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Behind the Curtains of Korean Education

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The ranking are in and once again, Finland and South Korea hold the top two spots in Pearson's global report on education, while the United States lags at a measly seventeenth place. Though Finland has frequently been lauded for its successful education system over the years, Korea is rarely mentioned in the discussion. All we hear is President Obama occasionally and half-heartedly advocating the American emulation of such a system that entails larger class sizes and longer school years, or stumble upon an article condemning the hypercompetitive nature of their notorious "cram" schools. Aside from that, a closer look into an education system that has given its nation a number one ranking in both literacy and graduation rates is rarely taken.

Having spent a year teaching at an after-school program just outside of Seoul, I would like to bestow upon my gentle reader the knowledge and insight I have gained from the experience.

First, it's important to understand that the Korean school year is quite different from its American counterpart. Instead of beginning in August or September, the first term starts in early March. Contrary to American schools' somewhat distinct divide between the school year and summer vacation, each semester in the Korean school year consists of five months of schooling plus one month of vacation, in both summer and winter. For after-school programs and academies, known as hagwon, class is in session pretty much year round.

Students go to such academies for a variety of subjects. Naturally, I taught at a "foreign language" (read "English") academy, where mornings were spent teaching kindergarten and afternoons reserved for elementary school kids. For the majority of the elementary school students and even some kindergarteners, the academy was one of many they went to after regular school hours. Typically, they attended math, music, taekwondo, and science programs. But it was also not uncommon for students to take classes in calligraphy, ballet, Chinese characters (hanja), and even "belly dancing," which I assume was the place for parents who saw in their eight-year-old a future as a K-pop star to rival Psy.

Indeed, as one might suspect, there is a culture of competitiveness that manifests itself from a young age. Many have criticized the pressure that Korean parents put upon their children to succeed as unhealthy and destructive, but no one can deny that the emphasis on the value of education and success is inextricably tied to the nation's top ranking in education and employment.

For example, some students enroll in a kindergarten program for up to three years before beginning elementary school. I taught a second-year kindergarten class, and the rule was that students were not allowed to speak Korean at all while class was in session. Playtime was limited, and homework and tests were plentiful. It was not uncommon for a student to burst out in tears upon receiving an imperfect test score, even if it meant just one wrong answer. On top of the normal class work, kindergartners had to participate in "Song Contests" every couple months (which I tried to make more enjoyable by teaching them Metallica, Coldplay, and Weezer, which they learned amazingly well). Each term featured an "open class," during which parents were permitted to sit in and observe. For this event, students were taught and rehearsed answers for roughly a month in preparation, and instructed to keep this a secret from their mothers.

But lo and behold, these five- and six-year-old Korean children were reading and writing at essentially the equivalent of a first-grade level in the U.S. Forget at what cost these skills were acquired. The point is, they were.

The fact is these academies are businesses. The customers are parents, and our job was to keep them satisfied. Some students enjoyed what they were learning, worked hard, and did well. Others hated English with every ounce of their being, sat in class doing nothing, and did horribly. But no one was allowed to fail. As a teacher at one of these academies, my job was to "guide" the underperforming students through the test if it meant the difference between passing and failing. "Are you sure that should be 'c'? Try that question again," often turned into giving in and simply telling them the answer in frustration. It was hardly a rare occurrence that our supervisors would instruct us English teachers to modify a grade or essentially encourage a student to cheat, as long as it kept the parents happy.

My point is not to highlight the negative aspects of Korean education, but to demonstrate the extent of the competitive spirit that runs so rampant in many parts of Seoul. Surely none of these practices are no less ethical than those of the teachers in the U.S. who have been compelled to not only teach to the test, but have physically taken students' standardized tests and fixed some of the answers themselves. The only difference is that in my case, the goal was to satisfy the parents; in the other case, it was to satisfy the state.

The truth is there is no easy fix for education, and certainly most people realize that. In Korea, competitiveness and the value of schooling are integral parts of the culture. In the U.S., the values of idealism, individualism, and self-confidence are held in higher esteem. At the possible expense of an enjoyable childhood, Koreans have earned their spot in the rankings. And we must realize that we cannot successfully emulate such a system without emulating the culture as well.