Should The US Follow South Korea's Education System?

Grand Potentate

Supporter of Possible Sexual Deviants
Thought this was an interesting topic that you guys might find worthy of commenting on:

The $4 Million Teacher
South Korea's students rank among the best in the world, and its top teachers can make a fortune. Can the U.S. learn from this academic superpower
Kim Ki-hoon earns $4 million a year in South Korea, where he is known as a rock-star teacher—a combination of words not typically heard in the rest of the world. Mr. Kim has been teaching for over 20 years, all of them in the country's private, after-school tutoring academies, known as hagwons. Unlike most teachers across the globe, he is paid according to the demand for his skills—and he is in high demand.

Kim Ki-Hoon, who teaches in a private after-school academy, earns most of his money from students who watch his lectures online. 'The harder I work, the moreImake,' he says. 'I like that.'

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students' online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

"The harder I work, the more I make," he says matter of factly. "I like that."

I traveled to South Korea to see what a free market for teaching talent looks like—one stop in a global tour to discover what the U.S. can learn from the world's other education superpowers. Thanks in part to such tutoring services, South Korea has dramatically improved its education system over the past several decades and now routinely outperforms the U.S. Sixty years ago, most South Koreans were illiterate; today, South Korean 15-year-olds rank No. 2 in the world in reading, behind Shanghai. The country now has a 93% high-school graduation rate, compared with 77% in the U.S.

Tutoring services are growing all over the globe, from Ireland to Hong Kong and even in suburban strip malls in California and New Jersey. Sometimes called shadow education systems, they mirror the mainstream system, offering after-hours classes in every subject—for a fee. But nowhere have they achieved the market penetration and sophistication of hagwons in South Korea, where private tutors now outnumber schoolteachers.

Viewed up close, this shadow system is both exciting and troubling. It promotes striving and innovation among students and teachers alike, and it has helped South Korea become an academic superpower. But it also creates a bidding war for education, delivering the best services to the richest families, to say nothing of its psychological toll on students. Under this system, students essentially go to school twice—once during the day and then again at night at the tutoring academies. It is a relentless grind.

The bulk of Mr. Kim's earnings come from the 150,000 kids who watch his lectures online each year. (Most are high-school students looking to boost their scores on South Korea's version of the SAT.) He is a brand name, with all the overhead that such prominence in the market entails. He employs 30 people to help him manage his teaching empire and runs a publishing company to produce his books.

To call this mere tutoring is to understate its scale and sophistication. Megastudy, the online hagwon that Mr. Kim works for, is listed on the South Korean stock exchange. (A Megastudy official confirmed Mr. Kim's annual earnings.) Nearly three of every four South Korean kids participate in the private market. In 2012, their parents spent more than $17 billion on these services. That is more than the $15 billion spent by Americans on videogames that year, according to the NPD Group, a research firm. The South Korean education market is so profitable that it attracts investments from firms like Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group and A.I.G.

It was thrilling to meet Mr. Kim—a teacher who earns the kind of money that professional athletes make in the U.S. An American with his ambition and abilities might have to become a banker or a lawyer, but in South Korea, he had become a teacher, and he was rich anyway.

The idea is seductive: Teaching well is hard, so why not make it lucrative? Even if American schools will never make teachers millionaires, there are lessons to be learned from this booming educational bazaar, lessons about how to motivate teachers, how to captivate parents and students and how to adapt to a changing world.

To find rock-star teachers like Mr. Kim, hagwon directors scour the Internet, reading parents' reviews and watching teachers' lectures. Competing hagwons routinely try to poach one another's celebrity tutors. "The really good teachers are hard to retain—and hard to manage. You need to protect their egos," says Lee Chae-yun, who owns a chain of five hagwons in Seoul called Myungin Academy.

The most radical difference between traditional schools and hagwons is that students sign up for specific teachers, so the most respected teachers get the most students. Mr. Kim has about 120 live, in-person students per lecture, but a typical teacher's hagwon classes are much smaller. The Korean private market has reduced education to the one in-school variable that matters most: the teacher.

It is about as close to a pure meritocracy as it can be, and just as ruthless. In hagwons, teachers are free agents. They don't need to be certified. They don't have benefits or even a guaranteed base salary; their pay is based on their performance, and most of them work long hours and earn less than public school teachers.

