Don’t Be Like Korea

Back to May 2015 Ed Reporter

Don’t Be Like Korea

Although American politicians and educators sometimes suggest that the South Korean education system is one the U.S. should emulate, Korean education methods and practices should be avoided.

An education analyst at the Christensen Institute says:

Americans who praise Korea’s schools misunderstand the realities on the ground. My sense is that Korean students have high educational achievement not because of Korea’s schools, but often despite them. (Forbes, 3-31-14)

One standardized test reigns supreme over the future of Korean students and a top-down system of state-controlled curriculum thwarts local control and stymies teacher creativity.

Students asleep in classKorean classrooms are plagued by sleepy teenagers who nap during boring, mandatory daytime classes because they must stay up late at night attending tutoring courses for which their parents pay dearly. In 2011, Korean parents spent almost $18 billion on tutoring to supplement public education.

Enough students sleep during classes that special forearm pillows are sold to make sleeping at a desk more comfortable.

Korean after-school tutoring sessions are called “hagwons.” Students who want to do well on the all-important state-administered test that students take at age 18 attend hagwons late into the night. There are special police patrols that go out at night aiming to shut down hagwons that are staying open later than 10 p.m., the allowed and enforced closing time. But, many remain open until 2 a.m. or thwart the law by offering online tutoring to students who remain at home.

In her book The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley writes about the Korean education system, “In 2010, 74% of all students engaged in some kind of private after-school instruction, sometimes called shadow education, at an average cost of $2,600 per student for the year.”

Public schools in Korea are at best adequate, and at worst a waste of time. “In a survey of 6,600 students at 116 high schools, Korean students gave their hagwon teachers higher scores across the board” over their day teachers, according to Ripley.

The S. Korean College Scholastic Aptitude Test, called the suneung, is given to all eighteen-year-old students on the same day, at the same time. “The whole country obsesse[s] over the test,” explains Ripley. Other students have no school that day. The country’s stock exchange opens late to keep streets clear to allow students to get to the testing centers and taxis give test-taking students free rides.

This one eight-hour long exam determines the academic, and by default, economic future of students. A good score guarantees admission to a prestigious institution of higher learning. Students who do not do well find that their test score negatively impacts their future job potential their future job choices and economic potential. (There are few excuses that allow students to retake the test.)

Although some star educators who run hagwons make millions of dollars for their teaching, most hagwon tutors make less than public school teachers, according to the Smartest Kids in the World author.

Advice for Americans

At his inauguration in 2008, former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said, “One-size-fits-all, government-led uniform curriculums and an education system that is locked only onto the college-entrance examination are not acceptable.” (Time, 9-25-11) But he left office in 2013, having accomplished no significant education reform.

Despite ample evidence that Korea’s public education system is inadequate, to the point that students’ daytime learning needs to be supplemented by nighttime hagwons, some American politicians continue to suggest we should emulate South Korea.

Pres. Obama said, “In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders. I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect right here in the United States of America.” (CBS News, 3-14-11) It is unclear what Obama means by nation builders, but Korean teachers are not doing their jobs in classrooms, according to experts.

“A former Korean minister of education warned Americans against praising the ‘educational zeal’ of South Korean parents.” The Korean official believes that Korean parents are “too demanding.” (, 4-7-11) Yet, Arne Duncan has at least twice chastised American parents for not being more like parents of Korean students.

American parents need to be aware that the system some want to emulate is actually a complex one, comprised of some very bad ideas. They need to understand the real fate of Korean students. After endless studying, one huge exam locks them into a future not always of their choosing.