New Curriculum, Same Problems? Can the New 2019 High-School Curriculum Help Tackle Inequality?

Written by Yi-hui Lee and Kai-chieh Yang, translated by Sam Robbins

This article is the abridged form an original article from The NTU Consciousness. Read the original article here.

Image credit:Img_1687 by Alec @ Taiwan/Flickr, license by CC BY 2.0

As a result of geographic and economic factors, educational recourses have long been distributed unevenly in Taiwan. This has long caused some disquiet. The effect of this recourse inequality worsens at every stage of the education system and severely hampers class mobility. The new “school-determined curriculum,” which is so central to the 2019 curricula reforms, will change many of the compulsory class requirements for high-schoolers in Taiwan. With inequality being such a clear issue, it is essential to ask: what affect will this have on the uneven recourse distribution across schools? 

When talking about this inequality, most teachers will point out that it is, in fact, more so a big/small school issue than an urban/rural divide. Recourse division amongst schools is closely related to the number of classes in each grade at a given school. The implementation of the 2019 curricula reforms now requires teachers to prepare many kinds of optional classes for students. This has not only increased the overall work-load for teachers, but has also required more interdepartmental cooperation and integration, thus creating new requirements to help students find courses students for their future development. This will hurt smaller schools because they have fewer teachers to divides up the resulting new tasks. Teacher organisations believe that the current number of teachers is clearly not enough, and there have been calls to increase the ratio of teachers to students. Given the divide between larger and smaller schools, smaller schools already had to deal with a lack of teachers. Thus, the new curricula reforms have effectively increased pressure on teachers. This might increase the inequality between schools.

At the same time, the new curriculum stresses “optional classes, independence and accomplishment,” which in effect means that the quality and results of independent study for these new classes are dependent on significant input from teachers. A teacher at a school in New Taipei City told us that they believe there will be a significant test on teachers’ drive for innovation and breakthrough. They also added that it will be more important to see if teachers are up to the test rather than the students themselves. Therefore, it will be harder for teachers at smaller schools to find the time to fully invest and engage in order to create these new classes. Even at larger schools, many teachers are shirking away from opening new classes due to the time sink required.

In Taiwan, the university application material system is often criticised for leading to a sort of arms race wherein students compete to create the most dazzling CV. The inequality inherent in this system is thus often brought up. Many argue that children from more affluent families have more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and, therefore, enhance their application materials. The new application material system brought in through the 2019 curricula reforms is consciously trying to improve this unbalanced system. The application material is made up of four core sections: basic information, class record, academic performance, and extracurricular performance. Previously, “extracurricular performance” was weighed about the same as all other categories. However, its weighting has now been decreased significantly. The newly created category of “academic performance” includes more aspects of in-school performance and now requires teachers to give a score to students. The department of education hopes that this new weighting will help tackle the arms race issue and limit the effects of resource inequality.

However, when we asked a high school teacher based in Dazhi about whether this system would reduce inequality, she said that she did not think so, because “the portfolio makes the school more important. If there is inequality between the schools in terms of size, recourses or location, then the portfolios will not end up the same. Currently, recourses are spread out in an “M” shape, so I am sure portfolios will end up looking like an “M” shape too.”

In the new curriculum the concept of “core competencies” has become crucial. It refers to an attempt to turn students into lifelong learners and thus not be limited by the boundaries of any particular course. It is also an attempt to link education to students’ lives. Because of this new focus, essay questions in the college entry exam have started to shift their focus over the last few years. Whereas in the past, many questions tested students’ ability to memorise large sums of information, more recent questions focus on testing analysis and argument skills and are more directly linked to students’ lives. This change should be welcomed, but there are some new issues which are emerging as well. 

A teacher at Zhongzheng high school that we interviewed suggested that for lower-performing students, analysis is more complicated than rote memorising. He said that many of these students are likely to misunderstand the question and thus provide an inappropriate answer, leading to lower overall test performance. He hoped that students not all taking the same classes would result in them becoming more self-reliant in their learning, and that by bringing education more in contact with students’ lives, lower-performing students will be able to overcome their difficulties. He added that, when we are helping students face these new challenges, it is essential we also reflect on precisely what “competency education” means. A literature teacher at the school also expressed that this new education should not just be about what questions are on the exam, but rather a broader effort to get students engaged in learning and develop more independence. If this is the case, they suggested that it might be able to help lessen inequality. 

As society and technology continue to develop rapidly, there is an increasingly diverse range of media for learning, which means that students do not need to be constrained by old frameworks. Especially for lower-achieving students, or those from the countryside, the internet has provided a well full of recourses and knowledge. Hence, this freely available wealth of information entails that self-reliance and self-study have become crucial in the 2019 curriculum. Education need not only be for students. Instead, all citizens can continue to learn and grow, and through this process, they can create a better society. Apart from this, the 2019 curriculum is challenging the widespread assumption that learning is merely a way of gaining a diploma. Instead, they are encouraging people to see learning as a way to make the world a better place. 

So, will the 2019 curriculum make things better? Our interviews with teachers revealed that many aspects of this change are creating new challenges for lower-performing students and smaller schools. For example, the lack of teachers in smaller schools is becoming exacerbated by the requirement to run more classes, and the new focus on exam questions is leading to worse performance from students already struggling. However, at the same time, there is hope that these changes could improve things. For example, by being able to take a broader range of classes, those who had previously been struggling might find areas in which they exceed at and thus not be constrained by the existing framework of literature, English, maths, civics and science. In addition, the idea of “class performance” is approved of by many teachers, who believe that ideally, it will help tackle the “arms race” that has taken place. Many were optimistic about the idea of a more diverse curriculum. We also hope that these changes can be positive to Taiwan and lay a stronger foundation upon which students can develop personally, and by doing so, help society develop as a whole. 

Yi-hui Lee is a sophomore studying Foreign Languages and Literatures at National Taiwan University.

Kai-chieh Yang is a sophomore studying Business Administration at National Taiwan University.

This article is part of a special issue on higher education and inequality.

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