In 2006, when Taiwan first participated in PISA, it ranked first of all participating countries for mathematics. Since then, it has consistently performed well on PISA. In the 2012 administration of the test, Taiwan ranked 4th in math, 7th in reading and 13th in science. Taiwan’s impressive performance has been attributed to investing heavily in education so this tiny island with limited natural resources could compete in the global economy.
Since the 1990s, Taiwan has focused on transforming the labor-intensive industries that drove the economy since the 1960s into a knowledge economy. The country has upgraded workforce training and enacted a series of education reforms to enable the system to produce a workforce capable of supporting this economy. In 2002, when it announced its vision for national development, its goal was to build Taiwan into a Green Silicon Island.
Taiwan dramatically improved its reading performance on PISA between 2009 and 2012, jumping 19 places from 23rd to 4th. This improvement may be a result of a new reading program introduced in 2009 that changed the way reading is taught in Taiwan schools. The program, “Happy Reading 101,” increases the amount of time allocated for reading in schools, expands the facilities and content of elementary and junior high school libraries, encourages schools and kindergartens to promote family reading activities and urges different sectors within society to work together to promote reading.
Despite high international test scores, Taiwan’s education system has been criticized for putting too much pressure on students and focusing too heavily on exams and memorization rather than creativity. To address these concerns the Ministry of Education has enacted a series of recent reforms. These include implementing a 12-year compulsory education with “exam free” pathways to upper secondary school; decentralizing the curriculum; offering high-quality early childhood education to all students, with subsidies for students from disadvantaged homes; improving vocational education and training (VET) programs; making arts education available to all students; promoting e-learning; and strengthening assistance for disadvantaged students.
Until recently, compulsory education in Taiwan lasted only nine years, until the end of junior high school. However, in 2014 Taiwan extended compulsory education to last a full twelve years, through the end of senior high school. This change was made in part to help alleviate the stress of preparing for the Basic Competency Test (BCT) for placement into high school programs. The Ministry is now promoting an “exam free” pathway to upper secondary school, in hopes that high schools will take residency status, civic involvement and other factors into account when accepting students.
Taiwan has also decentralized its curriculum. Instead of teaching a mandated curriculum developed at the national level, schools are now responsible for developing their own curricula based on the national educational framework, which outlines subject domains and functions: Science and Technology, Mathematics, Languages, Social Science, Arts and Humanities, and Health and Physical Education. Many schools have since established Curriculum Development Education Committees, consisting of teachers, parents, principals, administrators, pedagogical experts and other community stakeholders. These committees design their curricula to be more student centered—engaging with students about their situations, identifying areas to be improved and outlining students’ specific plans and actions. The curriculum allows teachers to develop new and innovative pedagogical practices more connected with the local community. As a result, teaching in Taiwan is no longer considered a simple job where teachers can teach from the same required textbook.
Taiwanese teacher education programs are provided by universities and colleges as well as teacher education centers. Prospective teachers (both elementary and secondary) specialize in their subject (math, science, language, etc.). In general, teacher training takes four years including the required half-year practicum. Government scholarships are available for some teacher training programs, with the requirement that students serve in remote or special districts after graduation. Teacher training programs within Taiwanese universities and colleges not only train prospective teachers, but are also responsible for providing in-service training and guidance for local education practitioners. The Ministry released a White Paper on Teacher Education in 2012 that detailed plans to create new teacher standards, increase the quality of instructors in teacher education schools, expand professional development, create an evaluation system for professional development for teachers, and better monitor the supply of teachers to meet demand in response to an oversupply of teachers in recent years, particularly at the primary level. Teachers are generally paid well and have a generous benefits package.
Read more about Taiwan’s education reform efforts, including strategies behind Taiwan’s dramatic improvement on PISA reading, here.
PISA 2015 Mean Scores by Country for Reading, Mathematics, and Science
Han Chinese more than 95%, Indigenous Malayo-Polynesian peoples 2%
$1.132 trillion; $48,100 per Capita
Services: 63.2%; Industry: 35%; Agriculture: 1.8%
Unemployment: 4% ; Youth Unemployment: 12.41%
Upper Secondary School Graduation Rate: 88%