Why DPP Education Policy Has Failed

This post has been lined to by someone posting on the bulletin board TalkBack. The thread in question concerns some sort of comparison of English language proficiency in Taiwan and Singapore. My post is referenced as evidence that English proficiency in Taiwan is poor. Because this does not reflect my feelings on this, I want to clarify my position.

This post, and the others it is linked to, were written in 2005 as a response to language policy changes occurring in Taiwan. It was intended for readers familar with these changes and not as a statement comparing language skill in Taiwan with that in other countries. I have not read through all of the posts on TalkBack, nor have I been to Singapore, and as such I am in a poor position to address the theme here. The majority of my writing is about Taiwan language policy and learning conditions rather than proficiency. My feelings about English proficiency in Taiwan are mixed. The vast majority of Taiwanese, particualry those living outside Taipei, have a very low level. On the other hand, in Taipei, English is about as useful as it is Hong Kong.

While residents of Hong Kong may take offense to my last statement, it reflects my experience as a non-Cantonese speaker that in some businesses, speaking Japanese or Mandarin Chinese is more useful than English. I have had it pointed out to me that English is a language of instruction in Hong Kong. This may be, but it seems strange to me then that a commercial language school market should continue to exist and that until recently, the Chinese government was recruiting teachers from Anglo-American nations through the Native English Teacher (NET) Program to assist in public schools.

The Original Post

In a post several months ago, some readers commented that I was being unfairly critical of the education policy of Taiwan’s current DPP government. These criticisms were so ferocious that I felt compelled to write a longer, more detailed justification for my belief. But really, this struck me as a little strange. In the past I have run a blog that was highly critical of the KMT, and I am repeatedly accused by my friends and colleagues of being dogmatically pro-DPP. It is this seeming contradiction that I hope to address in this post. I hope to illustrate that the disastrous education policies are the result of the current government inability to pass the laws that it needs to control the country. As a result, they are establishing an alternative government based on the administrative branches of the government, and it is this reorganization of control that is creating the chaotic education policies we see around us.

The Ministry of Education under the DPP is in shambles. The government continues to appoint unqualified, inexperienced people. They continue to politicize what should be professional issues. They continue to play the old KMT game of favoritism (corruption?) with those who serve party goals. But in a sense, there is no other choice. To understand this problem, I’ll have to spend some time explaining the structure of governance in the Republic of China.

Government in the Republic of China is based on the system first described by Sun Yat-Sen. This system is unique in the entire world, and is based on the rule of 5 Yuans (a vague term sometimes translated as ‘court’); the Executive Yuan, the Legislative Yuan, the Judicial Yuan, the Examination Yuan, and the Control Yuan. The significance of this is the distinction between the administrative yuans of the ROC government, in particular, the Executive Yuan and the Legislative Yuan. The Constitution of the ROC describes this in great detail, but for our discussion, the Legislative Yuan is elected by voters and passes laws. The administrative yuans, including the Executive Yuan, are appointed through the President’s Office and handle the administrative affairs of government. The Executive Yuan is the cabinet of the ROC government and is sometimes interpreted as the body that expresses the will of the ruling party.

This was not a particularly important aspect of government in Taiwan during its long history of martial law, nor in the democratic period following the lifting of martial law. But since the surprise results of the 2000 Election and the election of the DPP nominee for president, Chen Sui-bian, this distinction between administrative and legislative branches of the government has become a major obstacle for effective control of the nation. Take a look at these result from the 2004 Presidential Election. While the President of the ROC was selected from the DPP, the DPP control only a minority of the seats in the Legislative Yuan. The result of this is that they can not pass the laws that the Executive Yuan and the President’s Office need to control the country. In fact, the so-called Pan-Blue faction (KMT, NP, and PFP) have become such an obstacle to the passage of laws that they refuse to cooperate even with the passage of laws that they initially proposed when KMT President Lee Tung-hui was in power.