Performance evaluations are typically based on how many students sign up for their classes, their students' test-score growth and satisfaction surveys given to students and parents. "How passionate is the teacher?" asks one hagwon's student survey—the results of which determine 60% of the instructor's evaluation. "How well-prepared is the teacher?" (In 2010, researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found classroom-level surveys like this to be surprisingly reliable and predictive of effective teaching in the U.S., yet the vast majority of our schools still don't use them.)

"Students are the customers," Ms. Lee says. To recruit students, hagwons advertise their results aggressively. They post their graduates' test scores and university acceptance figures online and outside their entrances on giant posters. It was startling to see such openness; in the U.S., despite our fetish for standardized testing, the results remain confusing and hard to interpret for parents.

Once students enroll, the hagwon embeds itself in families' lives. Parents get text messages when their children arrive at the academies each afternoon; then they get another message relaying students' progress. Two to three times a month, teachers call home with feedback. Every few months, the head of the hagwon telephones, too. In South Korea, if parents aren't engaged, that is considered a failure of the educators, not the family.

If tutors get low survey marks or attract too few students, they generally get placed on probation. Each year, Ms. Lee fires about 10% of her instructors. (By comparison, U.S. schools dismiss about 2% of public school teachers annually for poor performance.)

All of this pressure creates real incentives for teachers, at least according to the kids. In a 2010 survey of 6,600 students at 116 high schools conducted by the Korean Educational Development Institute, Korean teenagers gave their hagwon teachers higher scores across the board than their regular schoolteachers: Hagwon teachers were better prepared, more devoted to teaching and more respectful of students' opinions, the teenagers said. Interestingly, the hagwon teachers rated best of all when it came to treating all students fairly, regardless of the students' academic performance.

Private tutors are also more likely to experiment with new technology and nontraditional forms of teaching. In a 2009 book on the subject, University of Hong Kong professor Mark Bray urged officials to pay attention to the strengths of the shadow markets, in addition to the perils. "Policy makers and planners should…ask why parents are willing to invest considerable sums of money to supplement the schooling received from the mainstream," he writes. "At least in some cultures, the private tutors are more adventurous and client-oriented."

But are students actually learning more in hagwons? That is a surprisingly hard question to answer. World-wide, the research is mixed, suggesting that the quality of after-school lessons matters more than the quantity. And price is at least loosely related to quality, which is precisely the problem. The most affluent kids can afford one-on-one tutoring with the most popular instructors, while others attend inferior hagwons with huge class sizes and less reliable instruction—or after-hours sessions offered free by their public schools. Eight out of 10 South Korean parents say they feel financial pressure from hagwon tuition costs. Still, most keep paying the fees, convinced that the more they pay, the more their children will learn.

For decades, the South Korean government has been trying to tame the country's private-education market. Politicians have imposed curfews and all manner of regulations on hagwons, even going so far as to ban them altogether during the 1980s, when the country was under military rule. Each time the hagwons have come back stronger.

"The only solution is to improve public education," says Mr. Kim, the millionaire teacher, echoing what the country's education minister and dozens of other Korean educators told me. If parents trusted the system, the theory goes, they wouldn't resort to paying high fees for extra tutoring.

To create such trust, Mr. Kim suggests paying public-school teachers significantly more money according to their performance—as hagwons do. Then the profession could attract the most skilled, accomplished candidates, and parents would know that the best teachers were the ones in their children's schools—not in the strip mall down the street.

Schools can also build trust by aggressively communicating with parents and students, the way businesses already do to great effect in the U.S. They could routinely survey students about their teachers—in ways designed to help teachers improve and not simply to demoralize them. Principals could make their results far more transparent, as hagwons do, and demand more rigorous work from students and parents at home in exchange. And teacher-training programs could become far more selective and serious, as they are in every high-performing education system in the world—injecting trust and prestige into the profession before a teacher even enters the classroom.

No country has all the answers. But in an information-driven global economy, a few truths are becoming universal: Children need to know how to think critically in math, reading and science; they must be driven; and they must learn how to adapt, since they will be doing it all their lives. These demands require that schools change, too—or the free market may do it for them.
If you go to public school you get exactly what you pay for.
You get much less than that in New Jersey. Recommended viewing:
The Cartel
Waiting for Superman

I'm all for merit-based pay for teachers. But the minimum wage would interfere with paying many their true worth. A heavy percentage of teachers are utterly ineffective and should just be let go, but we get the dance of the lemons instead because public employee unions don't care about standards; they care about ripping off the taxpayer.
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Isn't such a high HS graduation rate in Korea a bad thing - everyone is therefore "educated" driving down wages. I mean, we're seeing this in the US with too many people (who really shouldn't) going to college, thus dropping wages for the rest of us.
Hey, I'm all in favor of this 'Rock Star Teacher' business. Perhaps we could have avoided crimes against humanity such as Nickelback.
I'm very far from being a rock star, but I get paid more teaching here than I did working for LG or at a research institute. My general rate is between 80 and 100 dollars an hour for privates and small groups. Between 150-300 an hour for contract design work (though if I like the project I'll go lower). I get consistent work. My regular teaching job pays well enough to place me in the top 20% of earners in Korea.

