Sunday, November 10, 2013

Michelle Rhee Wants US Education to Be Like South Korea’s—Ouch!

Andrew Delbanco provides a good review of the factions contending for dominance in the debate over what is wrong in our education system in the New York Review of Books. His article is prompted by the publication of books by the two most vocal representatives of the contending sides. Diane Ravitch, who might be described as a "traditionalist," has produced Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. Michelle Rhee, who would definitely be described as a "reformer," has provided Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.

Ravitch would conclude that much of the current education system is working rather well and we should be focusing on the cultural and economic deficiencies that hinder many children in educational performance. Michelle Rhee would conclude that the system is ineffective because it does not hold accountable both teachers and students for deficiencies in performance. The solution would be dismissal of poorly performing educators and more private competition for public schools. Accountability would be obtained from standardized tests.

What is of interest here is not resolving the dispute between the respective proponents, but the indication that Michelle Rhee’s views include an endorsement of the testing and accountability measures inherent in the South Korean system of education.

"The child of Korean immigrants, she briefly attended public school in Toledo, Ohio, before her parents moved her to a private school. When she was nine, they dispatched her to live with relatives for a year in their native country, where she admired—at least retrospectively—a culture in which teachers rank their students and families prod their children to raise their ranking. ‘Rather than damaging the souls of the less accomplished,’ she writes with an intimated sneer at those who would coddle rather than challenge children, ‘the rankings focused every family on moving their children up the ladder’."

In fact, South Korea provides an excellent example of how good intentions can go terribly wrong and produce an educational environment that is universally disdained by those who must submit to it.

Amanda Ripley has produced, in her book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, a fascinating description of the educational systems in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, and a comparison with our own system. Finland and South Korea were chosen because the students of these countries always score at the top in international tests. What intrigued Ripley was the fact that these two nations used entirely different approaches in making their way to the top. Poland was chosen because it provided an example of a nation that in a short time was able to reform its educational system and make dramatic improvements in student performance.

It is highly unlikely that any reader of Ripley’s book will conclude that South Korea provides an acceptable example. Most readers will look wistfully at Finland’s approach and dream an impossible dream.

We will briefly review Ripley’s description of what it is like to be a student—and a parent— in South Korea. First, some historical background is required.

Not too long ago, South Korea would have been considered an undeveloped country. It was poor and possessed little in the way of natural resources. It made a conscious decision to consider the talents of its people as its most valuable resource. If it was to prosper in the modern world it would need to nurture those talents and convert them into useful skills. It saw universal education as the path forward. Education was deemed the path to a wealthier future, both for the nation and for individuals. An educational meritocracy was envisioned in which students would be encouraged to compete for grades and the best performers would be rewarded with advanced education opportunities and, ultimately, better jobs and better pay.

A rigid meritocratic system exerts great pressure on students to perform. At about age 18 students take a one-day test that will determine the rest of their lives. South Korea has three universities that are considered elite. It also has an economy dominated by a few huge conglomerates, chaebols, that provide the best jobs and the highest pay. They can—and do—acquire the best students by selecting mainly graduates of the top universities. The problem for students is that only 2 percent of the students are eligible for those few top schools. In the view of the students and their families their entire future depends on doing not only well, but exceptionally well on that one-day test at age eighteen.

Ripley uses the experiences and observations of an exchange student named Eric from Minnesota to inform her picture of education in that country.

On Eric’s first day he was told that he would be going to class with students two years younger than him. It was explained that:

"The older kids….were too busy to talk to him. They had to study for the college entry test. This exam was so important, so all consuming, that going to school with them would be like going to school in solitary confinement."

Eric had to be curious about what he would find in such a competitive environment where excellent students were produced. His first observation was startling.

"A third of the class was asleep. Not nodding off, but flat-out, no-apology sleeping, with their heads down on the desks. One girl actually had her head on a special pillow that slipped over her forearm. This was pre-meditated napping."

The same thing happened in later classes. Teachers went about teaching as though sleeping students was something to be expected. Eric soon learned why the phenomenon was inevitable.

Eric’s day ended at ten minutes past two. As an exchange student he was exempt from the full force of a South Korean school day. For regular students a break from classes occurred at ten past four, at which point they were expected to participate in tasks such as mopping floors, emptying waste cans, and toilet cleaning.

"At four thirty, everyone settled back in their seats for test-prep classes, in anticipation of the college entrance exam. Then they ate dinner in the school cafeteria."