Because the DPP can not rule the country through legislation, they are setting up an alternative system of rule based on rule through administrative committees appointed by the Executive Yuan and the other administrative Yuans of the ROC government. For example, rather than passing legislation to reform schooling in Taiwan, the DPP appointed an unqualified, inexperienced party hack as the Assistant Minister of Education (Ms. Fan no longer holds this position. See here for more information on here work and the controversy surrounding her resignation). Ms. Fan then went on to begin the construction of a teaching system that by-passes the regular teachers who traditionally support the KMT. Large numbers of foreign teachers that have no party loyalty have been recruited either through the King Car Education Foundation (also see this post) or through foreign teachers programs run by a number of different organizations (see these posts 1, 2, 3) and are now teaching in public schools. And in case anyone has any doubts about the political nature of this action, take a look at this description of the hiring process for foreign teachers from the Taipei Times.

The hiring of the teachers is considered a government-purchase act. However, in order to avoid the time-consuming public-bidding process required by such purchases, the ministry decided to contact foreign academic institutions directly in order to hire teachers as soon as possible.

The DPP have also begun the enforcement of existing laws concerning early childhood education. The result of this enforcement, when it is complete, will be the creation and recruitment of an entirely new group of public kindergarten teachers who do not have an allegiance to the old system.

A more interesting use of the administrative channels of government to affect education can be found in some of the new operations of the Examination Yuan. The function of the Examination Yuan is officially summarized in The Constitution of the ROC in this manner

The Examination Yuan shall be the highest examination organ of the State and shall have charge of matters relating to examination, employment, registration, service rating, scales of salary, promotion and transfer, security of tenure, commendation, pecuniary aid in case of death, retirement and old age pension.

The Examination Yuan has no parallel in the governments of any other nation. The official explanation for this is that it is historically connected to the imperial examination system used prior to modernization to select officials for the imperial government and military. I personally doubt this could be the case, since it is based on the writings of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen who was not educated in China. Regardless, the DPP have been using the Examination Yuan in incredibly imaginative ways to reshape education in the ROC. Like the other Yuans, the Examination Yuan is controlled through the President’s Office, as the Constitution puts it,

The Examination Yuan shall have a President and a Vice President and a certain number of Members, all of whom shall be nominated and, with the consent the Control Yuan, appointed by the President of the Republic.

Because of the importance of the exams prepared by the Examination Yuan, candidates often spend years studying for them. Small changes in exam content can have major effects on the lives of students.

Beginning several years ago, the Examination Yuan began changes that have had a far reaching effect on education in Taiwan. The work of Professor Lin Yu-ti (林玉体) in reshaping the knowledge requirements for public service (For more information about this exam, see my interview with Lin Yu-Ti here.) is perhaps the most well-known example of this. Professor Lin’s reforms while seemingly common sense, are some of the most controversial in the history of the Examination Yuan. One attempt at the inclusion on tests of Chinese characters that can only be understood by candidates who can speak Taiwanese was particularly important. If these reforms continue they will have an enormous impact on the role of Taiwanese language instruction in public schools. The interesting thing about this situation is that the DPP must have been working for years reorganizing membership of the Examination Yuan to make this kind of change possible.

One of the major problems that this system of administrative rule has created is the need for decisions to be made by individuals loyal to the government, rather than by skilled professionals. I am continually raising the name of Assistant Minister Fan Sun-lu with respect to this problem, but she is hardly even the worst. While the current Minister of Education, Tu Cheng-sheng, appears to have been a great choice for the position, he was only appointed because the first choice, Changhua County Commissioner Wong Chin-chu (翁金珠) turned down the appointment. Ms. Wong was a high school teacher of Business Education. The DPP have also attempted to appoint Huang Kuan-tsae (黃光彩) as president of National Taiwan Normal University, even though he is unqualified for the position by the formal definition used by the Ministry of Education and lied about this fact in his application to the MOE.

Given the KMT’s stranglehold on the Legislative Yuan, it is understandable that the DPP would look for other ways to control the day-to-day operation of the country. Ruling the country through administrative channels is pretty much all that is left when you can not control the passage of laws. On the other hand, its reliance on party loyals, rather than skilled and experienced professionals to construct control over the nation has been a problem ever since this began to happen. It has resulted in the politicization of policy issues and a reliance on favouritism that leans toward corruption. This is interfering with the smooth operation of the country’s schools and wreaking education policy. While there is little good that can be said about the administrative control of education, we are still left with a very uncomfortable question — what other choice does the DPP have?

July 13, 2005 | Permalink

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Scott — you gave a good background on the situation, but you haven’t demonstrated “failure”. What about the system do you think is “failure?”


