Our Problem with Gun Violence is #NotNormal

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Last month, one of my former students from Newark asked me the following question:

Mr. Paulsen, “if teachers were given the option to carry guns, would you?”

My answer? 100% absolutely not.

While traveling abroad throughout this semester, I have been asked versions of this question time and time again. People from Japan could neither understand the epidemic of gun violence in the United States nor the guns laws in our country. When I travelled to South Korea during the Olympics, people asked me why teachers are given weapons like police officers. And in Taiwan, I am asked almost daily about school shootings. As a proud pacifist, it is incredibly difficult to offer any possible explanation as to why our country is so obsessed with guns. After all, domestic mass shootings are a uniquely American problem that happen literally no where else in the developed world.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that, to some fringe groups, advocating for common-sense gun laws instantly declares you un-American. Are we proud of this value? Are we proud that owning a lethal weapon makes one a patriot? Are we proud that citizens of other countries fear visiting the U.S. because of our problem with gun violence? Take this following video, for example: imagine if the words were exactly the same, but instead of NRA branding, it was branded with an ISIS flag (complete with the timer and all).

Would we tolerate literally any other group using this type of rhetoric? These videos are akin to encouraging domestic terrorism, which unfortunately serves as seductive propaganda to some of the most vulnerable communities throughout our country. I honestly believe that if more Americans travelled internationally, our country would soon realize what it is like in literally every other first world country. Perhaps fellow Fulbrighter Martha Infante put it best:

“It never occurred to me just how much I have internalized and to an extent, normalized the violence in our society. How does one explain the dramatic rise in poverty we have experienced over the last few years, and the vast wealth inequality that has existed for much longer? How do I explain that our society values the protection of gun owners’ rights over the innocent lives of children? Mercifully, my Finnish audiences were kind enough to not push the matter as they must have seen how painful these questions were to answer.”

To be clear, I am not necessarily anti-gun. I have used a shotgun, a handgun, and a rifle (including the infamous AR-15) numerous times throughout my life. Although I have never used it, I did have a hunting license in New York State at one point, and my family is full of police officers and veterans. I am not advocating that we send the military around to every household in America and forcefully confiscate every weapon in the country, as some conspiracy theorists often put forward. Rather, I think we should look to other countries to inform best practices, allow our CDC to start researching gun violence, and completely reform our background check system. In this post, I look to debunk some of the vicious rumors that are often perpetuated by the NRA, and then offer my own solutions to the massive epidemic of gun violence that permeates our great country.

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“One child is holding something that’s been banned in America to protect them. Guess which one.”

Access to Guns

It is estimated that the United States has more guns in circulation than people. Think about that for a second. The OECD suggests that gun homicide rates are 25.2 times higher in the US than in any other high-income country. Gun-related suicides are eight times higher in the US than in other high-income nations, too. Last year, 43 toddlers shot someone with a gun. 43 TODDLERS!! Did you know that our Federal Government banned the sale of Kinder chocolate eggs due to the danger they pose to kids? We currently live in a country where it is easier to purchase a weapon of mass destruction than it is to buy a piece of candy.

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Mental Health

Recent analysis suggests that only 23% of perpetrators of mass shootings showed signs of a mental illness before committing their atrocities. Our country absolutely needs mental health reform, including improving access and removing the stigma around getting help. But our problems go far beyond mental health, include an aura of toxic masculinity that has become deeply ingrained within our culture. After all, what does every mass shooting have in common? Almost all of them are all carried out by males (and typically young men). The U.S. does not have a monopoly when it comes to mental health issues; other countries simply do a better job at serving those that need help and preventing them from purchasing a firearm. Please stop blaming mental illness for our fundamental problem with guns; it only adds to the negative stigma and discourages people from reaching out for much-need professional help. It should be noted that America does not have a problem with crime, either; it has a problem with guns.

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“Guns don’t kill people; People kill people!”

Yes. Agreed. I guess we could say the same thing about car crashes, too: cars don’t kill people, people kill people. But we have made cars significantly safer over the years, starting with seat belts and air bags. We have achieved this end by studying car crashes profusely and spending a lot of capitol on research and development. Currently, the U.S. Congress bans the CDC from even studying gun violence. If people are adamant that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” why not let the CDC research how we can make gun ownership safer in this country, just like we did with cars for the greater part of the past century? Research overwhelmingly suggests that states with higher gun ownership rates have higher gun murder rates—as much as 114 percent higher than states with lower gun ownership rates. Also, why are there so few mass casualty events in other first world countries? Sure, someone could absolutely kill several people with a knife in a subway station. But it would be a lot harder to injure 851 people and kill 58 innocent lives in less than ten minutes, as was the case in the horrific Las Vegas shooting of 2017.

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“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

I honestly do believe that well-trained uniformed police or active duty military personal (a so-called good-guy) can absolutely stop a bad guy with a gun. Check, mate. But to make this argument for civilians is narrow and extremely short-sighted. Let us consider a recent shooting outside the Empire State Building. Let us imagine for a second that ‘concealed carry’ was legal in New York (which House Republicans are trying to pass, by the way…) and twenty “good guys with guns” were there. The first shots ring out, and all twenty draw their weapons. On a cold, busy New York City afternoon, how do they know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? Do they just start shooting everyone else? How would the police know who is the “bad guy?” In fact, “No mass shootings in the past 30 years have been stopped by an armed civilian; in 1982, an armed civilian successfully killed a shooter, but it was only after he committed his crime.

The whole “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” is incredibly faulty logic. I did not realize that we were going back to the figurative days of the Wild Wild West, either…

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“Criminals don’t obey the laws”

This is a pretty ridiculous argument that has become a major talking point on Fox News. Host Tomi Lahren recently gave her opinion that we should not pass any gun laws because ‘criminals don’t obey laws.’ Using this rhetoric, what is the point of having any laws? Why have a justice system at all? The whole intent of any law is to defer a specified activity. Would we say the same thing about literally anything else?

The Second Amendment though.

Yes, the second amendment! Let’s talk about it. I honestly do not understand people that are “against gun control.” Everyone is for gun control; we just disagree about where to draw the line. For example, should I be allowed to own a functional Sherman Tank, and park it in my driveway? If I had the resources, should I be allowed to legally purchase a rocket launcher? What about an ICBM? Of course not!! Only those on the absolute fringe of this argument suggest that I should be able to own a nuclear weapon to “defend myself.” In fact, the 2nd amendment is the only amendment that specifically encourages regulation: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This sentence has been up for debate for the past 300 years, and there is significant controversy over whether this amendment was even meant for civilian use to begin with (Remember when each state had a standing army, and even their own currency?). Also, for those that suggest that we need the 2nd amendment in case the government ever turns on us, does anyone really believe that 20 people with AR-15’s can actually defeat the strongest military in the history of the world? Highly unlikely.

