Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

Why Native Speaker Teacher Programs Don’t Work

Much of the recent discussion on my site has focused on the efficacy of native speaker English teachers as language instructors. A lot of this has been a defense of what has been interpreted as my attack on this efficacy. I feel much of this response comes from confusion between NSET working as teachers in the classroom and what I believe is the true villain; NSET acting as agents of national education policy.

What I Believe
I continue to believe that there is no place in the world with a high standard of English spoken as a foreign language where a large part of EFL instruction is conducted by NSET. However, I believe that many NSET are dedicated, professional, effective educators who make a true difference in the lives and futures of their students. I see no contradiction with this. By distinguishing between teachers as classroom instructors and as agents of policy, it is possible to see the different roles that teachers are involved in. In this post, I will try to outline the reasons why I feel this way.

Native Speaker Teachers Versus Native Speaker Teacher Programs
Native speaker English teachers (NSET) and native speaker teacher programs (NSETP) are not the same thing. NSET describes characteristics of the teacher. NSETP, on the other hand, describes the way in which a policy either deliberately or incidentally defines the role of these teachers.

The term “native speaker English teacher program” describes a policy decision made by central governments that results in the use of NSET as a major source of language instruction. Important examples of this are JET, EPIK, and programs modeled after these are now being run in Taiwan. In addition to government-sponsored programs, a great deal of private instruction in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan is conducted by NSET at commercial schools. This is also part of the NSETPs of the region. As I put it in a different post, in a NSETP, instruction from NSET is an alternative to public instruction conducted by local, certified teachers rather than merely a supplement.

There is a great deal of instruction provided by NSET that is effective. Why wouldn’t that be the case? In terms of factors that should influence educational outcomes, such as teacher language attainment and pedagogical knowledge, there are significant numbers of NSET who would be at the top of the world. Why would their individual classroom instruction be less effective?

My position concerning the effectiveness of education policies that rely on large numbers of NSET is not concerned with the performance of individual teachers in the classroom, but instead with NSETP. My position regarding the use of NSET is that there is no place in the world with a high standard of English spoken as a foreign language where a large part of EFL instruction is conducted by native English speaking teachers. In other words, NSETP are not effective policies.

Why Are There NSETP?
The emergence of NSETP deserves some explanation, particularly if, as I claim, they are not efficacious. The key point to my argument is that NSETP exist in only one place in the world – North-East Asia: Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. While there are other educational systems that use native speaker teachers for language instruction, none could be described as a NSETP, since the vast majority of instruction is still provided by local teachers certified to teach in state institutions. For example, in France, there are a large number of native speakers employed teaching English, but their numbers pale in comparison to the situation in Taiwan, where according to my estimates, over two-thirds of university students have been taught by a foreign teacher at one time. In Taiwan, NSET instruction is legally available as an alternative to the state’s school-based instruction that uses teachers who have meet a state-defined qualification.

The first large-scale NSET programs emerged in Japan following the Second World War. In many ways, these programs resembled efforts during the Meiji Restoration to import foreign expertise. The programs implemented following the Second World War evolved through a series of stages into an arm of public cultural and language education whose aim is to touch every Japanese school child. The JET Program and the local and regional efforts that copy its use of assistant and local teacher pairs has been adopted throughout the NE Asia region.

While I have focused on an historical description of NSETP, it is not uncommon to find descriptions that focus on classroom factors as reasons for this spread. One commonly heard explanation for NSETP concentrates on the inability of state schools to provide an adequate number of well-trained teachers. It is debatable what an ‘adequate’ number of teachers is, but my experience with high school English teachers in Taiwan is that the number of certified, highly competent teachers is enormous. One friend who is working as an English teacher in a Taipei County elementary school discouraged my wife from entering the public system by explaining to her that with the number of teachers being cranked out by the current system, it would not be possible for her to get a job in any but the most remote region.

A reason complementing this emergence of NSETP is that this large number of competent local teachers is a new phenomenon and as more such teachers are produced the number of NSET working as alternatives to the public system will decrease. The assumption is that once there are enough competent local teachers, NSET will disappear. I heard this argument in Japan in the early 1990’s, but nothing of the sort has happened in the more than 10 years since then. In fact, if anything, NSET are even more entrenched in education now than they were back then. Certainly the expansion of official NSETP, as found in JET, EPIK, and their Taiwan-based copied would indicate the increased entrenchment of this alternative.