Posted by: Michael Turton | July 13, 2005 at 07:11

You can find the answer to your question by following the links in the first paragraph and in the second paragraph where I say
“The government continues to appoint unqualified, inexperienced people. They continue to politicize what should be professional issues. They continue to play the old KMT game of favoritism”

Posted by: Scott Sommers | July 13, 2005 at 08:49

Ah…OK. But what concrete failures as a result of these policies can you point to? Merely appointing unqualified and incompetent people cannot itself be construed as failure — it is merely a precondition for it.


Posted by: Michael Turton | July 13, 2005 at 21:37

I am an EFL student, and also a father of two senior high students. I am glad to find here one day surfing “EFL” on web.
It’s good to see views of foreign teachers like you who concer EFL learning and teaching in Taiwan, or even in Asia.
However, I can not agree with Scott’s political views on DPP education policies. Like other political issues, there are always pro and con. Who did not know well about the history can’t say anything right about current policy.
Only the people who have suffered the KMT policies knows the reason DPP has done.
I am near 50, not very old. When I was in junior high school in late 1960s, I can not undersatand what’s the biology teacher teaching because of his accent. He was from China. This happened in 70s in my senior high maths. Can you tell the pain of wasting your golden age in classroom?
The KMT set the rules for governmental officers who need pass the “NATIONAL” examination was just a way to exclude Taiwanese talented people, who, under Japanese controll before end of World War II, had never read Chinese history, entered “THE GREAT ROC” government. I don’t think Lin Yi-ti’s (林玉体) policiy of “knowing Taiwan better than knowing China” is going anything wrong. Assistant Minister Fan Sun-lu’s “Large numbers of foreign teachers that have no party loyalty have been recruited” is also absolutely right.
The policies which KMT played was to protect people who came from China includind everything in the Executive Yuan, the Legislative Yuan, the Judicial Yuan, the Examination Yuan, and the Control Yuan. In others words, the whole society.
DDP’s policies are not “another way to control the day-to-day operation of the country”.
On the contrary. They are going to release the KMT’s unfair controll, and give the freedom to Taiwanese people.

Posted by: Chester | July 13, 2005 at 22:23

I’m 52. I understand your pain in your junior high school years. I have a daughter, 19. When she was at junior high, 13 years old then, her Chinese language teacher who taught in Tai-yu (Taiwanese dialect),which is unintelligible to my daughter regardless the protest from a few students. Is that my daughter’s fault for not speaking the dialect? My daughter loves writing and literature. She hated that teacher even now who she considered has wasted two whole precious years.

Posted by: Hsuehching | July 14, 2005 at 23:02

I feel sad about that your daughter has experienced.
It’s ridiculous that a teacher taught Chinese literature by Tai-Yu in late of 20 century. Can you image that a teacher taught Chinese literature in Han-Yu or Har-Ga in Chin dynasty before Japanese occupied Taiwan?
Were they (the ancient teachers) anything wrong?
Why did KMT change that?
Back to Lin Yi-ti’s (林玉体) policy, do you think a person who knows the destinations of China’s railways (even in old maps) is better to serve Taiwanese government than a person who knows where fishmen feed fishes in Taiwan?

Posted by: Chester | July 14, 2005 at 23:44

Well then, how about this argument. Do the Western-trained PhDs (a lot of them in the elite class) better serve Taiwan than the locally-trained ones since the former seem to be better off than the latter?

Posted by: Hsuehching | July 16, 2005 at 01:37

You are not correct. All faculty hired by universities in Taiwan have more or less standard contracts based on their education and rank as given by the MOE.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | July 16, 2005 at 09:08

Scott, you’re absolutely right.
I’m just trying to respond to Chester’s argument: “do you think a person who knows the destinations of China’s railways (even in old maps) is better to serve Taiwanese government than a person who knows where fishmen feed fishes in Taiwan?”, not just faculty in college.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong. Does Chester mean that a person with more knowledge about China cannot offer better service (whatever it is) than the one who knows local Taiwanese situations? By this logic, local English teachers must be better than foreign teachers because local teachers have more strengths than foreign teachers. This rationale may sound too simple. But you have to admit that the attitude toward Western-made PhD (洋博士)is quite different from the locally-made(土博士). That difference is often manipulated by speculators.

