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Why We Should Not Copy South Korea

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Secretary Arne Duncan has frequently pointed to the high test scores of students in South Korea as a model for American students to copy. We have heard again and again that we are losing "the global competition" to nations like South Korea where students and parents take tests very seriously. Our students, the secretary never tires of telling us, are slackers. Their parents want them to be well-rounded when they should all be enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, burning the midnight oil, or attending after-school programs in ever-longer school days.

On Sunday, the New York Times published an article that refuted the myth of South Korea as the acme of educational excellence. The South Korean system, the author writes, is "an assault upon our children." If all you care about is test scores, South Korean schools look great. But if you want students who are thoughtful, creative, and engaged in their learning, look elsewhere, writes Se-Woong Koo, whose family moved from Seoul to Vancouver to avoid the stress of South Korean schooling. Most parents pressure students to excel in their studies and to do whatever it takes to get high scores.

"Thirteen years later, in 2008," the author writes, "I taught advanced English grammar to 11-year-olds at an expensive cram school in the wealthy Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam. The students were serious about studying but their eyes appeared dead."

The world may look to South Korea as a model for education -- its students rank among the best on international education tests -- but the system's dark side casts a long shadow. Dominated by Tiger Moms, cram schools and highly authoritarian teachers, South Korean education produces ranks of overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire program amounts to child abuse. It should be reformed and restructured without delay.

[...]

Cram schools like the one I taught in -- known as hagwons in Korean -- are a mainstay of the South Korean education system and a symbol of parental yearning to see their children succeed at all costs. Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas. Students typically stay after regular school hours until 10 p.m. or later."

[...]

This "investment" in education is what has been used to explain South Koreans' spectacular scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, increasingly the standard by which students from all over the world are compared to one another.

But a system driven by overzealous parents and a leviathan private industry is unsustainable over the long run, especially given the physical and psychological costs that students are forced to bear.

Many young South Koreans suffer physical symptoms of academic stress, like my brother did. In a typical case, one friend reported losing clumps of hair as she focused on her studies in high school; her hair regrew only when she entered college.

The South Korean system is institutionalized child abuse. Children exist either to glorify the family or to build the national economy. What has been sacrificed? The happiness of the children; the right to live a normal life in which they are not cogs in a national economic machine.

Are you listening, Secretary Duncan? Are you listening, New York Times columnists and editorial board? Are you listening, television pundits?