This is a hyper-competitive, meritocratic* culture (if that’s even a word); some describe it by saying that in Taiwan, children start being evaluated the moment they’re born. One of our friends says that test-taking is Taiwan’s national past-time. Typically, it’s the mothers who are most involved in making sure the child squeezes every last possible advantageous drop out of every minute of their childhood. They are competitive with one another, and they groom their children to compete with their classmates. All this usually involves maintaining a degree of pressure on the child that many Westerners just can’t stomach.
One primary arena is the buxiban scene. From some Western perspectives, bǔ xí bān(s) look like special Asian torture institutions designed for use on children; aka “cram schools.”
It’s a traditional belief that parents should send their kids to all kinds of crammers in order to compete against the other talented kids. Therefore, most kids in Taiwan have a schedule packed with all sorts of cram school lessons [link].
This is perpetuated by a meritocratic culture that measures merit through testing, with entrance into college, graduate school, and government service decided entirely on testing [link].
Technically, PEI is a buxiban, but Mingdaw has vowed to make it distinct and give the kids a positive learning experience (and this is paying off – the kids love it here for the most part). Buxibans are private for-profit after school schools that specialize in various subjects (math, English, etc.). Every family that can afford it fills up their children’s after school hours with as much buxiban-ing as they can without causing their child to have a nervous breakdown.
It’s standard practice for the competition to rank every student (name and grade) on a public poster each semester. At one buxiban near us, no student (out of dozens) has less than 95. We just received junk mail from a larger competitor that listed the name and grade of hundreds of students – the lowest score was 80. We have some students that pout or even threaten to break down in tears when they get 95 on a test. 95 isn’t good enough. Heck, some even get upset when they lose at sight-word bingo. Losing to your peers in school is not an option – period.
Knowing something of the amount of pressure these kids are under, and what can happen to some of them at home if they’re perceived to be under-performing, we inflate their grades. We still grade harder and give lower average grades than the competition, and we grade fairly, but 90 says something different here than it does in North America. In North America I imagine I’d give 10%-15% lower grades on average.
Today I gave a student just under 90 for the semester, averaged from six categories, and that was the lowest grade I handed out. Her mom was clearly disappointed and wanted an explanation. I tried to prepare for this kind of thing by praising the kids as profusely as possible in the Teacher’s Comments section of the report card (except for one kid, but she had it coming). I told this mom about how great her daughter is in class, and that it was just a couple incomplete homeworks that lowered her average. The mom was not happy. I hope I didn’t ruin anyone’s winter break.
*This seems to be a huge paradox in Chinese cultures: the meritocratic nature of the system is evident; that has roots in Confucius, as I understand it. Yet at the same time nowhere else on earth is the old saying more true that, “it’s not what you know it’s who you know.” One’s guanxi network of personal connections is what makes the Chinese world go round.