Another reason for the emergence of NSETP in NE Asia could be the recent affluence of the region. With the rise in the standard of living in NE Asia, citizens are able to purchase commodities that they could not have bought before. Foreign language lessons may be one of these. This also fails to explain why this region is the only place in the world where NSET are used as an alternative to public education.

I have seen research suggesting that students in other regions of the world prefer to be taught by native speaker teachers. It could very well be that there is a universal preference for native speaker teachers, and that the NE Asian situation is only a local case of this preference. None of this goes very far though, since NE Asia is the only region in the world where so many NSET teach that their instruction offers an alternative to public school instruction and not merely a supplement.

My speculation about the attractiveness of NSETP is that this is based in cultural perceptions that are so deep they have become entrenched in public policy. This is certainly the impression left by the September 24 comment from Tivome, a local Taiwanese teacher of English, to the post that started this discussion, Who Really Wants a Foreign Teacher?. As he states, “The reason for preferring “native speakers” is a simple one: great majority of the parents (or adults) in Taiwan have a strong racial complex about westerners.”

Of course I have further opinions about this, but that will have to wait until another day. In the next section, I will conclude this point by discussing why NSETP not only do not work, but can not work.

Why NSETP Don’t Work
The fundamental reason why NSETP don’t work is that almost all teachers working in this system aren’t involved in teaching in any professional sense. The work that most NSET are employed doing much more closely resembles the kind of instruction that goes on in clubs and other non-school organizations than it does professionalized teaching activities. NSETP rely on the presence of NSET, but their instructional abilities, knowledge of language, and ability to guide students are reduced to insignificant aspects of the instruction. So severely are the key factors of educational outcomes hampered that they have no impact on educational outcomes.

The vast majority of the thousands of people employed as NSET work as instructors in commercial schools. They are subject to poor pay and other working conditions. They are provided with no job security. But most significantly, they are not in-charge of their student’s learning. Honestly, what can the teachers of commercial language schools do to students who disobey them? While it is probably preferable that teachers in this situation have little power over their students, this highlights the fact that the vast majority of NSET are comparable to swimming instructors rather than public school teachers.

Another large group of NSET working in NSETP are employed in public and private elementary and secondary schools as a member in so-called team teaching. Once again, the NSET in these schools are clearly not teachers in the sense used to describe members of a professionalized group. While some of these teachers may be highly skilled, their status is defined by law as an assistant teacher. The legal responsibility of student conduct inside the classroom does not fall on their shoulders. Instead, it continues with the local teachers who are public servants and members of local teacher’s organizations. For the vast majority of NSET working in team teaching situations, instructional skill and ability is irrelevant.

There are NSET who are legally and morally responsible for the students in their classes. For example, in the program where I teach at Ming Chuan University, we have legal control over our students and can do anything we want that is legal to facilitate their education. This group is a tiny fraction of those employed as NSET, representing perhaps a few hundred teachers. The vast majority of NSET work in conditions that are nothing like these.

So while it may be true that NSET can influence their student’s language ability this point is almost irrelevant to the effectiveness of NSET as a policy. The vast majority of NSET are not working under the conditions where their training, knowledge, or skill as speakers can have the kinds of influence that research indicates these factors can have on educational outcomes. So why would anyone be surprised that educational policies relying on this stunted form of education are not effective policies?

Given the function of NSET in NSETP, why would it surprise anyone that these programs don’t work? In fact, the most salient aspect of NSETP is that they eliminate most of the influence of the NSET turning them from teachers into merely an English fluent machine. I am certain that despite this, many NSET have a strong influence on their students because they are excellent teachers and models for them. But while this may be true in individual cases, it is very important to realize that there is no evidence whatsoever that NSETP are effective policies in addressing national deficiencies in English communicative ability.


One Response

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  1. Keith said, on March 12, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Very thought provoking, thank you. I currently work in a cram school in Taiwan, but after teaching some classes at a public high school in Taiwan, I’m rather inclined to seek employment either there or in a program like the one you described, where you work.

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