The constitution of the United States of America is a document that was designed to be changed. Both Congress and the Supreme Court has put regulations on other amendments, including the famous restriction on the 1st amendment that one cannot falsely yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater (See Schenck v. United States). In fact, the “2nd amendment” was literally the 2nd change to the constitution. Our founding document did not get everything right the first time, either. Remember slavery, which was 100% legal under the constitution? What about when white males were the only people that were allowed to vote? There is even precedent for repealing an amendment; specifically, the 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment, and ended prohibition.

BUT WHAT ABOUT CHICAGO?

Great city, yes. I love those sandwiches from Hannah’s Bretzel (I actually think those sandwiches are better than the hotdogs, the popcorn, and the deep-dish pizza, come to think of it). But what about Chicago? Oh, the crime rate in Chicago, yes. To be clear, the gun violence in Chicago is truly a tragedy. A lot of people often use Chicago as the perfect example of why gun laws do not work, because Illinois has releatively strict gun laws. The truth is that many of the guns used in Chicago were purchased in neighboring states with significantly weaker gun laws. In fact, “nearly 60% of the guns used in gun homicides in Chicago in 2017 were trafficked from out-of-state dealers, and 20% of the guns came from Indiana alone.”

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Newark, New Jersey, also has a serious problem with guns. While the state has relatively strict gun laws, most guns used in homicides are trafficked from other states with less regulation. In fact, Governor Phil Murphy recently signed legislation that would mandate public reporting of where each gun that is used in a shooting throughout New Jersey was sold.

Solutions

People love to be critics, but what about possible solutions? Now that I have offered a plethora of debunks to common arguments of the National Rifle Association, let us now look at viable solutions that could actually have a sustained impact on our country and stop the vicious carnage once and for all. In Australia, the Port Arthur massacre was a mass shooting that took place in 1996. After this horrible tragedy, of which 35 people were killed and 23 wounded, the Australian government realized that ‘enough is enough’ and started a year’s long approach to end mass shootings. By every metric, their reforms have been extremely successful: there has not been a single mass shooting since 1996. To me, it shows that we can make a difference, if we have true leaders that are willing to put their country in front of their wallets.

Note: It should not be interpreted by any reader that any of the following solutions are original to the author in any manner.

Right to Operate License

Let us treat gun ownership like car ownership. Think about what one needs to do to buy a car:

  1. Be a certain age (dependent on the state)
  2. Pass a written test
  3. Pass a practical test
  4. Pass an eye exam
  5. Pay an administrative fee to get a license
  6. Obtain car insurance

And, even after you follow these steps, you need to follow “the law” to keep your license, and renew it every few years. I like that idea – let’s treat gun ownership like car ownership.

Increase the fidelity of background checks and end all “loopholes”

Currently, around 40% of all gun sales involve private sellers and do not require any background check whatsoever. A new Quinnipiac University poll suggests that “support for universal background checks is itself almost universal, 97 – 2 percent, including 97 – 3 percent among gun owners.” 97 PERCENT!!! WHAT ELSE DO 97% OF AMERICANS AGREE UPON IN 2018?!?  Let us increase the fidelity of background checks and end all loopholes, including the infamous “gun show loophole,” once and for all.

End the distribution of Military-style weapons

A recent Marist poll found that “following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 71% of Americans, including 58% of gun owners, agree the laws governing the sale of firearms need to be stricter.”

If a civilian wants to keep a hunting rifle in their house, I think they should more than be able to (after finishing the strict licensing procedure outlined above). A handgun for protection? I guess I could be ok with that in certain situations. But in my perspective, we need to end the sale of all military-style weapons to civilians. Quite frankly, there are no viable arguments as to why any civilian should be able to own one of these deadly weapons of war designed to kill people.

Strong safety measures

I am vehemently against arming teachers. For goodness sakes, even the TSA agents at our airports do not carry guns. In fact, most police officers abroad do not even carry their service weapon with them. Arming teachers would be a dangerous precedent that would end in the killing of more students, not less. That being said, I am all for a strong school perimeter and having a well-trained school resource officer, but without transforming our gun control, there is little a single SRO can do against a man holding an Armalite assault rifle. In fact, the school in Parkland actually had an SRO on duty, but remained outside the school during the shooting because he himself was afraid of the shooter.

Offer lucrative gun buy-backs

This is exactly what Australia did. The federal government should start a lucrative, no-questions-asked national gun buy-back program to start getting many of these weapons off the streets. Although many cities offer buy-back incentives on a yearly basis, a national gun buy-back program would do little without the aforementioned reforms.

Conclusion

We can and must do better, America. For those that are strong supporters of the 2nd amendment, I understand your loyalty. That being said, I encourage you to come spend a month abroad, and see what is like having to constantly defend our absurd obsession with guns while living in a country that has not had a mass shooting in decades.

For those incredible teenagers in Parkland – keep fighting the good fight. One of the best pieces of leadership advice came during my junior year of college at Marist, when the then Chief Public Affairs Officer Tim Massie told me that, “if people cannot find anything wrong with you, they will start making stuff up.” Over the years, I have truly learned how valid that advice is – when your opponents need to start making things up about you, you know you are slowly winning the fight. It may take us a long time to get there, but you are on the right side of history.

To close, it is overwhelmingly frustrating being abroad and constantly having to defend our countries absurd gun laws. While it is easy to feel hopeless, I will be purchasing an item from the Caliber Collection. This incredible organization purchases guns from police buy-back programs, melts down the guns, and re-purposes the metal as jewelry. In addition to helping get guns off the streets, they also donate 20% of their revenue to further expand gun buy-back programs across the country. I will also be donating to Sandy Hook Promise – a grassroots organization started by the families of the Newtown Elementary School shooting that looks to stop all gun violence in our country.

It may not change the world, but at least it’s a start.

This is posted in solidarity with all students who are participating in today’s #NationalSchoolWalkout on the 19th anniversary of the tragedy at Columbine High School, and is dedicated to all of those lost in senseless gun violence. Looking to make a difference? Consider purchasing an item from the Caliber Collection or donating to Sandy Hook Promise here.

Education Culture in Taiwan

“Every so often someone asks me: ‘What’s your favorite country, other than your own?” 

I’ve always had the same answer: Taiwan. ‘Taiwan? Why Taiwan?’ people ask.

Very simple: Because Taiwan is a barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources to live off of — it even has to import sand and gravel from China for construction — yet it has the fourth-largest financial reserves in the world. Because rather than digging in the ground and mining whatever comes up, Taiwan has mined its 23 million people, their talent, energy and intelligence — men and women. I always tell my friends in Taiwan: You’re the luckiest people in the world. How did you get so lucky? You have no oil, no iron ore, no forests, no diamonds, no gold, just a few small deposits of coal and natural gas — and because of that you developed the habits and culture of honing your people’s skills, which turns out to be the most valuable and only truly renewable resource in the world today… Sure, it’s great to have oil, gas and diamonds; they can buy jobs. But they’ll weaken your society in the long run unless they’re used to build schools and a culture of lifelong learning.”