"After dinner came yaja, a two hour period of study loosely supervised by teachers. Most kids reviewed their notes from the day or watched online test-prep lectures."

The "official" school day ended around nine in the evening.

"But the school day wasn’t over. At that point, most kids went to private tutoring academies known as hagwons, They took more classes there until eleven, the city’s hagwon curfew. Then—finally—they went home to sleep for a few hours before reporting back to school at eight the next morning."

They went to school twelve hours a day, and the school year was about two months longer than that in the United States. This insane regimen was not being imposed on helpless students by and educational bureaucracy, it was a case of the parents demanding that it be provided for their children. Educators and politicians occasionally try to reform the system, but parents object too strenuously for much change to occur. And since every student has access to this twelve hour day, the only way to gain an advantage was to add private lessons on at the end.

South Korea actually spends relatively little on its school system. A fee is charged for the traditional public school, but parents must contribute a lot for these extra classes that are believed to be necessary. In fact, some have suggested that South Korea’s extremely low birth rate is caused by the expense in money and time of educating their children.

The hagwon system is a good example of a pure marketplace. Teachers earn whatever the market will bear. Teachers with good reputations—based on student performance and satisfaction—can become wealthy. Those at the bottom of the ladder earn very little. Ripley introduces the reader to Andrew Kim.

"Andrew Kim earned $4 million in 2010. He was known in Korea as a rock-star teacher, a combination of words I had never heard before. He’d been teaching for over twenty years, all of them in Korea’s afterschool tutoring hagwons. That meant he was paid according to the demand for his skills, unlike most teachers worldwide. And he was in high demand."

The inevitable outcome of meritocracies is the temptation to cheat. One of Ripley’s more interesting adventures in Korea involved a tour of duty with the "study police."

"When I arrived in Korea, the government’s latest maneuver was to enforce a curfew on hagwons, raiding the cram schools in the middle of the night and sending children home to bed. It was impossible to imagine government enforcers winning this round of Red Rover, but I wanted to see them come over."

This all-consuming test has become a national obsession.

"Korea Electric Power Corp. sent out crew members to check the power lines serving each of the one thousand test locations. The morning of the test, the stock market opened an hour late to keep the roads free for the more than six hundred thousand students headed to the test. Taxis gave students free rides."

At Eric’s school he observed police patrolling the perimeter in order to ensure that distracting noises were not made. During a portion of the test when students had to listen to English language audios, airplanes were grounded in order to not create a distraction.

Personal obsession was also quite common. Ripley includes the rather dramatic example of a boy named Ji and his mother.

"One Sunday morning….a teenager named Ji stabbed his mother in the neck in their home in Seoul. He did it to stop her from going to a parent-teacher conference. He was terrified that she’d find out that he’d lied about his latest test scores."

Ji put his mother’s body in a room and sealed it so that the smell of her decomposing body would not escape. It was eight months before her death was discovered and Ji was arrested for murder.

Ji was no slacker who responded viciously to the threat of being uncovered as a lazy student.

"According to his test scores, Ji ranked in the top 1 percent of all high school students in the country, but, in absolute terms, he still placed four thousandth nationwide. His mother had insisted he must be number one at all costs, Ji said. When his scores had disappointed her in the past, he said, she’d beaten him and withheld food."

Ji’s action received considerable public attention. More sympathy was accorded Ji than his mother.

"Ji’s crime was not, in the minds of many Koreans, an isolated tragedy; it was the reflection of a study-crazed culture that was driving children mad."

Ji was convicted of murder, but sentenced to only three and a half years in prison. The judge cited "mitigating circumstances." When it came to murder, the school system was a mitigating circumstance.

South Korea has fallen into an educational trap and it has not been able to find a way out. Ripley provides this assessment.

"The Iron Child culture was contagious; it was hard for kids and parents to resist the pressure to study more and more. But all the while, they complained that the fixation on rankings and test scores was crushing their spirit, depriving them not just of sleep but of sanity."

So, Michelle, perhaps you left South Korea long before you learned what would have been in store for you if you had stayed. Perhaps you might want cool it a bit in pushing for more tests and rankings.

1 comment:

  1. The usual sleaze passing for an argument: take a situation and milk it. Of course, no mention is made of Samsung and other Korean companies that are kicking global butt. It is nice however that they produce electronic goodies for US children to while away the hours...


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