Global Perspectives: Explaining Taiwan’s Dramatic Improvement in PISA Reading

By Nathan Driskell

An island of 23.4 million people, Taiwan’s sovereignty has been hotly contested for over 500 years. After claiming Taiwan from China in 1895, the Japanese granted it back to the Republic of China after their defeat in World War II. However, when Mao assumed power over the mainland (renaming it the People’s Republic of China), the deposed government established a new seat of power in Taiwan in 1949. Currently, the mainland People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, while Taiwan claims sovereignty over the entire mainland as the original Republic of China. Many international organizations do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

TaiwanStudentsIn the latter half of the 20th century, two fraught issues have shaped Taiwan’s cultural identity: first, these questions over sovereignty and second, the authoritarian regime of Chiang Kai-shek, and Taiwan’s subsequent attempts to distance itself from him by decentralizing national authority and democratizing the political system. But if the island’s identity and political structure have been controversial, its growing economic importance, and especially, its impressive education system, cannot be questioned.

Taiwan’s educational outcomes have always been strong. But Taiwan got the world’s attention when its reading performance skyrocketed on the 2012 PISA test, moving from 23rd in the world in 2009 to 7th in 2012. What explains this dramatic improvement?

The Ministry of Education has been engaged in reforming the Taiwanese education system since the end of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, when schooling was highly scripted and tightly controlled by the national government. However, recent reforms have focused on fostering the critical thinking and literacy skills necessary to be internationally competitive on PISA. Taiwan’s education system had historically been criticized for putting too much pressure on students and focusing too heavily on exams requiring rote memorization rather than creative application of knowledge.  The Ministry felt that this emphasis on cramming for fact-based exams hampered students’ chances for success on the PISA test, which required substantial critical thinking skills, and handicapped the nation’s international competitiveness.

In response to this need, the Ministry has promoted changes to policy on teacher professional development, so that teachers are encouraged to teach reading and develop reading curriculum with more of a focus on critical thinking. It also improved teacher preparation programs, and set the bar for entry into the teaching profession much higher. As a result of the poor results in reading on the 2006 PISA, the Ministry announced the Happy Reading 101 Initiative in 2008, which invested substantial funds in an effort to improve how reading is taught in schools. The reforms to teacher preparation, the new focus on reading professional development, and the substantial investment in reading curriculum and instruction are all designed to ensure that students receive a more well-rounded education, are exposed more regularly to high-quality materials, and are able to apply what they are learning to practical problems. In other words, they are intended to align Taiwan’s system more intentionally with the critical thinking skills required on the PISA assessments.

Taiwan’s PISA Results: Strong Performance and Substantial Improvement in Reading

In 2006, when Taiwan first participated in PISA, it ranked first out of all participating countries in mathematics.  Subsequent performances have continued to be impressive, as the chart below shows.  In the 2012 administration of the test, Taiwan ranked 4th in math, 7th in reading and 13th in science. While the improvements in math and science were modest, Taiwan dramatically improved its reading performance on PISA between 2009 and 2012, jumping 16 places from 23rd to 7th.  On average across all subjects tested, Taiwan now ranks 4th out of all countries participating in PISA, after ranking 5th in the 2009 tests (Taiwan Today, 2013).

Taiwan PISA scores 2006-2012

Focus on PISA Literacy for Reflective Teacher Self-Evaluation and Professional Development

One of the most important changes that explain Taiwan’s improvements in PISA is the country’s focus on PISA itself. Pi-Hsia Hung, who has been in charge of administering the PISA test in Taiwan for the past two cycles, remembers that in 2007, when Taiwan first shared the PISA literacy results with its teachers, there was considerable resistance to using the test results as a tool for improvement. Many teachers resented the focus on a new test that measured very different skills than traditional Taiwanese tests, such as the University Entrance Examinations and the Basic Competency Tests, which focused on knowledge acquisition and a wide demonstration of facts instead of application and critical thinking.

Despite this resistance, the Ministry asked teachers and principals to critically reflect on the first year’s results. While the nation’s math performance was first-rate, policymakers considered the reading scores (16th in the world) a wake-up call, and campaigned to frame the results as a national disappointment and opportunity for improvement. As a result, teachers, who at first saw the focus on PISA results as an indictment of their skills, began to see them as an opportunity to lead a nationwide drive toward international competitiveness.