-Thomas Friedman, NY Times, March 11th, 2012

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Student working collaboratively to solve a rigorous three-variable system of equations. A future blog post will further explore Taiwanese pedagogy.

As often put forward, Taiwan outperforms many countries on international benchmarks, including the infamous PISA. For the last two months, I have been conducting dozens of interviews with teachers and observed many lessons at a wide variety of schools throughout Taiwan. As one professor told me, most people in Taiwan, including parents, believe that education is universally important, which is often determined by grades, which are made up almost entirely of test scores. While the nature of standardized testing is deeply engrained within Taiwanese culture, there are many other aspects that make the Taiwanese education system so unique.

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The Taiwanese $1000 bill (about $34 U.S.) prominently features students learning.

Teachers here are considered white-collar professionals that value the quality of their work and take pride in what they do as a profession. In Taiwan, teachers have a tremendous reputation, and a “high prestige to teaching jobs and a significant regard to education in the traditional Chinese culture place lofty social status to teachers” (Hsieh et. al., 2009). Most educators strongly believe in the concept of a growth mindset: If teachers believe that kids can do better, they will; if teachers give up, then their students will give up, too. Taiwanese pre-service teachers are of high quality, and most have done well in school. As a result, education departments at local universities are very selective, and only take the best candidates available. This is markedly different that in the United States, where the lure of Wall Street and Silicon Valley often recruit our best and brightest (Kristof, 2011; Zakaria, 2012). In fact, a recent analysis suggests that the majority of education majors in the United States come from the bottom third of their graduating class (Kihn, Miller, & Auguste, 2010).

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the Taiwanese education system is how trusting teachers are of their students. At seemingly every level of schooling, students have a 10 to 20-minute break between every class and are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want to during this time (most students go outside and have an impromptu recess). Students are also allowed to use their phones, ask for extra help from their teacher, or even go to the cafeteria if they are hungry. What is most surprising is that there is little adult supervision during this recess – students are allowed to go wherever they want within the school grounds. When the break is over, a soft chime rings, and all of the students go to class. Even in the younger grades, students as young as seven years old are expected to go to their class by themselves (the teachers neither lead them nor make them line up as is common practice throughout the United States). Perhaps this trust is facilitated by an extensive early childhood education program: it is currently reported that over 96% of Taiwanese five-year-olds are enrolled in pre-school; on top of these extremely high participation rates, an astonishing 81.7% of the population “agree that the government should prioritize the implementation of compulsory education for five-year-olds” (Hsiao & Po-Hsuan, 2018).

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At some Taiwanese schools, students take off their shoes before entering certain classrooms.

In many of my school observations, I have noticed that although the typical teacher is physically at their school for over 10 hours daily, they rarely teach more than three or four hours a day; the average Taiwanese teacher leads instruction for 560-720 hours per year (Ministry of Education, 2017). To put this figure into perspective, the average high school teacher in the United States spends almost double the amount of time leading instruction over the course of a school year (Ministry of Education, 2017).  As such, in Taiwan, “teachers have much more time to prepare lessons, mark classwork, and reflect on how best to improve children’s learning” (Gove, 2012). During this time, Taiwanese teachers often meet with their colleagues in professional learning communities, plan lessons and grade student work collaboratively, and perhaps most importantly, reflect upon their pedagogy. This extensive reflection time “liberates teachers to act as researchers who continually develop and evaluate new teaching methods, and who keep tabs on one another’s performance” (Gove, 2012).

While the idea of teachers performing action-research is not new, it is yet another example of a best practice that is rarely followed through upon in the west. In most public schools throughout the United States, reflection often becomes one more bureaucratic piece of paperwork that teachers need to complete, as opposed to becoming a natural and organic part of a teacher’s daily routine. Perhaps this is partly due to eastern culture: in the days of Confucius, many Academy’s had designated pools that teachers would walk around after their class had concluded to help them literally look at themselves and reflect back on their teaching. Contemporary scholars argue that teachers “should not only pay attention to the cognitive processes [how they reflect], but also the content of their thinking (what they reflect on), the goals of their thinking (why they reflect), and how their thinking influences their teaching practice in the classroom (what transformative learning they experience)” (Liu, 2013).

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An example of a Confucian reflection pool. The Tainan Confucian Temple (臺南孔子廟) or Quán tái shǒu xué (全臺首學), is a Confucian Academy built in 1665 during the Koxinga dynasty.

It is important to note that the Taiwanese education system is not “merely the government-run school system, but encompasses a gigantic range of cram schools. It is virtually impossible to find writing on Taiwan (and Asian) education in the mainstream media that sturdily confronts the existence of a parallel but gray educational system” (Turton, 2012). These cram schools, often called bǔxíbāns in Taiwan, are akin to large tutoring centers that lecture students about mathematics, Chinese, and English. These bǔxíbāns are pervasive in east Asia; in fact, neighboring country South Korea passed a law in 2011 enacting a strict 10:00pm curfew to lessen the stress load on students (Seoul, 2011). This practice of late-night tutoring is particularly controversial in this part of the world: Although many schools in Taiwan are remarkably equitable, these night classes are one way that parents with means use their resources to give an unfair advantage to their children, often at an incredible financial and emotional cost (Williams, 2017).

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A typical (and delicious) school lunch in Taiwan. Schools in the U.S.A. need to figure out a way to offer healthier and tastier lunch options.

Learning about the educational culture of Taiwan has truly been an incredible learning experience. While some of the culture surrounding education is deeply ingrained within the history of the country, there are also many aspects of the operation of Taiwanese public schools that can easily be incorporated into our public schools back home. It is now up to us to implement these best practices and transform our education system once and for all.

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A Tawainese educator utilizing mutliple modalities to teach sequences. A future post will further explore Taiwanese pedagogy.

 

Works Cited

Friedman, T. (2012). Pass the Books. Hold the Oil. The NY Times Retrieved March 02, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/opinion/sunday/friedman-pass-the-books-hold-the-oil.html

Gove, M. (2012). Classroom crush. The Economist Retrieved March 07, 2018, from https://www.economist.com/node/21547854

Hsieh, F.-J., Lin, P.-J., Chao, G., & Wang, T.-Y. (2009).
 Policy and Practice of Mathematics Teacher Education in Taiwan.

Hsiao S., & Po-Hsuan W. (2018). Mandatory Education for Five-year-olds is Popular. The Taipei Times. March 19, 2018 Print Edition: Volume 19, Number 27.