Not balling by any means, but I'm under 30 and this is just a stop-gap on the way to a Ph.D. Both my bosses clear several million a year (they own the academy). The one that also teaches privates generally charges about 200 an hour.

The private education market is entirely separate from the education system here. It is intended to supplement, but in most subjects it has replaced (at least for the richest areas). The real money...and what the guy in the article test prep. Not real education.
Interesting quasi-followup by The Economist on the rise of vocational schooling and how all the private education tutoring provides little benefit to society. Thoughts Chorn Chorn ?
The other arms race
  • by From the print edition: Special report
  • Oct. 24, 2013
  • original

MIRIM HIGH SCHOOL for girls in Seoul is living proof that South Koreans take education seriously. The students, aged 15 to 18, bow respectfully whenever a teacher passes. Many of them board, and all attend extra-curricular classes from 6pm to 9pm. Do they work too hard? Chang Byong-gap, the headmaster, laughs at the question.

South Korea’s passion for education has historical roots. In the early years of the Choson dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1910, those who passed a civil-service exam could gain entry to the privileged yangban class, a scholarly aristocracy. Those roots were reinforced by more recent history, notes Michael Seth, author of “Education Fever”. Under Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, Koreans’ educational aspirations were frustrated, resulting in pent-up demand. In the carnage of the Korean war of 1950-53, many of the old social hierarchies crumbled, convincing people they could succeed by their own efforts. Before 1971 children were taught in two shifts because school-building could not keep up with the numbers. By 1980 almost every primary-school student was going on to middle school at age 11. In 1995 the government promised to usher in an “edutopia”, encouraging the entry of private universities.

In response, higher education boomed. The proportion of high-school graduates going on to higher education rose from 40% in the early 1990s to almost 84% in 2008. But since then, remarkably, the rate has declined (see chart 2). South Korea’s national obsession with ever higher levels of education appears to have reached a ceiling.

Despite their top-notch schooling, none of the girls graduating from Mirim High School this year went straight on to a full-time university degree. The school is one of 35 “Meister” schools introduced by the previous president, Lee Myung-bak, in an effort to raise the prestige of vocational education and break the grip of universities on the minds of South Korean parents, 93% of whom expect their children to go to college. The schools, modelled on Germany’s example, aim to produce masters of a trade (known as Meister in German) rather than bookish swots. Mirim High School concentrates on the programming and design of apps that people download onto their smartphones and tablets.

In the past, parents pushed children to enter university whatever their aptitude or inclination, says Seo Nam-soo, the education minister. Some wanted their children to go on to higher education because they never had the chance themselves. But a growing number now believe their children should do what makes them happy, he says.

Parents may also be deterred by the cost. Throughout their children’s school years, they spend an extraordinary amount preparing them for the brutally competitive day-long university entrance exam, the suneung. All told, education accounted for nearly 12% of consumer spending last year.

A big chunk of that went on extra English classes. Learning the language has become a “collective neurosis”, according to one professor. Some mothers move with their children to an English-speaking country. A cheaper alternative is to spend a summer at a mock-English village in South Korea, such as the Gyeonggi English Village, a place with red telephone boxes where only English is spoken.

The cost of education may be the main reason why South Koreans are having so few babies. In surveys, they cite financial burdens as the biggest obstacle and single out education as one of the heaviest components. Thomas Anderson and Hans-Peter Kohler of the University of Pennsylvania have shown that the South Korean provinces with the lowest fertility rates are also the places where families spend the most on education.

This spending, however, no longer yields rich returns. Going to university racks up tuition fees and keeps young people out of the job market for four years. After graduation it takes an average of 11 months to find a first job. Once found, the jobs remain better paid and more secure than the positions available to high-school graduates, but the gap is narrowing. The McKinsey Global Institute reckons that the lifetime value of a college graduate’s improved earnings no longer justifies the expense required to obtain the degree. The typical Korean would be better off attending a public secondary school and diving straight into work.