Principals and policymakers began incorporating PISA results into teachers’ ongoing professional development, so that teachers were regularly being asked to consider how to help students improve in literacy instruction, critical thinking and the application of knowledge. Teacher professional development in Taiwan is a shared responsibility of the Ministry, the municipal Education Bureaus, schools of teacher education, and individual schools. For example, many teacher-training programs not only train prospective teachers, but also are responsible for providing in-service training and guidance for practicing teachers locally with support from the Bureau. At the same time, the Ministry subsidizes the cost of continuous learning opportunities for teachers. An online platform funded by the Ministry, the Nationwide Teacher In-Service Advancement Education Information Web, coordinates these professional development programs, giving teachers a hub for resources on reading instruction, information on training opportunities, and opportunities to collaborate with one another to try new techniques.

In Taiwan, teacher evaluation is considered largely synonymous with teacher professional development, rather than a punitive tool to weed out low performers. Since 2006, the Ministry has provided resources and guidance to schools on growth-oriented teacher evaluation. These tools include protocols for teacher observation, student feedback forms, guides for peer mentoring, and agendas for professional learning communities. Teachers are encouraged to observe one another, write up feedback and co-develop improvement plans, and meet in large groups to discuss how the results of the evaluation can be used as a tool for improvement. The principal serves the role of facilitator and coordinator of this continuous improvement effort. For example, the principal sets agendas for professional learning community meetings in consultation with teachers. These meetings are highly regarded. A case study of Taiwanese teacher evaluation practices emphasizes the role of the professional learning community meetings as an opportunity to take professional development beyond a search for a set of technical fixes and toward an opportunity to continuously improve in a mutually supportive group. Since 2006, the Ministry has encouraged teachers and principals to align these highly effective meetings with improvement on PISA. As a result, literacy instruction and critical thinking skills are often a focal point.

Taiwan studentsTo date, the implementation of evaluation for continuous improvement has been largely left to the discretion of school administration and teachers themselves. This is because the Ministry wished to preserve a spirit of voluntariness and ensure that evaluations are not perceived as unwelcome ministerial intrusions. That said, the success of this professional development in improving literacy results has convinced the Ministry of the value of expanding it. The Ministry plans to roll out a more centralized and comprehensive evaluation and professional growth portal in 2016. It hopes that this portal will be able to incentivize broader and deeper participation, as well as track who is using these systems and the degree of fidelity of implementation.

As a result of their professional development, teachers have designed formative diagnostic assessments and lesson plans that begin to incorporate more critical thinking exercises that reflected the higher order skills measured by PISA. More broadly, PISA has changed the extent to which the nation regards teachers as professionals who are expected to improve their own skills. According to Dr. Hung, since Taiwan first administered PISA, the expectations of teachers have evolved to focus on their role as reflective practitioners who can constantly refine their teaching to better foster critical thinking skills, rather than guardians of knowledge who transmit it to passive recipients.

This professional development has also improved teachers’ ability to design and refine literacy curricula. In Taiwan, the responsibility for developing curriculum rests largely with individual schools and teachers, although such curricula must be aligned with a national framework, set by the Ministry and covering the subject domains of Science and Technology, Mathematics, Languages, Social Science, Arts and Humanities, and Health and Physical Education. Many schools have established collaborative Curriculum Development Education Committees, consisting of teachers, parents, principals, administrators, pedagogical experts and other community stakeholders. These committees often design their curricula to be student-centered: engaging students in the learning process by asking them to reflect on their personal life and what motivates them, identifying targeted areas to be improved for each student, and outlining specific outcomes and action steps that teachers and students will take to improve. In turn, teachers take the Committees’ guidelines to develop their own lesson plans and formative assessments, with ongoing support from online and university-based professional learning opportunities.

It has not always been this way. When compulsory education began in 1968, Taiwan was subject to the authoritarian regime of Chiang Kai-shek, curriculum was highly centralized, and teaching was tightly scripted to control the messaging delivered to students. Once Taiwan began to democratize in the mid-1970s, decentralization and greater autonomy of speech became a national priority. Since 1987, Taiwan has decentralized its education system to give teachers more freedom. That said, the Ministry of Education still maintains oversight over the curricula by ensuring that they are aligned with a national educational standards framework. Furthermore, ensuring that teachers were consistently well prepared to assist with curriculum development and implement locally developed, standards-aligned curricula with fidelity remained a national priority. Therefore, professional development focused on PISA results serves as one in a series of initiatives — from promoting balanced Curriculum Development Committees, to strengthening Ministry oversight of standards, to developing online learning portals for teachers — that have ensured that teachers are adequately prepared to exercise this autonomy.

Happy Reading 101: National Investments in Literacy

While teacher professional development related to PISA has been a lynchpin of the Ministry’s literacy strategy, it has also prioritized financial investments in literacy improvement. These financial investments were announced as part of a literacy initiative called Happy Reading 101, launched in 2008. Taiwanese officials credit this program with Taiwan’s substantial improvements in reading.