Kihn, P., Miller, A., & Auguste, B. (2010). Closing the Teaching Talent Gap. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved March 06, 2018, from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/closing-the-teaching-talent-gap

Kristof, N. (2011). Pay Teachers More. The NY Times Retrieved March 07, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/opinion/13kristof.html?_r=0

Liu, K. (2013). Critical Reflection as a Framework for Transformative Learning in Teacher Education. Educational Review, 67(2), 135-157. doi:10.1080/00131911.2013.839546

Ministry of Education (2017). International Comparison of Educational Statistical Indicators. Taipei, Taiwan: Ministry of Education.

Seoul, A. R. (2011). Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone. Retrieved March 03, 2018, from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2094427,00.html

Turton, M. (2012). The View From Taiwan. Retrieved March 04, 2018, from http://michaelturton.blogspot.com/2012/03/friedman-on-taiwan.html

Williams, C. (2017). Teaching English in East Asia: A Teachers Guide to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Learners. Singapore: Springer imprint is published by Springer Nature.

Zakaria, F. (2012). When Will We Learn. Retrieved March 07, 2018, from https://fareedzakaria.com/2011/11/28/when-will-we-learn/

Standardized Testing: A Brief Overview

“Educators today face a dilemma. Should they support current presidential, legislative, and corporate initiatives that claim to ensure a quality education for all children through the escalation of standardized measurement of predetermined learning outcomes? Should they accommodate standardized testing within a contemporary learner-centered paradigm, which endorses a more eclectic “toolbox” approach to assessment that allows the informed educator to select among diverse gauges of learning progress” (Gallagher, 2003)?” The answer remains to be seen…

One of the most controversial aspects of American education in the 21st century is the widespread use of standardized tests within our public schools. Teachers and parents alike worry about the high-stakes nature of these assessments, which are increasingly used to sort students and evaluate teachers worldwide. Even many educators disagree with local testing policies, while others debate whether these exams are valid metrics to assess student learning. Understanding the results themselves can even be confusing: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made national headlines in 2017 when she fumbled through the difference between proficiency and growth during her confirmation hearings.

Long before No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’ were used in our daily lexicon, the American Psychological Association was asking powerful questions about the use of standardized testing in our schools. Specifically, the APA wanted to know why “American schools continue to rely on group-administered, standardized test scores for educational decision-making purposes” and how this “powerful historical tradition become a foundation for educational practices.” (American Psychological Association, 1993)?

Let us consider that last question: How did this powerful historical tradition become a foundation for educational practices?

Professors of education have longed used international benchmarks, such as the PISA, to compare countries, often to mixed results. As previously noted, many countries outperform the United States on these standardized metrics, most notably in Scandinavia and Asia. Recently, comparative education researchers have looked to these countries to better understand why these countries are so successful, especially in east Asia.

A contemporary belief many Americans hold about Asian countries is the high cultural values eastern countries attach to education. In reality, this belief is “an illusion at best and a cruel glorification of authoritarianism at worst” (Zhao, 2014). One author has noted that this perceived culture is actually, “a survival strategy the Chinese people developed to cope with thousands of years of authoritarian rule that has been glorified as China’s secret to educational success” (Zhao, 2014).  It is important to know the rich history behind this phenomenon, leading back centuries to Confucius’s time and when the majority of Asia was under imperial rule:

“The first examinations were attributed to the Sui emperors (589-618 A. D.) in China. With its flexible writing system and extensive body of recorded knowledge, China was in a position much earlier than the West to develop written examinations. The examinations were built around candidates’ ability to memorize, comprehend, and interpret classical texts. Aspirants prepared for the examinations on their own in private schools run by scholars or through private tutorials. Some took examinations as early as age 15, while others continued their studies into their thirties. After passing a regional examination, successful applicants traveled to the capital city to take a 3-day examination, with answers evaluated by a special examining board appointed by the Emperor. Each time the examination was offered, a fixed number of aspirants were accepted into the imperial bureaucracy” (U.S. Congress, 1992).

This imperial exam system, known in Mandarin as 科舉 or keju, was originally viewed as an equitable way to ensure that all students had a chance to rise up from their current caste. From the perspective of those in power, “keju was a tool to identify and recruit the most capable and virtuous individuals into government instead of relying on members of the hereditary noble class” (Zhao, 2014). Perhaps most notably, and because of its perceived fairness, objectivity, and openness, “keju gave birth to the idea of meritocracy, a core value in many eastern countries” (Zhao, 2014).

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A painting of the ancient Chinese keju (科舉) system

Even hundreds of years later, Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, often praised keju as the underpinnings of the world’s best education system. Dr. Young Zhao often refers to a fable that Sun often told about the drawbacks of a society without standardized tests. In the story, Sun talked about an election in the west between a doctor and a truck driver. “Of the two candidates, the doctor is certainly more knowledgeable that the driver, but he lost. This is the consequence of popular election without examination” (Zhao, 2014). When Sun Yat-sen set up a new government after overthrowing the Qing dynasty (the last imperial dynasty of China), the new constitution included an entire branch of government focused on standardized testing; this Examination Yuan continues in modern day Taiwan.

The rigorous, day-long written keju tests were quite different than what the academy offered elsewhere. In the Western world, for example, “examiners usually favored giving [oral] essays, a tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks’ affinity for the Socratic method” (Fletcher, 2009). These oral exams, which were typically held once a year and in public, “were more in the nature of public displays or exhibitions to show off brilliant pupils or to glorify teachers.” (Kandel, 1936, p. 24) These tests were often highly subjective, and by the mid-nineteenth century, “it was clear to [western] philosophers, scientists, and educators that the popular college tradition of oral qualifying examinations was flawed” (Gallagher, 2003).

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Raphael’s The School of Athens, one of the most famous frescoes on display at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, highlights education in ancient Greece.

It was during this time period that Horace Mann argued for widespread adoption of the common school, “a free, universal, non-sectarian, and public institution” (Warder, 2015). The father of public education, Mann was a revolutionary who saw schoolhouses as “the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans” (Warder, 2015). As such, Mann “persuaded the Boston Public School Committee to allow him to administer written exams to the city’s children in place of the traditional oral exams. Using a common exam, he hoped to provide objective information about the quality of teaching and learning in urban schools” (Gallagher, 2003). Similar to the Confucian tradition of keju, Mann thought that these common exams would be more equitable than the centuries-old tradition of oral exams. In doing so, “Mann’s goal was to find and replicate the best teaching methods so that all children could have equal opportunities” (Gershon, 2015).

