Friday, July 22, 2011

The State of Education: South Korea and the US

Businessweek magazine had two articles on education that were almost adjacent and cried out for comparison. One described a surprisingly contentious situation in South Korea, while the other focused on an approaching disaster in the US.

What is South Korea’s problem? It is angry mothers, who are furious because the government has recommended that Saturday classes be eliminated.

“Most schools now hold classes for four hours on two Saturdays a month. President Lee wants Koreans to consume more, and he hopes to wean the school system off its obsession with standardized tests. He figures giving kids and families the weekend off would help achieve both goals.”

The national obsession with education is a bit hard to relate to in the US. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, asserted that the differences could be related to the differing agricultural heritages in Asia and in the US. In Asia you have the rice paddy as the agricultural unit. He explains that to get the most output from a paddy you have to work it every day of the year. Consequently, it is not surprising that parents would see that as a model for their children to conform to in their schooling. The US agricultural legacy is one of hard work for periods, followed by long stretches of down time. Couple that with the concern about “wearing out the soil,” and you arrive at educators who thought it was dangerous to study too much, and concluded that too much thought could be damaging to a young mind. Thanks guys! That really helped a lot. Gladwell quoted average school years as follows:

South Korea 220 days

US 180 days

So how have South Korean mothers responded?

“Chung Eunjung, a mother of two sons in Seoul, says South Korea’s plan to give children extra playtime by ending Saturday classes means only one thing: more private tutoring.”

“Don’t expect the playgrounds to fill up with liberated kids, though. “It would be a brave mother who let them play,” says Chung, who spends $1,700 a month on additional classes. Even the kids sound focused. Eleven-year-old Charlie Lee takes 15 hours of cram courses in English and math every week. “I like those classes,” he says. ‘I can meet my friends and play with them’.”

Such attitudes have been strengthened by the educational disaster that struck Japan.

“The Koreans don’t want to repeat the experience of Japan, which cut the school week to five days in 2002. In 2009 the Japanese reversed course after their students began sliding down the OECD’s rankings. Between 2000 and 2006, Japanese high school students slumped from 1st to 10th in math, 2nd to 6th in science, and 8th to 15th in reading comprehension. Japan has added 278 hours back to the elementary school year and 105 hours to junior high school.”

One can only imagine the response of US mothers and teachers if it was suggested that two months be added to the school year in order to keep up with the South Koreans.

The Economist also provided an interesting piece on another initiative in South Korean education. It provides this somewhat tongue-in-cheek appraisal.

“ 2015, all of the country’s dead-tree textbooks will be phased out, in favour of learning materials carried on tablet computers and other devices.”

“The cost of setting up the network will be $2.1 billion. It is hoped that cutting out printing costs will go some way towards compensating for this expenditure. Environmentalists will of course be pleased, regardless. A cloud network will be set up to host digital copies of all existing textbooks, and to give students the (possibly unwelcome) ability to access materials at any time, via iPads, smartphones, netbooks, and even Stone-Age PCs. Kids will need to come up with a new range of excuses for not doing their homework: the family dog cannot be blamed for eating a computer, nor can a file hosted on a cloud network be left behind on a bus.”

“The education ministry also plans to use the network to offer online classes for children who are too ill to attend school. Given this country’s utter obsession with education—driven by parents’ fear that their children will “fall behind” unless morning, noon and night are spent studying—it is perhaps not surprising that even the ability to pull an occasional sickie is now being cut out.”

Now on to current developments in US education provided by another Businessweek article.

George Bush pushed for enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. While the motives were admirable, the execution left much to be desired.

“Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the current version of NCLB, which requires all students to pass standardized reading and math tests, encourages schools to dumb down their curriculum because it judges them on a rigid pass-fail system. Under the Administration’s plan, NCLB would be changed so districts get credit for student improvement and students would be tested in subjects in addition to reading and math. They’d also be judged on a broader set of criteria than standardized test scores.”

“The Administration wants Congress to take action on its suggested reforms before the start of the 2011-12 school year. The reason: Under the current version of NCLB, schools have to show that all students are proficient by 2014 or they risk losing federal funding. Duncan estimates that about 80 percent of schools—including those that are generally high-performing—are in danger of being labeled failing because of the system’s rigidity.”

That sound like a rather dire situation that ought to be in the process of being corrected.

“Republicans say Obama’s approach keeps the federal government too involved in education....They’ve proposed several alternatives to Obama’s plan, including one aimed at promoting the growth of charter schools. Another would reduce Washington’s involvement in education by eliminating half the federal programs under the current version of the act. ‘More and more Americans have recognized that this intrusion of the federal government has not helped, it has gotten in the way,’ says John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Education Committee and co-sponsored both bills.”

In addition to the ineffectiveness of lawmakers are the effects of the economy on state governments.

“As budgets grow leaner, many school districts are more concerned about keeping their doors open than instituting reform. More than 220,000 teachers and other educators could lose their jobs in the 2011-12 school year, according to the American Association of School Administrators. Washington State cut $1.7 billion from this year’s education budget and, as a result, school districts will get $5 million, rather than $20 million, to help pay for a new teacher evaluation system tied to student performance.”

So we have one country in which the population demands that the national government do ever more in providing education, and another country—mine—in which after a few centuries legislators are still arguing over whether or not the national government should even be involved in education. We have one country that is pushing technology to its limits to insure good educational outcomes for its children, and another that has difficulty providing their students with pencils and paper, let alone text books.


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