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.
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:
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
This all-consuming test has become a national obsession.
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.
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.
Ji’s action received considerable public attention. More sympathy was accorded Ji than his mother.
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.
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.