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One of the first Common Schools

Unfortunately, unlike Mann’s exam, “many of the first widely adopted standardized school tests were designed not to measure achievement but ability” (Gershon, 2015). Thus,

“as early as the mid-19th century, there existed a belief in the role of testing as a vehicle to classify students ex ante, commonly viewed as a necessary step in providing education. Also emerging during this period was an interest in uses of tests ex post: to monitor the effectiveness of schools in accomplishing their purposes. Visionaries like Mann saw testing as a means to educate effectively; administrators, legislators, and the general public turned to tests to see what children were actually learning. The fact that the first formal written examinations in the United States were intended as devices for sorting and classifying but were used also to monitor school effectiveness suggests how far back in American history one can go for evidence of test misuse” (U.S. Congress, 1992).

Written intelligence tests grew in prominence in the early twentieth century, and had an aura of scientific objectivity (Gershon, 2015). By the turn of the century, French psychologist Alfred Binet “began developing a standardized test of intelligence, work that would eventually be incorporated into a version of the modern IQ test, dubbed the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test” (Fletcher, 2009). Less than ten years later, the U.S. government developed the Army Alpha and Beta test during World War I to “sort soldiers by their mental abilities, which soon became a model for schools” (Gershon, 2015).

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The original Army Alpha & Beta tests

Shortly thereafter, the College Entrance Examination Board started administrating exams in the 1920’s, which was later renamed as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or the SAT. Similar to the goal of the Chinese keju system and Mann’s push for more objective common exams, “the SAT was designed partly to make top colleges into places for clever young [people] from all backgrounds, not just the children of the elite” (Gershon, 2015).

These early standardized tests were still somewhat subjective, however, as they were often short essays and almost always graded by hand. In 1936, IBM released the first rudimentary automatic test scanner, which allowed standardized tests to be graded faster than ever before. In 1959, “an education professor at the University of Iowa named Everett Franklin Lindquist (who later pioneered the first generation of optical scanners and the development of the GED test) developed the ACT as a competitor to the SAT” (Fletcher, 2009). And in 1965, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act in particular opened the way for new and increased uses of norm-referenced tests to evaluate programs” (Alcocer, 2014), which was further exacerbated by the infamous No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

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The first SAT

A millennium after the Tang dynasty started the eastern practice of keju, centuries after Mann advocated for the use of common exams, and decades after the SAT tried to level the playing field for underprivileged children, standardized tests are just as controversial today as ever before. “Modern critics note that standardized test scores largely reflect socioeconomic privilege,” but it is unclear whether those differences are due to the inequities amongst schools or the tests themselves (Gershon, 2015). In fact, “tests don’t necessarily create more social stratification. Instead, they mostly seem to reflect the academic advantages that go with socioeconomic privilege among American kids. But, of course, that’s evidence that despite Horace Mann’s hopes for standardized tests, equal opportunity for all children still hasn’t become reality” (Grodsky et. Al., 2008)

In other words, what was originally thought of as an innovative way to increase equity has actually made our system more inequitable. Even in Taiwan, a country where the OECD reports as having one of the most equitable public education systems in the world, the practice of after school bǔxíbān (cram schools) are quite pervasive. Although many schools in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are remarkably equitable, these night classes are one way that parents with means use their resources to give an unfair advantage to their children, at often an incredible financial and emotional cost.

Compared to the United States, many countries have a more effective and efficient method to assess their students. In Sweden, for example, “standardized examinations are used as scoring benchmarks to help teachers grade students uniformly and properly in their regular classes” (U.S. Congress, 1992). In Taiwan, all students take a national two-day exam at the end of junior high school, which is administered by the Ministry of Education. Students interested in looking to attend university then have to take two tests at the end of high school, specifically the Subject Competency Test and the Designated Subjects Examination. And contrary to popular belief, even students in Finland take a standardized test, called the “National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.” (Partanen, 2011). In many of the best education systems around the world, Finland included, teachers focus more on formative assessments, which an abundance of research has shown to have incredibly positive effects in the classroom (Black & William, 2010).

Another major problem with standardized testing in the United States is that private companies with heavy financial incentives are often the entities that administer these tests. These large companies also have significant lobbying power and have tremendously affected domestic education policy. As it has been said, “only in the United States is there a strong commercial test development and publishing market. The importance of this sector, in terms of research, development, and influence on the quality and quantity of testing, cannot be overstated. Even when States and districts create their own tests, they often contract with private companies. In Europe and Asia, testing policies reside in miniseries of education” (U.S. Congress, 1992). This should be a major wake-up call for all parents, educators, and policy-makers alike.

Looking forward, more colleges than ever are participating in the FairTest movement, which encourages universities to consider allowing students to apply without submitting any standardized test scores. Some critics point to the fact that “while our understanding of the brain and how people learn and think has progressed enormously, standardized tests have remained the same” (Fairtest, 2012). In other places, many parents have opted their students out of taking high-stakes common core exams, such as the PARCC exam or ‘Smarter Balanced Assessment.’

Although we are centuries removed from the keju, the United States still uses remnants of the imperial exam system today. Every major professional field, from accountants to teachers to the foreign diplomatic corps, requires some sort of standardized test to become licensed in their field. This ideology in deeply ingrained: would you want a doctor to examine you or a lawyer to represent you without passing their qualifying exams? It remains to be seen how standardized tests will impact our future, but it is important to understand their history if we are serious about engaging in a policy debate over how to best serve our youth moving forward.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Testing in American Schools, feel free to read the OTA report on the subject matter here

 

Works Cited

Alcocer, P. (2014). NEA Education Policy and Practice. History of Standardized Testing in the United States. Retrieved February 01, 2018, from http://www.nea.org/home/66139.htm#1958-present

American Psychological Association (1993). Learner-Centered Psychological Principles: Guidelines for School Redesign and Reform, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC. Google Scholar

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2010). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 81-90. doi:10.1177/003172171009200119

Fairtest.org (2012). What’s Wrong With Standardized Tests? Retrieved February 15, 2018, from http://www.fairtest.org/facts/whatwron.htm

Fletcher, D. (2009, December 11). Standardized Testing. Retrieved February 4, 2018, from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1947019,00.html

Gallagher, C. (2003). Reconciling a Tradition of Testing with a New Learning Paradigm. Educational Psychology Review, 15(1), 83-99. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23361535

Gershon, L. (2015, May 12). A Short History of Standardized Tests. Retrieved February 1, 2018, from https://daily.jstor.org/short-history-standardized-tests/

Grodsky, E., Warren, J., & Felts, E. (2008). Testing and Social Stratification in American Education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 385-404. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/29737796

Kandel, I. L. (1936). Examinations and their substitutes in the United States. New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Google Scholar

Partanen, A. (2011, December 29). What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. Retrieved February 1, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1992). Testing in American Schools: Asking the Right Questions, OTA-SET-519. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

Warder, G. (2015). Horace Mann and the creation of the Common School. Retrieved (February 4, 2018) from http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=42.