Posted by: Hsuehching | July 16, 2005 at 10:22

Promotion and rank as a professor in Taiwan is currently based on a merit system determined by publications listed in the SSCI. In such a system, it is irrelevant where a faculty member’s PhD was awarded.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | July 16, 2005 at 10:42

A govermental officer is doing something related with the issues in Taiwan. A person who have more knowledge about Taiwan can surely do his job better if one could only choose one field, whether Taiwan or China, to learn. A officer who is solving tense relatinship between Taiwan and China is, of course, a special case.
The qualification and reputation of a science scholor should be respected worldwide. However, If he is studying about Taiwan’s society issues, one who lives in Taiwan or knows Taiwan well might do better than a foreigner. Of course, a foreigner or who has gotten his degree abroad are also welcomed to study Taiwan.

Posted by: Chester | July 17, 2005 at 00:42

“By this logic, local English teachers must be better than foreign teachers because local teachers have more strengths than foreign teachers.”

If a foreign native speaking English teacher and a local English teacher have similar qualification, I will prefer to be taught under a westerner’s instruction. That’s not because of their academic background, is because English is one’s native language. How about this, whom will you choose, a western Chinese scholor or a Taiwanese teaching you Chinese literature?

Posted by: Chester | July 17, 2005 at 00:55

What do you mean “more knowledge about Taiwan”? If you mean information collecting, everyone can do the job of a high rank govermental official. But, solving a problem requires more than getting the info which a secretary can do (for many, knowledge means information which I don’t quite agree). Solving problems requires the ability of seeing things from a variety of perspectives and being able to negotiate the conflicts between these perspectives.
I don’t know how to answer your second question since learning a languag is different from studying literature. Yes, I’d like to learn English from a native-speaker if you mean learning the grammar and idioms. Furthermore, what version of English do you want to learn? Typical or authentic American, British, or even Australian English don’t work in Taiwan. Language evolves in different contexts.
To me, studying literature is a matter of interpretation. Shakespear’s works have constantly been re-interpreted in different times for hundreds of years. There’re excellent sinologists in the world who are not Chinese and do significant studies on “The Dream of Red Chamber.” I don’t mind studying Chinese literature from them.
Talking about language, isn’t it funny that we, two Taiwanese (you are Taiwanese, right?), discuss Taiwan issues in English? Can you tell me what is national identity. What is Taiwan conscious? Where is our borderland?

Posted by: Hsuehching | July 17, 2005 at 07:04

Dear Hsuehching:

If you say a govermental officer is a decision maker like the a minister who is basically appointed because one’s loyalty to political party, that’s not the case I think. Hundred thousands of officers are basically doing secretary work like me. One who get his high level position because of “landing from a helicopter” has different ” well-informed knowledge” with one who get his career promoted from foundation of the organization. I don’t know which one is doing their making decision better. However, I assumed that the later one gets more respected.
In your words,
“Furthermore, what version of English do you want to learn? Typical or authentic American, British, or even Australian English don’t work in Taiwan. Language evolves in different contexts.”
Now, what version of English are you using on this post?
No matter what it is, it is better than a Taiwanese or Chinese English, if any.
I don’t disagree one who can interpret English better than understand Chinese learn Chinese literature or language from Westerners. However, I assume that one who can proficiently handle Chinese learning this subject from westerner is basically about the methodology, not the language. Moreover, my question might be wrong. A specific case can’t represent public opinions. You are probably outsatanding in your academic field, but how many westerners come to Taiwan for learning English literature and laguage by using Chinese?
“Talking about language, isn’t it funny that we, two Taiwanese (you are Taiwanese, right?), discuss Taiwan issues in English? Can you tell me what is national identity. What is Taiwan conscious? Where is our borderland?”
I am glad to hear that you raise these question. If we could discuss these controversial issues in Chinese, I would like to. However, that’s not the basic purposes of this website.
Back to Scott’s post,
“Why DPP Education Policy Has Failed”, I am just not happy with him on this title and his points on DPP’s policy.

Posted by: Chester | July 17, 2005 at 12:54

Really nice talking to you. Like you said, “bumping the bell.” It’s really a huge question. And each of us is seeing only one facet of the problem. I have to get off the dialogue for more urgent business. If I get lucky, I’ll come back in a few months. Writing is really time-consuming for me. Thank you for your patience.

Posted by: Hsuehching | July 17, 2005 at 13:56


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