Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How South Korea gets it Right

Education in America has changed.  I say this like I'm some kind of wizened old spinster teacher who has seen fifty school years come and go.  I'm not THAT old, but my initial statement still stands.  Even since my days in elementary school (which started in 1986), I have seen a drastic shift in instructional methods, curriculum, and disciplinary policies within our schools.  Students today face a much more challenging educational environment than I did.

Once upon a time, the United States was one of the top nations in the world in mathematics and science, putting us in the driver's seat when it came to space exploration.  But as the years have past, the memories of our competition with the Commies have faded, and our students are becoming less and less able to compete internationally with the new rising stars.

One of those rising stars is South Korea.  I ran across an article last week on CNN by Fareed Zakaria entitled "Why all of South Korea went silent".  It's a short article, maybe running 500 words, quickly discussing the South Korean equivalent of the SAT.  Students study for years for this exam which lasts a grueling nine hours.  For such a short article, I was surprised to see that it illicited 264 responses.  The average Korean school day lasts from around 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.--approximately an hour longer than most American public schools, and the average Korean school calendar has 25 more school days than the average American public school calendar.  After school, many students attend a hagwon--a private, after-hours tutoring academy--until 10 p.m. or later.  That's a 14 hour school day.  Average tuition for a hagwon?  $2,600 per student per year.

Since shortly after World War II, South Korea has placed a strong emphasis on educating its children, improving its literacy rate from 22% in 1945 to just shy of 98% (97.9%) in 2002 according to the CIA World Factbook.  In 2009, South Korea placed 4th in mathematics according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  Additionally, they ranked 6th in science proficiency and 2nd in overall reading proficiency.  The United States, by comparison, ranked 31st, 23rd, and 17th respectively.  That was in 2009 and South Korea has only done better since then.

Success, though, usually comes at a price.  As of 2010, South Korea also holds the highest suicide rate of any OECD nation at a shocking 22 deaths per 100,000 individuals.  The current population of South Korea is approximately 48.8 million people, so you can do the math.  To put that in perspective, countries with the lowest suicide rates (such as Italy and Spain) tend to hover in the 3 per 100,000 range.

Critics of South Korea's educational system point out that there is a heavy emphasis placed on rote memorization to allow students to do well on their exams, and that critical thinking goes largely untaught.  Students routinely sleep in class because they are up late studying, and because they realize that anything they miss can be learned at their hagwon later in the day.  Parents have chosen to have fewer children, unable to reconcile the costs of education with their pocketbooks (in 2009, South Korea had the world's lowest birthrate with the average South Korean woman giving birth to 1.2 children in her lifetime).

Despite some of the ugliness that has been caused by South Korea's education system, one thing that simply can't be denied is that South Koreans care about the education of their youth.  Perhaps they are a little overly zealous in some respects, but South Korean parents, teachers, and politicians all emphasize education, and, clearly, their approach is working.

That's not to say that Americans don't care about their children's education, but the days of education being a privilege rather than a right are well behind us.  Even the Supreme Court says so.  Every person in the United States is entitled to a free public education up through high school.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  We are fortunate to live in a country that views education as so important that it commands all individuals to be educated up through age 18.  Traditionally, denying education to a population has been used as a means of control.  A means of keeping the population ignorant and illiterate.  Unfortunately, by commanding that all individuals be educated, we have to accept that not everyone wants to be educated.

If we want to see a shift in education, we need to understand that it starts with us--the parents--and the expectations that we have for our children.  We don't have to go as far as the South Korean parents, but we could take some tips from them.  Be involved with your child's school beyond elementary school.  Help your child with their homework.  Be willing to hire a good tutor if your child is struggling even if they're only in elementary school.  Early intervention is the key to helping your child be successful.  Be an advocate for your child and education in your community.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and this holds true in education, too.

Parents can't change everything, but we can change how we approach education.  If we make education a priority, then so will our children.


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