Zhao, Y. (2014). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

 

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Asia

Xīnnián kuàilè! (Happy Lunar New Year!) I just got back from celebrating the start of the annual Spring Festival. The Lunar New Year is one of the most important holidays throughout Asia (in Vietnam, the holiday is referred to as Tết; in Korea, it is called Seollal), and is based off of the Chinese Lunisolar calendar. 2018 is the year of the dog, and according to the Chinese Zodiac, “those born in the Year of the Dog are considered to be loyal, honest and selfless. But they can also be stubborn, cold and critical.”

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Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Tainan!

The history of celebrating the Lunar New Year goes back centuries to the Shang Dynasty in mainland China, where “oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the [lunisolar] calendar existed as early as the 14th century B.C.” This holiday was originally celebrated to commemorate a fable in Chinese mythology about the Demon Nián, an evil Asian version of the Greek God Poseidon. Worried that Nián was going to attack a village during the Lunar New Year, a prophet appeared, and informed the villagers that, “The beast is easily scared. He does not like the color red. He fears loud noises and strange creatures. So tonight, spread red across the village. Hang red signs on every door. Make loud noises with drums, music, and fireworks. And to protect your children, give them face masks and lanterns to protect them.” The villagers did as the old man instructed, and Nián never returned again.

During the Chinese New Year in modern day Taiwan, it is customary to have a large reunion dinner with your extended family. I was so excited when Michelle invited me to Tainan (the former capital) to celebrate the occasion with her family, which was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my time abroad thus far. I quickly learned that “Chinese New Year’s Eve” in Taiwan is much more similar to our Thanksgiving and is a holiday meant to enjoy time with family, to cultivate luck, and to extend wishes of prosperity in the coming year. Michelle and her sister-in-law cooked an incredible dinner that was absolutely delicious! After the traditional New Year’s Eve meal, the entire family started to get ready for the famous red envelope ceremony.

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Family members offer red envelopes filled with money as a sign of respect and to wish the other members of their family a healthy and prosperous year ahead. The red envelopes get distributed in reverse chronological order (i.e., the person that is oldest gets their red envelope first). I also learned that one should never give money in denominations of four—because the Chinese word for the number four (sì/四) is a homophone for the word for death (sǐ/死). Yes, Tetraphobia is alive and well in East Asia…

Once all of the red envelopes were given out, we all sat together and watched a movie. We also played other traditional games, ate a bunch of snacks, and drank oolong tea. Later during the evening, we facetimed my students back in Newark; it was a lot of fun involving them in our holiday festivities, too! Unlike New Year’s celebrations in the west, there is no countdown clock to midnight or crazy celebrations once the clock strikes twelve. The party does not end on the first night of the lunar calendar, though: the Chinese New Year celebration actually lasts 15 days!

The final day of the Lunar New Year is known as the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated with a variety of cultural dances and music (and has also become commercialized as the equivalent of Valentine’s Day in Taiwan and Hong Kong). I really appreciated getting the opportunity to experience this unique holiday, and I really loved being a part of my adopted family in Tainan. It really was such a special night, and one that I will forever hold close in my heart. Talk about true cultural exchange!

I do want to take a moment on this joyous occasion to offer my condolences to all those who were impacted by the 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Hualien last week. This natural tragedy was my first time experiencing a vicious earthquake; I woke up in the middle of the night, shaking uncontrollably. At first, I thought I was having a seizure or other medical situation, and it was not until after the earthquake ended did I look on Twitter and realize what had happened. If I have learned anything in the last two months, it is how incredibly resilient the Taiwanese people are, and we can only hope that these earthquakes stop affecting a country with such hospitable residents.

In Taiwan, many people have off during the Lunar New Year celebration. I used this time to conduct research into the Chinese imperial examination system that originated from Confucianism, and how those ideals have permeated contemporary Taiwanese educational culture. I am starting to put these ideas together for my next blog post on the history of standardized tests, which will be incorporated into my inquiry project. Stay tuned for more information!

Learn Chinese!

English                                    Chinese

Red Envelope                        紅包 (Hóng bāo)

Happy New Year!                 新年快樂 (Xīnnián kuàilè)

Wishing you happiness & prosperity.   恭喜發財 (Gōngxǐ fācái)

 

Reflections from my first month in Taiwan

What an incredible month it has been! After spending a week in Japan, I arrived safely in Kaohsiung City and quickly settled into my new home for the next six months. In between filling out a stack of paperwork and several trips to the immigration office to secure my Alien Registration Card, I was able to explore the largest city in Southern Taiwan. I had a great time visiting the former British consulate, checking out the famous “dragon and tiger pagodas,” and traveling through one of the most beautiful subway stations in the world.

After my first week in Taiwan, I had lunch with a group of Fulbright alumni at a restaurant in the northern part of Kaohsiung. Michelle, Jhenyi, and Sandy (and her husband Andrew) were so welcoming, and I really appreciated the opportunity to have an in-person conversation after traveling by myself for a few weeks. In fact, we ended up talking for over three hours! I was also excited when Michelle invited me to her house to celebrate the Chinese New Year with her family next month. I cannot wait to experience this major cultural tradition here in Taiwan! Michelle is in the midst of writing her dissertation on professional learning communities; during her Fulbright to the states last fall, she researched the manner in which American teachers work together.

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After lunch with my new Fulbright family

Later that day, I had a chance to meet my advisor, Dr. Ping-Huang Chang, a professor at National Kaohsiung Normal University. This institution will host me as a visiting scholar throughout the spring semester. Dr. Chang and I worked out some logistics, including my observation schedule, and identified several possible classes that I might audit. He also organized a meeting and dinner with the principal and a few teachers from Kaohsiung Girls High School, the place where I will be conducting a lot of my exploratory research. I was particularly interested in the discussion we had about culturally relevant pedagogy and the math teachers’ interest in a new curriculum. The group also gave me copies of their government-issued math textbooks, which will be a helpful resource moving forward. Everyone was so welcoming and I could not be more excited to have the opportunity to learn from this exceptional group of educators.

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My advisor Dr. Chang (far right) and school team

It has also been intriguing to work through some cultural differences and misunderstandings. Although I had read a great deal about Taiwanese culture before coming here, I quickly discovered that it is one thing to understand something intellectually but quite another to actually experience cultural differences first-hand. For me, one of the biggest cultural differences that I have noticed between Taiwan and the U.S. is the way in which people view personal space in public. In this part of the world, people will often stand and sit very close to you on a fairly regular basis, and even sit next to you in an empty subway car.

Most restaurants also offer tea instead of water, and when they do offer water, it is often served steaming hot (I guess drinking “ice water” is an American thing?). One of the funniest examples of cultural differences that I encountered thus far is the way in which tomatoes are classified. In the U.S., tomatoes are often the focus of a somewhat whimsical debate over whether they are fruits or vegetables. Though tomatoes have seeds, the American taste palate often judges them to be a vegetable. Well, in Taiwan, tomatoes are always sold in the fruit section of a store; they are even found in fruit salads!

