The Best of American Education at Taipei American School


TAS has kept pace as policies and programs at the most successful U.S. schools have adapted to meet new educational demands.

Taipei American School is an innovative 21st century learning community. Our mission is to inspire each student to be a confident, creative, caring, and moral individual prepared to succeed anywhere in a rapidly changing world. We provide an American-based education with a global perspective that results in a love of learning, academic excellence, a balanced life, and service to others. – TAS Mission Statement

What does an “American-based” education mean? To explain this concept is to explain the TAS mission statement. As you all know, America is a relatively young country, one that has learned to borrow from the best ideas of other countries politically, socially, and educationally. When we talk about American-based education, keep in mind that the best American-based programs combine the rigor and depth of the Asian and European systems with the breadth and openness of the American classroom.

Character Education Assembly and Public SpeakingBut it is not enough to talk about “American-based” or “American-style” education. We should be looking at the most successful of America’s public and private schools in our search to define American-based education as it matters to TAS.

Like our students, over 90% of the students who study in the best of America’s public and private schools hope to attend college in the United States, and they recognize that a high level of English-language proficiency will be critical to their success in that stage of their lives. We focus a great deal on English-language proficiency levels at TAS, not because we think English is the most beautiful language or because we necessarily see it as the language of the future. We focus on it here because the majority of our students, like the majority of students in the best public and private schools in the United States, want to attend colleges and universities where English is the language of instruction.

English-language proficiency is thus the “key to the educational kingdom,” and we want all of our students to have that key. We believe that this is likely to remain the case for the next decade. At TAS, our experiences teaching English as an Academic Language (EAL) tell us two things: first, it is amazing how quickly children learn and become functionally bilingual, and second, students need a high level of English-language skills to do rigorous upper-school-level work.

Some people wonder how our student population compares with that of the best of the public and private schools in the United States. It is fair to say that TAS students have strong scholastic aptitude along with an impressive work ethic and strong parental support. In that regard, they share much in common with the students in the best of the public and private schools in America. Like their counterparts, TAS students benefit most from a program that has a clear focus on academics but does not stop there.

What do the best programs in America look like today? A bit of history may be helpful. Although there is no “national curriculum” in the United States, you will find that the programs offered in the best public and private schools look remarkably similar. So do their mission statements and their programs of study. At the lower school, you find descriptions of active classrooms where small groups of students are highly engaged in active learning with clear academic goals for language, literacy, math, and science. In middle schools, you find programs that attend to the emotional, the physical, and the academic needs of children passing from childhood to adolescence. And at the upper school, you find remarkably similar academic offerings.

Like these schools, TAS is at the forefront of technology innovation in the classroom. Digital learning experiences allow for inquiry and investigation across disciplines. The integration of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) skills is creating new opportunities for our students. The Computer Science and Robotics Department at TAS promotes the integrated study of STEAM fields. While computer science relies on and develops students’ mathematical and logical thinking skills, our various robotics courses take that to a higher level by progressively requiring students to integrate their knowledge of programming with geometry, mechanics, electronics, problem solving, strategy, and teamwork.

TAS student teams regularly participate in and win awards at several international robotics competitions, including VEX, ROV, and FIRST FRC. In the VEX Robotics Competition, teams of students are tasked with designing and building a robot to play against other teams from around the world in a game-based engineering challenge. The MATE ROV competitions challenge students to design and build underwater robots to tackle mission tasks based on the real world. The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is an international high school robotics competition where teams of high school students work over a six-week period to build game-playing robots that weigh up to 150 pounds (68 kg).

Taipei American School Robotics 3D PrintingAs the Computer Science and Robotics Department has expanded, so has scientific research at TAS. In addition to the advanced research classes in Synthetic Biology and Nanotechnology, there are introductory research classes in biology, chemistry, and physics. In synthetic biology, students combine different bits of genetic material to create new strands of DNA using the same type of equipment found in university labs, including a UV Transluminator (which shines UV light onto DNA sequencing gels) and a DNA Xerox machine called a PCR (which can make up to 64 billion copies of a strand of DNA). Then, they use those strands to alter a bacterium’s traits.

Nanotechnology is the study of particles on a very, very tiny scale. Students make nanoparticles using university-grade equipment such as a Carbon Nanotube Furnace and a Planetary Ball Mill. By making a nanoparticle of a material, students can change the properties of that material. For example, students worked to implant carbon nanotubes into various seed coatings to improve germination rates. Last summer, TAS students competed at the third annual iGEM High School Jamboree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The team, which presented a project focusing on regulating and extending cell life, won various awards and was one of three finalists.

In addition, TAS has incorporated public speaking into the curriculum. In all divisions, public speaking is nurtured and practiced on a variety of levels. In the upper school, students must take a course in the Political Science and Forensics Department that satisfies a public-speaking graduation requirement. While some students satisfy the requirement with drama, most students take the year-long Public Speaking class that examines four different types of public speaking: research and informative speaking, persuasive speaking, extemporaneous speaking, and interpretive speaking. The skills they develop in this class are expanded upon in competitive public-speaking programs outside the classroom such as Model United Nations and the Forensics Society.