If the private costs are no longer worthwhile, the social costs are even greater. Much of South Korea’s discretionary spending on private tuition is socially wasteful. The better marks it buys do not make the student more useful to the economy. If one student spends more to improve his ranking, he may land a better job, but only at the expense of someone else.

In the first decades of the South Korean republic the government tried to keep up with the education fever, building schools and hiring teachers at a frantic pace. In more recent decades it has tried to cool it down. In 1971 it abolished the entrance exam for middle school, but that only heightened the competition for high-school places, so a few years later it replaced the high-school entrance exam with a lottery. The result was the insanely competitive university entrance exam. By easing competition at one stage of education, it only intensified it at the next.

In 1980 the government outlawed private out-of-school tutoring, which drove the industry underground. The ban was declared unconstitutional in 2000. Since then efforts to soothe the education fever have been more modest. Seoul imposes a 10pm curfew on cramming schools, but pupils can dodge the curfew by learning online after hours. The government will introduce test-free semesters in all middle schools by 2016 to give pupils some relief from rote learning.

South Korea’s education arms race poses a puzzle. Students spend vast amounts of time and money to move up in the queue for good jobs. But queues are needed only for things that are in short supply. Why should good jobs be rationed? The number of “good” employers should, in principle, expand in line with the scale and skill of the available workforce. So perhaps the preoccupation with educational qualifications reflects problems in the labour market.

As South Koreans see it, good jobs are indeed rationed. The university-educated aspire to work in the government and its allied enterprises, the banks or the chaebol, South Korea’s family-owned conglomerates. These employers provide the kind of secure, well-paid and prestigious jobs with which the rest of the labour market cannot compete. South Koreans refer to some of them as “God’s place”. The very best are known as “the place that even God does not know”.

Queuing for God’s place

The well-educated are prepared to “queue” for these jobs by adding to their educational credentials and even by enduring post-graduation unemployment until a job becomes available. Of the 5.4m South Koreans aged 15-29 who are not economically active, 11% are preparing for various kinds of professional exams to enter God’s place.

A similar division prevails among blue-collar workers. Hyundai Motor, which makes about 40% of the cars sold in South Korea, has 59,800 regular workers as well as over 6,000 “temporary” workers, often hired by companies set up expressly for that purpose. The two kinds of employees do identical amounts of the same work on the same site, but the temporary staff get paid only 70% of the regulars’ wages, according to union leaders, or 85%, according to the management.

The regular workers are represented by a union with 19 full-time leaders, paid for by the company. In the stairwell of the union offices a cartoon strip depicts a huddle of flagellated men turning on their whipmaster. Inside, union members are voting on a settlement to end their latest strike, one of many in recent years. They had drawn up a long list of demands, one of which in particular caused public outrage. Hyundai Motor subsidises the university education of its workers’ children. The union wanted it also to subsidise the vocational education of children who do not go to college. Moon Young-moon, a union leader who has worked at Hyundai Motor for 27 years, says he is just moving with the times. It is, after all, government policy to “remove the social pressure to go to university”.

Not all chaebol jobs are good jobs, but as far as South Koreans are concerned, most good jobs are still chaebol jobs. Will that remain true?
Read it. Agree with it in spirit, but there are a couple of inaccuracies and over-simplifications.

Yes, the obsession with education has its roots in Confucianism, yet we don't see the same level of obsession in China (though they possess there own brand of crazy). The article gets a bit right when it mentions the cramped class conditions. A decade after the Korean War "ended," Korea began it's precipitous development (unparallelled in this century. In 1970, it was one of the poorest countries in the world, on par with, it's one of the wealthiest and most developed). Along with development came rural flight as the economy shifted from agriculture to production. Seoul's population boomed, and now more than half the country's 50 million people live in the Seoul metropolitan area. This put a huge strain on the fledgling education system in the 1980s and early 1990s. Classrooms had 50-70 kids. In conjunction with this, the economic growth had spurred the development of a sizable upper middle class--a social class that wanted to ensure their children received an excellent education and could afford to pay for it. Since schools at the time were unable to provide it, the private education market was formed.

The issue with chaebol is a very real one. And if there is anything which will be the downfall of the Korean economy, it is they.

(side note--the day high school kids take the Korean SAT is a holiday; schools are shut down and many businesses have half-days. The entire city slows down to ensure a good environment for the testers. Nobody plays loud music. Nobody honks their horns. It. Is. Fucking. Eerie.)

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