During my second week, I took the Taiwan High Speed Rail up to Taipei for the Fulbright Midyear Conference. I traveled with a group of ETA’s (Fulbright English Teaching Assistants) who have been living in Kaohsiung since August. During our trip, they shared some of their favorite things to do throughout the city and offered some nuanced advice, too. Many of the ETA’s are close in age to me, and I am looking forward to getting to know them better once we are all back in Kaohsiung at the end of the month.

The Midyear Conference was held at “The Great Roots Forestry Spa Resort,” which is a 45-minute bus ride from downtown Taipei. The hotel was built on top of a natural hot spring, which provided a relaxing way to wind down at the end of each day. During the conference, we learned about the history of Taiwan, received cultural adjustment advice, and listened to updates from scholars in the middle of their research.

As I alluded to this past summer when I was at the Fulbright Orientation in Washington, D.C., it is truly inspiring to be surrounded by thoughtful leaders who are eager to change the world in every field imaginable. We heard from researchers studying public health efforts, North Korean deterrence, and even water flood policy. One of my favorite presentations was given by a professor who was translating Buddhist chants into western-style music for his students in Utah. There were also two professors studying the Taiwanese legal system, with an emphasis on the legal rights of indigenous people. Each ETA group also gave a quick presentation that highlighted fun activities in their host cities, many of which were given through a humorous lens. I was one of three scholars that recently arrived in Taiwan; our presentations were more focused on our research plans moving forward.

Several sessions really challenged me intellectually, including a provocative address on Indo-Pacific policy chaired by Dr. Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang. Dr. Huang served as a Taiwanese diplomat in Washington, D.C. for 15 years and, consequently, has a unique perspective to offer. His presentation helped me realize how much I have to learn about the far-reaching politics of Asia and the increasingly important role China, Taiwan, and India will play in global affairs moving forward.

After the conference ended, I explored Taipei on my own for a couple of days. During my first night in the capital, I ran into fellow Fulbrighter Chris Upton, who is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate that is researching the rights and rule-crafting processes in Taiwan’s indigenous rights framework. He grew up in Taipei, the son of two Baptist missionaries. He graciously showed me around the 228 Peace Park, the controversial Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and took me to dinner at his favorite hóngshāo niúròu miàn (braised beef noodle soup) restaurant in the entire country. It was a memorable evening. The next day, I visited the National Palace Museum, had lunch at the famous Din Tai Fung, and took the fastest elevator in the world to the top of the Taipei 101 building.

As I look forward to the month ahead, I am excited to start visiting schools. The concept of time remains quite disorienting for a multitude of reasons. Even though I am 13 hours ahead of Daylight Savings Time on the east coast, I feel as though I am a day behind on the news. For example, when I am going to bed on a Tuesday night, I am often getting the news from Monday in the United States (I have been watching the international version of CNN, which is noticeably more worldwide in its scope when compared to the largely domestic programming found in the states). In addition, the major holiday break in Taiwan falls over Chinese New Year, meaning that I have heard a lot of people talk about their break as we often talk about our winter break during the last week of December. In other words, it feels more like late November here than February!

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The beautiful, albeit controversial, Cheng Kai-shek Memorial

To close, I am looking forward to celebrating the biggest American sporting event of the year: Super Bowl Sunday! Well, maybe I should refer to it as Super Bowl Monday while in Taiwan. Who knows? Anyway, I found a local British pub that will be offering a “Super Bowl breakfast” for expats that are interested in watching the game. It should be interesting celebrating this uniquely American “holiday” in Taiwan. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em I suppose: Let’s Go Eagles!!

 

Learn Chinese!

English                              Chinese

Hello                                  你好 (Nǐ hǎo)

Thank You                        謝謝 (Xièxiè)

Nice to meet you            很高兴认识你 (Hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ)

Why Taiwan? (Part 2: A Cultural Perspective)

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” -David Foster Wallace, This is Water

At the end of World War II, many world leaders realized that they needed to take steps to prevent another great war from ever happening again. One of these people, Senator J. William Fulbright, set an ambitious goal: he believed that if potential leaders could learn about one another’s cultures and build strong relationships with people abroad, they would be less likely to support future wars against those countries.

To achieve this end, Senator Fulbright introduced a bill in 1945 that called for the “use of surplus war property to fund the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” On August 1, 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the bill into law, and officially created the Fulbright Program, the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Government.

While I have long considered applying to the Fulbright Program, teaching a diverse population of students in an urban public school for the last several years has truly piqued my interest in learning about different cultures. Having previously had the opportunity to travel abroad, I have come to realize that my interest in visiting different countries centered on much more than tourism: I wanted to meet the people of other countries and come to genuinely understand their customs and way of life.

In the course of traveling, I have come to realize that you never really know where life will take you. I remember the friendliness of Patagonia’s indigenous people on my journey throughout South America and can recall the great conversations I had over dinner with locals while in Portugal two summers ago. When traveling through Havana last year, I listened to dozens of Cubans share their affection for the American people while at the same time respectfully disagreeing with U.S. government policy, particularly the failed embargo. I also have fond memories of my last night in Madrid, when six people from six different countries communicated using their newly acquired Spanish.

It is through these experiences that I have come to appreciate more fully the power of diversity. I also believe that traveling is one of the best ways to get to know the world, and perhaps more importantly, to get to know yourself. There is something about the serenity of traveling alone and the personal growth that comes about because of it that helps you look at life through a completely different lens.

Although I have been incredibly privileged my entire life, and have had multiple opportunities to travel throughout the America’s and Europe, I have never visited Asia before this trip. In applying for a Fulbright, I looked to study in a country whose customs are completely different from those with which I was familiar, a place that I ordinarily would not have thought to visit. I wanted to get to know the culture of a place to which few Americans have traveled to and come to appreciate the subtle nuances that make eastern culture so special.

As such, I was excited to see Taiwan, the Republic of China, on the list of Participating Territories for the 2017-2018 Fulbright ‘Distinguished Awards in Teaching’ Program. I was equally thrilled last April, when I received an e-mail letting me know that I will officially be spending 2018 abroad in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Once abroad, I will be hosted as a visiting scholar at National Kaohsiung Normal University in Kaohsiung City, the third largest city in Taiwan.

