good at.

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