Cramming Knowledge in Taiwan

By January 23, 2008 No Comments

Some worry that overly rigorous educational demands are harming students.

As Du Ying-Le prepares herself for a typical school day in Taipei, she has many things on her mind. ‘Did I complete my homework correctly?’ she wonders. ‘Are my parents upset at me for not doing well on my test? How much homework will I have from both cram school and regular school?’

Her thoughts are suddenly interrupted as her mother reminds her how little she studied the other day and how hard she must work to become a successful medical doctor. Ying-le bows her head in shame and nods with respect to her mother’s wishes, but the expression on her face suggests she thinks the task at hand is almost impossible.

Ying-le’s scenario may seem normal for a first-year college student hoping to work her way into medical school, but she is only in her first year of middle school.

Parents in Taiwan, like parents elsewhere, push their children toward educational opportunity—but a confluence of cultural preferences, hierarchy and brutal competition have made the educational system there particularly stressful. While educators in the United States increasingly work to find “the right fit” for students, attempting to dispel the once-exclusive and still-significant importance of reputation in school choice, people in Taiwan have embraced a clearly-defined hierarchy of schools. This has lead to increased competition in the admissions departments of the top schools that feed the top universities. These strict hierarchies have served to magnify the importance—and the pressure—of getting into a top high school in the first place, so students will not be “tracked” away from the most prestigious universities.

In Taiwan, almost anyone can get into a university, but the most opportunities come from the most elite and prestigious institutions, whose admissions standards can be overwhelming. The Education Ministry, for example, reported that while the lowest admissions exam score accepted to a university in 2007 was a mere 18.47 out of 400 (students take tests on four subjects, each of which has 100 points available), admission to the most prestigious school, National Taiwan University, required at least 400 points on five subjects. Many parents have responded to this pressure by enrolling their children in “cram schools,” specialized programs dedicated to teaching students as much as possible, many times in preparation for examinations, though many students take classes in art and music as well.

Cram schools or buxiban in Mandarin, are becoming a major focus of educational training in Taiwan, said Jay Chen, Children’s Academic Director of KoJen English Center, one of Taiwan’s best-known cram school. “Parents usually select cram schools which fit their schedule and one which can provide the appropriate program from their children,” he said. Chen estimates that over 80% of Taiwanese children attend cram schools. Cram schools are now the norm in Taiwan, especially among families who want their children to pass rigid entrance exams in order to attend top-ranked high schools and universities. “Cram schools must maintain a reputation of producing high performing students,” Chen said. “Once parents see that their child’s progression is at a high level, they usually will keep their child at that school.”

In addition to learning science and mathematics, cram schools also teach children the extensive English skills needed for admission to the most-selective universities in America and abroad. “The need for children to master English at an early age is critical for most parents living in Taiwan,” said Ray Wu, a former teacher assistant at KoJen English Center. “Many parents feel (that) by acquiring strong English skills, this will ensure a successful career for their child.” The early and ongoing push for academic achievement raises potential questions over the mental toll the work and pressure extract from children. Many scholars and child psychologists have asked whether such an emphasis on educational perfection and rigorous study is psychologically healthy for the children of Taiwan and for students on the mainland as well, as children there have also begun to compete increasingly more for scarce slots at top universities.

Researchers in Taiwan recently evaluated 7,900 students between the ages 12 to 14 years old at five middle schools in Taiwan and found 20% of 121 students have chronic daily headaches and are at a high risk of suicide. Furthermore, 40% of those children with chronic daily headaches were also diagnosed with major depression or panic disorders.  Thomas Swift, president of the American Academy of Neurology urged more cautious behavior in the future. “I have a feeling this is probably going to turn out to be right,” he said in an interview with Reuters, “but it will need to be validated in a larger group of patients.” Recent studies by China’s Ministry of Health, in comparison, have shown that 30 million mainland Chinese adolescents under the age of 17 suffer from depression or have behavioral problems. These statistics additionally reveal that 21.6% and 32% of China’s primary and middle school students suffer from depression, while many medical experts predict this trend will keep rising in the future.

Though there has not been any scientific research conducted to indicate a cause-and-effect relationship between this level depression and the pressures of cram school, many believe the rigid and stressful conditions of these schools are likely to lead to these problems. “It really is a problem when schools put too much pressure on children, making them mature too early,” Mo Li, a former Chinese schoolteacher, said in an interview with Radio Free Asia. “The whole education system, from elementary to high school, prepares children for the university entrance examination, which has become known as the ‘gates of hell,’” she said. “Time for play, rest and recreation has been stripped from the average Chinese child’s day.”

Ying-Le, the middle-school student from Taipei, who has a rigorous weekly school schedule, is an example of an overstretched student. On weekdays, her regular school day starts at 7:40 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. After a brief break, cram school for English and math starts at 6:30 p.m. and ends at 8:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. She must complete her homework from both schools after arriving home at 8:30 p.m., while on Saturdays, she returns to cram school from 7:40 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

This strenuous and stressful school schedule would be difficult for a college student, but on a primary or middle school student, the results can be disastrous, producing a society of stressed-out and overworked kids. In a China Daily interview, Deng Menghong, a psychological consultant with Yangguang Yizhan Psychological Consultancy Co., advised parents to seek treatment if their child displays early signs of abnormal behavior. “Working parents have little time to communicate with their children and this is a major reason for the rising number of teenagers with psychological problems,” Deng said.

Children like Ying-le are in a dilemma to pursue their educational and career dreams (and realize the hopes of their parents). This rigorous lifestyle of intensive studies for primary and middle schools children without any social outlets is turning the children of Taiwan and China into what many call nervous wrecks. Many in both places worry that their societies must balance extreme achievement-oriented study habits with social entertainment or they will find mental disorders taking too high of a toll.

Steve P. Jefferson is a graduate student in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. He’s enrolled in the International Public Policy and Management program.