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Kaohsiung City at night

I am looking forward to conducting research and living in Taiwan, a country with a fascinating history. An island nation of 23.4 million people, its sovereignty has been hotly contested for over 500 years. After claiming Taiwan in 1895, the Japanese granted the land back to the Republic of China after being defeated in World War II. However, when Mao Zedong assumed power over the Chinese mainland in 1949 and renamed it the People’s Republic of China, the deposed government established a new seat of power in Taiwan. 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. Most international organizations, including the United States, do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Although a founding member, Taiwan is currently the most populous state and largest economy that is not a member of the United Nations. Taiwan’s government represented the entirety of China until 1971, when the People’s Republic of China assumed China’s seat. Geographically, Taiwan is a few hundred miles to the east of Hong Kong, and is roughly twice the size of New Jersey (and with 23 million people, has almost triple NJ’s population).

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New Jersey overlaid on top of Taiwan for comparison

I also look forward to experiencing Taiwan’s universal healthcare system first-hand after having read so much about it over the course of the last several years. Other interesting facts about Taiwan: the country competes in international competitions as Chinese Taipei, was the first democratic country in Asia, and was nicknamed Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island) by Portuguese explorers passing by the island en route to Macau as early as the 16th century.

As we move forward in a world that is increasingly changing and globally connected, the essential role each of us must play in fostering cross-cultural exchange becomes more apparent. For how else will we achieve a better tomorrow? If we can learn to listen attentively to one another, appreciate the wealth to be found in diverse cultures, and develop a stronger sense of the many different lenses through which one can view life—what Senator Fulbright referred to as “mutual understanding”—we might just start to care for one another in unprecedented ways. My only hope is that I can help contribute to Fulbright’s vision of creating a world with a little more knowledge and a little less conflict.

Perhaps David Foster Wallace said it best: “It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: This is water, this is water.” Maybe in Taiwan, I will actually be able to see the water once and for all.

 

This post is the second in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The first essay, focused on an educational perspective, can be found here.

Why Taiwan? (Part 1: An Educational Perspective)

I was born to be a teacher. For as far back as I can remember, I have always loved school and valued education as one of life’s most valued treasures. While I have always had a passion for education, teaching has lit a fire in me; I truly feel alive when leading instruction in front of a classroom. Though I love what I do, I take my role as an educator seriously, as I fundamentally believe that we are teaching the future leaders of our world. As it has been said, we are currently preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve a wide variety of complex problems.

During the 21st century, our international community will need to respond to these critical global issues, including food security, public health (and the so-called “death gap”), and world peace. To solve these obstacles, we will need a new generation of creative leaders: people who appreciate diversity, can think ethically, strategically, and divergently, and refuse to be satisfied with the status quo.

To create these transformational leaders, we arguably need an education revolution in this country. The achievement data is clear: a significant opportunity gap exists between middle- and upper-class students and those living in poverty. As our schools slowly become re-segregated, many of our most vulnerable communities are being left behind (Frankenberg, Lee, and Orfield 2003; Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley 2012). Although we have made some progress over the years, I must ask: how can we live in the richest country in the world and continue to allow the opportunity gap to be so wide?

Over the past six years, I have had the absolute privilege of serving the students and families of the Newark Public Schools. During this time, I have learned so much about the unique challenges facing urban communities and the incredible resolve of Newarkers fighting for a better tomorrow. Between the city’s inspirational residents, delectable cuisine, and exceptional transportation options, Newark has genuinely become one of my favorite places in the world. As it has been said, Newark, like ancient Rome, is “a living reminder of a glorious past, a predictor of a possible future, and a lesson in the persistence of the individual and of the human spirit.”

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Newark, affectionately known as the “Brick City,” at dusk.

While I have a deep admiration for the “Brick City” and the people that live there, I have also witnessed first-hand the educational inequality that has plagued our country for decades. I have previously written about the unacceptable transportation issues within our district bureaucracy, but busing logistics is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the Baltimore City Public Schools made national headlines when the press learned that some of their schools had broken heating systems and children needed to wear their jackets to  class. Year after year, I have watched students fight an uphill battle within a system that, arguably, was not designed with their success in mind. If I have learned nothing else over the course of the last six years, it is that we have a long way to go until every young person has the opportunity to attend a great public school.

To re-think education in the United States, we need to look critically at a number of issues both within and outside our current system. While we still have a great deal to learn from ideas, research, and innovation carried out from universities, think-tanks, and scholars in the states, there are also many creative developments underway in schools throughout the world. Over the course of the past decade, Finland’s unique educational philosophy has become a worldwide sensation. Although Finland has plenty of progressive schools, efforts to replicate their instruction model has had its fair share of challenges, and students living in Asia perform better in higher-level mathematics, especially in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. U.S educators and policy makers alike have only recently begun looking towards the far east in search of best practices beyond the primary school level. Though several white papers, policy positions, and research projects have tried to expand this effort to high school mathematics instruction, little success has been realized.

Taiwan leads the world in mathematical performance among all students in their country. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, colloquially known as the PISA, are clear: for the most recent year in which data is available, Taiwan was ranked as the 4th best country in the world for mathematical performance. The United States finished 36th.  The OECD (who organize the PISA) also uses a so-called “snapshot of equity in education” to determine how equitable the education system is in any given country. In this category, the U.S. currently ranks 25th, while Taiwan ranks 4th. It is worth noting that the Republic of China’s success in education stretches beyond the area of mathematics, as Taiwan currently ranks 8th internationally in reading comprehension and 13th in science, too.

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Using another standardized metric, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), eighth graders in Taiwan ranked 2nd internationally in science and 3rd in mathematics. Taiwanese students also achieved outstanding results in the International Mathematics and Science Olympiad. The Ministry of Education also has a plethora of current initiatives that are aimed at increasing creativity through art and music programs. If you put any faith in these standardized metrics (which, to be fair, are inherently controversial), it is clear that Taiwan is doing something special when it comes to educating its youth.

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During my time abroad, I will have the opportunity to observe hundreds of educators teaching at dozens of schools, learn more about their pedagogical approach, and work to apply as much of it as possible to my work with under-resourced students back home. Although a few ideas in this area have emerged from Japan and Singapore, the approach taken in Taiwan has received little public exposure despite the tremendous success on international benchmarks. This Fulbright project looks to change this paradigm once and for all.

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Stock photo of Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan.

As we look forward towards an ever-changing global economy, we as educators need to do a better collective job preparing our students for the complex world in which they will live and work. Commenting on the results of the 2015 PISA, the report’s authors noted that, “while changing how teachers teach is challenging, school leaders and governments should try to find ways to make teaching more effective.” Perhaps I am hopelessly optimistic, but I do believe success is possible.

I have worked hard the last six years to ensure that all of the students whom I taught received a great education, but I must confess that I have learned far more from my students over the years than I have ever taught them. While I am truly excited for the year of personal and professional growth that lies ahead, I also want to ensure that my time abroad actually makes a difference for our most vulnerable students. I hope that my studies in Taiwan can be part of the revolution that is committed to giving all students the chance to attain a truly excellent education.

 

This post is the first in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The second essay, focused on a “cultural perspective,” will be posted next week.