While reading had always been emphasized in Taiwanese schools, it was typically taught in a rote way, emphasizing mechanical acquisition of decoding and comprehension skills without also focusing on student engagement and critical thinking. Given these limitations, Happy Reading 101 tries to help schools to more proactively position reading as a “core value”: teaching reading in more varied, more critical, and more engaging ways; encouraging parents to spend more time on reading; and ultimately helping more students to develop a love of reading and a critical appreciation for different types of texts. The Ministry encourages schools to adopt a range of strategies in support of these goals. Specifically, Happy Reading 101 provides funding to increase the amount of time dedicated to reading instruction in schools. It provides additional resources to improve reading instruction, including more and more updated books, lesson planning tools, and reading-focused educator professional development. It supports the modernization and expansion of reading material in elementary and junior high school libraries. It also promotes family engagement by giving schools guidance on how to incorporate family reading activities into homework and parent outreach. Lastly, it provides support for a campaign to urge members of different sectors, including museums, out-of-school libraries, and businesses, to join schools in promoting reading.

TaiwanStudentsHappy Reading 101 is one component of the Intelligent Taiwan – Manpower Cultivation Project. This nine-year (2009-2016) Administrative Plan leverages $298.7 billion in New Taiwan Dollars (approximately $9.94 billion USD) to thirteen individual programs, with the goal of “ensuring educational resources are allocated as effectively as possible in such a way as to strengthen national competitiveness and cultivate outstanding, self-actualizing modern citizens who will also be citizens of the world” (Ministry of Education, Republic of China, 2010). Happy Reading 101’s budget is approximately 1% of the total Manpower Cultivation Project: $2.6 billion New Taiwan Dollars (approximately $86.6 million USD) over seven years. Schools first received funding in 2009. Program components, including family engagement plans and instructional guidance, were fully integrated into schools by 2011. The next four years of funding support ongoing efforts to revitalize libraries, continue outreach to parents, and leverage community partnerships in support of reading.

Dr. Hung credits the initiative with dramatically improving the quality of school libraries and increasing the quantity and quality of books children are reading. She also sees much greater participation in reading at home and at school, because parents and teachers are engaged together in the process of promoting reading. From her point of view, doing better on reading is not just a concern for schools, but also a national issue that the entire community was engaged in supporting.

Building a Higher Quality Teaching Force

A key ingredient in the success of top performing education systems is the quality of teachers. In 2012, 86 percent of Taiwan’s incoming teachers self-reported that they achieved at least above average in their secondary school classes; 56 percent reported they were at or near the top of their classes (IEA, 2012, p. 229). Furthermore, teachers are respected in this nation of 23.4 million people. Yet the preparation of the teaching force has still been a concern.

Although teacher education in Taiwan traditionally fell under the purview of a limited number of universities, teacher preparation expanded in the 1990s. A wide range of public Taiwanese universities and colleges, as well as private specialized teacher education centers, offered teacher education programs. The expansion of teacher preparation programs, and concerns about the quality of those programs, led the Ministry to introduce additional performance measures of teacher preparation programs, and limit the number of graduates to only the most competitive. In 2005, the Ministry introduced a plan to begin evaluating teacher preparation institutions, and close those judged to be inferior. The Ministry’s goal was to reduce the number of teachers trained by 44 percent. In addition to curtailing the growth of preparation programs and more critically evaluating them, the Ministry also instituted reforms to ensure that only the best-prepared teachers graduated from their programs. Once candidates complete their preparation, they now must take the Teacher Qualification Examination in order to be granted the right to be a teacher in the public school. In 2007, the pass rate on this examination was 68 percent; and in 2008, it was 76 percent (IEA, 2012, p. 67).

Despite these successes, refining and improving teacher recruitment, training and induction is an ongoing process. The Ministry released a White Paper on Teacher Education (unfortunately, not currently available in English) in 2012 that details plans to create new standards for what teachers need to know and be able to do, improve the quality of instructors in teacher education schools, expand professional development for all teachers, create an evaluation system of professional development for teachers, and better monitor the supply of teachers.

Recent expansions of compulsory education, requiring attendance in senior high school for all students, may also increase demand for more, and more qualified, upper secondary teachers in more diverse subjects.

Challenges on the Horizon: Equity, Access, and Ongoing Reforms

Taiwan has made substantial new investments in reading instruction, spearheaded ongoing efforts to help teachers be more reflective and recognize the value of critical thinking in their curriculum design and pedagogy, and monitored and adjusted the systems for preparing teachers so that only the most qualified candidates are licensed, and only the highest quality institutions confer degrees. Each of these improvements helps to explain the increases in Taiwan’s reading scores on the 2012 PISA.

