Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What is a Buxiban?

My first thought on teaching English in Asia came to me when I was on Semester at Sea back in 2003. I was in Japan when I met an American guy who was teaching English there.

I thought it sounded like a great idea, and pretty much decided then and there that after college, I was going to move to Japan to teach English. As I began to research it, I realized that there are tons of opportunities for foreigners to live all over Asia and teach English, mostly in what are called cram schools, or in Chinese, buxibans (pronounced boo-she-ban).

There is all kinds of information on the Internet about teaching in Asia, what buxibans are, how to find jobs, get visa's, pay taxes, etc., but even with all that was available I never really understood exactly what a buxiban was. It wasn't until I arrived in Taiwan and started learning about the education system here that I began to comprehend it.

In order to understand what a buxiban is, you really need to understand how the system works here and why such a thing even exists.

Asian students world-wide are notorious for their outstanding test scores and high academic achievement. It is neither a secret nor a mere stereotype that Asians typically far out-preform their international peers on standardized tests, especially in math and science. This is something that is deeply ingrained into the Chinese culture and has been for thousands of years.

China has a long history of fierce and rigorous academic competition. The importance of the imperial exam in Ancient China actually pre-dates Christ! While in the West we have Socrates to thank for shaping our current educational system, the Eastern education is based on the Confucian model of learning which emphasizes rote memorization and reverence for your teacher. These two factors have heavily influence modern-day education in this part of the world.

Today in Taiwan, the important tests begin at the age of 13 with the high school entrance exam.

Every high school in Taiwan is ranked and where you go to high school is seen as a huge indicator of your future potential. As a result, it is not unheard of for a student from southern Taiwan to move all the way north to Taipei to attend high school if they qualify to go to Taipei 1st School - the premiere high school in the country. In order to qualify for entrance to this school you must score in the top 99 percentile of students in the country.

Admission to high school is solely dependent on your high school admission test - arguably the most important test of a person's life - because what high school you go to will determine what university you go to and ultimately how good of a job that you can get - or so the thinking goes.

A couple years after the high school entrance exam, the students will take the University entrance exam. Admission to university, again, depends almost completely upon one singular factor: your admission test results. The only other factor that determines admission is where you went to high school. (In other words, the results from a test you took four years earlier.)

The university entrance exam not only determines where you will go to school, but also what you will study when you get there.

There are two systems for choosing your major and school in Taiwan.

The first method is to make list, in order of preference, of 100 university/major combinations. All schools are ranked and all majors are ranked as well. The best students become doctors, the second best lawyers, the third best engineers, and on down the line.

For the most ambitious student in America, their list might look like this:

  1. Harvard: Med School
  2. U Penn: Med School
  3. Harvard: Law
  4. U Penn: Law
  5. Yale: Engineering
  6. Penn State: Whatever Major You Want (Go Lions!)
and on and on. The list is generated before receiving your test results. Then, depending on how well you did, your university/major combination will be chosen for you by a computer.

The second option is to wait until after you see your test results. Based on your score, you will receive a list of majors that you have qualified for. Then you rank the majors and schools available to you according to your preferences and again a computer chooses the combination for you.

This is further complicated by the fact that once you get into college, you cannot change your major without taking another entrance test. Even if you want to go from say the #1 most difficult major (Med School) to the #100 ranked major you still have to take a test to switch. As a result... very few students will change their major once they are accepted into a university.

With all of these decisive tests, you can imagine the pressure the students are under to perform well. The entire education system is based on preparing them for these tests and that is where buxibans, or "cram schools," come into play.

Buxibans are privately run businesses for the purpose of helping students prepare for their exams. They really are "cram schools" set up to help kids "cram" for exams. However, in America "cramming" for a test means staying up late the night before the test or at most the week before finals. In Taiwan, cramming is practically a way of life.

Cram schools make big promises to parents who believe that class sizes are too big in Taiwan's public schools for the teachers to be effective at teaching (indeed they can be as large as 50/class). In turn parents pay a considerable amount of money to send their kids to the best cram schools. As a result, there is huge pressure on cram schools and cram school teachers to boost their students' test scores.

Day in and day out, after what is already a very long school day by American standards (7:30am - 5pm), most students will spend 3 hours in the evening attending cram school to bone up on math, science, English, or Chinese. And when the students under-preform on their exams, it is the cram school - and not the public schools - that get the flack for it.

The pressure to perform well on tests and get into the "high ranking" professions is so powerful in Asian culture that these buxibans and cram schools are no longer just isolated to this part of the world. Until I came to Taiwan, I had no idea what a buxiban was, but actually they are popping up all over the US, and can be found just about anywhere you find an Asian community. (you can read more about it in a
NY Times article here).

Buxibans are as prevalent here as KTV's and 7-11's with new ones opening all the time to fill a never-ending demand. It has been eye-opening, to say the least, and I hope this post helps clear up the mystery of the buxiban for anyone who was wondering what all these foreigners are doing over here in Asia.

Living here in Taiwan and working in the education industry has, at times, been frustrating for Nick and I. We have spent many hours talking it through trying to understand and grasp the system here, and indeed, it can be mind boggling at times. But as one of my clients said today:

"Maybe we can learn from each other - a little more play for our kids and a little more studying for yours - but our system just suits our culture and yours suits yours."

In the end, I guess that's all there is to it.

If your interested in reading more about the testing culture in China check out this NY Times article.


  1. Informative post with a factual error--the exam would be taken when they are 14/15 not 13. And, high school in Taiwan is only 3 years, not 4.

    And in regards to. . . "It is neither a secret nor a mere stereotype that Asians typically far out-preform their international peers on standardized tests, especially in math and science."

    Perhaps some Asians out preform some Americans. But, my English classrooms here in Taiwan are full of students who cannot do basic math computations.

    Q: Why are you an English major?
    A: Because I'm not good at math.

  2. Sorry for my error on the age of the high school entrance exam and thanks for the correction.

    I do want to clarify, though, that I didn't say that all Asians are good at math. I simply pointed out the fact that they do out-perform Americans on standardized exams, especially in math and science.

    I certainly wouldn't want to make a blanket statement like "Asians are good at math" just as i would never say "boys are smarter than girls."

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. Thank you for a very informative article. I am thinking of coming over to Taiwan to teach in a buxiban, so the 'heads-up' has been invaluable.

  4. Really well written. I hope a lot more people come across this article.

  5. We have a survey going on where you can rank you school and let everyone know where the best place to teach is. Take a look.