Important guest speakers, such as Holocaust survivor Noemi Ban, Cambodian Genocide refugee Loung Ung, and anti-discrimination activists Judy and Dennis Shepard, visit the campus to speak on matters of character. The TAS Joanna Nichols Visiting Scholar Program brings relevant, distinguished, and stimulating figures to the school each year to share singular insights and experiences with our students. Princeton University Professor and renowned astrophysicist David Spergel was on campus last month. Other past visiting scholars have included East Asian Historian Benjamin Elman, “Mathemagician” Arthur Benjamin, and Senior Fellow of the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute Mike Chinoy.

Changing priorities

There have been many changes in America’s educational priorities in my lifetime. Americans have always looked to their schools to address what are considered to be the most pressing problems of the day. At one point, imparting democratic principles, teaching good citizenship, and sensitizing youth to the importance of racial, religious, and ethnic tolerance all found natural homes within good American school curricula. The math and science emphasis of the fifties can be seen as the nation’s response to its fears that the Soviet Union would outpace the United States in the space war. The relevancy movement of the sixties and seventies was one outgrowth of the national fatigue with the Vietnam War and with the leaders blamed for it. Academic standards slipped considerably, and the eighties thus saw a hue and cry to restore academic rigor to the nation’s schools. In fact, some of you will recall a 1983 publication A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, which was the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education appointed by then Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. It warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity,” bred by the low academic standards of the country’s schools, that “threatened our very future as a nation and a people.”

Taipei-American-School Community-Service-project-Cambodia
Students at work constructing houses during a service trip to Cambodia

By the nineties, the “accountability” movement was in full swing, and the best of America’s public and private schools today have returned to solid academic rigor and academic excellence as a common goal. When we look at those schools considered to be the strongest and the most successful – public and private – you will find clear statements of their commitment to academic excellence, intellectual energy, and transformative educational programs that prepare students for college anywhere in the world. What successful American schools have in common, overall, is an unapologetic, sometimes counter-cultural recognition that we cannot be cavalier about our children’s academic programs, which must have the depth and rigor of the Asian and European systems and the openness and care of the American classroom. I often like to say that in the American-style classroom, we pay attention not only to what information the child is learning, but also to what they are learning about themselves and others through the educational process.

While these academic standards are the core of all successful schools, they are not enough. In addition to this demand for a return to academic excellence, Americans in the past decade have provided broad public support of – and demand for – “character-education” programs. Today, character education is considered to be the exception to the rule that change in educational systems must take place slowly. The formation of character, once one of American schools’ most essential tasks, virtually disappeared from many public and private schools in the country by the middle of the twentieth century. It has burst back onto the educational scene, and it is difficult if not impossible to find a good private school that does not include character education or ethics within its mission statement.

As I said at the outset, Americans have always looked to the schools to address whatever is considered to be the most pressing problems of the day. In the past decade and a half, that has meant a return to academic excellence, with accountability for performance and much external, standardized testing, and an insistence that schools help parents address the moral and ethical void that many believe circulates in societies in our times. In other words, the best of the public and private schools in America are fully focused on academic excellence and concern for character. TAS strives to do both, and in striving for academic excellence and moral education, we join the best of the private and public schools in the United States today. That is part of what it means to have the best of an American-based education. But, it is not enough.

Taipei-American-School-science-lab research
A research project underway in a science lab

In thinking about the goals we share with these successful schools, I have found that they can be divided into three distinct categories: the Profound (character/ethics); the Pragmatic (academic excellence and rigor); and the Possible. That third set of goals revolves around the urgency of preparing students with a global perspective that prepares them to succeed anywhere in an increasingly borderless, “flat” world. The best academics and the most aggressive character-formation programs may fall short if students do not develop a global perspective. In this area, of course, TAS children have a distinct advantage.

In the best or most successful public and private schools in America, efforts are underway to provide multicultural and multilingual environments. Borders have shrunk, the world is “flat,” and the ability to think beyond nationalistic concerns is an essential 21st century tool. The most successful schools in the United States introduce new languages, recruit students from various countries, and introduce exchange programs, summer study camps, and other ways to bring in what TAS already has quite naturally: a multilingual, multicultural world view. Our peers in the United States must recruit aggressively to bring together students and teachers from a wide variety of backgrounds. The internationalism of our faculty, and the backgrounds of our students, provides enormous advantages to TAS.

I want to make it clear that in the best of the American-based educational system, there is deep commitment to the goal of “internationalism” as described above. Our standard-bearer for independent schools, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), recognizes the importance of preparing our children to “compete and collaborate on a global stage.”

If the best of American-based education asks us to join the pragmatic (academic) with the profound (character and ethics), and to also welcome the possible (global awareness) as we look over the hedge into the next generation, then we need to embrace goals in all three areas if we truly want to achieve our mission for our students using the best of American-based practices. Academics alone will not suffice. Character education alone will not suffice. Both are critical, and equally so is a student’s ability to apply both to a rapidly transforming world, as a conscientious and responsible global citizen. Only then can we say that the best of the American-style education is in operation at TAS.

Some students satisfy the public speaking requirement by taking part in theatre productions, such as the performance of Les Miserables hown here.