Yet despite Taiwan’s successes, the Ministry is aware that challenges remain. For one, Taiwan has not focused as extensively as many top performers on expanding education access to the youngest students. Compulsory education starts at age six. This is not to say that there has been no progress in early childhood education and care: the government did recently institute a new fee-waiver system for those who cannot afford the fees required for five-year-olds to attend school. Taiwan has also drafted legislation to integrate day-care centers with kindergartens to create a more cohesive system. As a result of these efforts, about 80% of students from ages four to five receive education at a day-care center or a kindergarten (Pi-Hsia Hung, personal communication, September 9, 2014). That being said, funding and support of public education for three-year-olds has been far less substantial. When three-year-olds are included, the number of students participating in early childhood education drops to 40%. Some advocates in Taiwan have supported increasing the budget for early education fee waivers to include three-year-olds and four-year-olds. However, given resource constraints and the erosion of political capital that resulted from fiercely controversial 12-year compulsory education reforms, these reforms to early childhood may not happen for several years. (Pi-Hsia Hung, personal communication, September 9, 2014)

Taiwan Secondary studentsIn addition to the limited investments in early childhood education, there is some debate as to whether Taiwan’s education results are equitable for all students. A great deal of evidence suggests that Taiwanese education has made considerable progress toward equity. For example, the OECD reports the percentage of students scoring in the top two levels (Level 5 and Level 6) of each PISA test as one indicator of educational equity. Thirty-seven point two percent of Taiwanese students scored in the top two levels of the 2012 PISA Mathematics Exam, with only Shanghai and Singapore outperforming them in this regard. At the other end of the spectrum, only 12.8 percent of Taiwanese students scored in the bottom levels in mathematics, a lower percentage than all but nine other countries. For comparison, 25.8 percent of U.S. students score in the bottom two levels in math, while only 8.8 percent of U.S. students score in the top two levels. Another measure used by the OECD to indicate equity in a nation’s schools is resilience: that is, the percentage of disadvantaged students in a country who are among the top-third of performers worldwide. Taiwan performs exceptionally well on this measure. With 60 percent of its disadvantaged students meeting the OECD criteria for “resilience,” Taiwan ranks behind only Finland, Macao, and Hong Kong on the proportion of its disadvantaged students performing at this high level. (OECD, 2013; Taiwan Today, 2013)

Taken together, these data indicate that Taiwan is performing quite well on measures of equity. That being said, socioeconomic status explains 17.1 percent of the variation in student mathematics performance on PISA, compared to the OECD average, and U.S. figure, of 14.8 percent (OECD, 2014, p. 200). This result led the OECD to label Taiwan as a country with “above-average performance, and below average equity” in its latest Education at a Glance report (OECD, 2014, p. 196). Therefore, the evidence for equity in Taiwan is mixed, and the ambiguity suggests that Taiwan still has some work to do to provide an excellent education for all of its students.

Concerns about equity and access prompted substantial recent changes to the structure of Taiwanese education. Until summer 2014, compulsory education in Taiwan lasted only nine years, until the end of junior high school. Under this system, the Basic Competency Test (BCT), a multiple-choice test that covers Chinese, English, mathematics, natural science and social science, determined placement in high school. The prestige of senior high schools was determined by the cut score used to determine admission, so there was little incentive for schools to recruit underperforming or disadvantaged students who were at risk of ending their education at the end of the nine compulsory years.

Advocates for more equitable access and greater lifelong learning opportunities for all students charged that the system was designed to privilege senior high school prestige over equitable access to higher education. In order to address these criticisms, the Minister of Education instituted a series of major structural reforms in summer 2014. Compulsory education in Taiwan now lasts 12 years: all students attend senior high school, rather than those with the highest scores. The reforms to compulsory education also changed the procedures for admission into high school, since all students are now required to attend. Students’ scores are now used to determine their ranking for admissions, but only in circumstances where the demand exceeds the number of available seats in schools. Students have to take additional subject-specific tests only when they are applying to specialty arts- or science-focused high schools.

Taiwan system chart

Although the reforms have been controversial, with parents charging that the new system is confusing and poorly explained, the Ministry asserts that the new system will allow all students to have a high-quality upper secondary education. Managing these controversies and continuing to expand access will be a major focus of the Ministry’s work moving forward. Although there is room for improvement, the country’s successes in implementing the Happy Reading 101 programs, improving practice on teaching students critical thinking skills, and raising the bar for teacher certification, position Taiwan well for continued success and future growth.