By Sah Dong-seok
Deputy Managing Editor
Many South Koreans were puzzled in early March, when U.S. President Barack Obama urged his compatriots to look to South Korea to adopt longer school days and after-school programs for American children. ``Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea every year,'' Obama told a gathering at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
Obama seemed to have wanted to point out insufficient classes at American schools, given his remarks: ``The challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.''
Ironically, however, Obama's praise for Korean education may be a curse for its students who have been fed up with too many classes at cram institutes called ``hagwon'' as well as in school.
In fact, the country's education has always been under constant criticism with its heap of problems: uniformity, poor public education resulting from a lack of competition among teachers and ever-prospering private tutoring. In this education-obsessed nation, all parents claim to be experts on education, making it difficult for educators to come up with proper measures and implement them.
The root cause of the country's education problems is the university admission exam and its root cause comes from the fact that nearly all high school students are desperate to enter higher learning institutions, especially elite schools. In Korea, more than eight out of 10 high school graduates enter two- or four-year colleges and universities. This high education fever played a key role in lifting South Korea from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to the world's 13th largest economy. However, the excessive schooling eagerness has become an excessive burden for parents of late.
Now, the most pressing issue in Korean education is how to bring the sprawling private sector under control as parents are increasingly beset with astronomical expenses paid to hagwon for their children at a time when their purse strings are meager amid the global economic gloom. According to the Bank of Korea, private tutoring expenses amounted to 20.9 trillion won last year, up 4.3 percent from 2007. The tutoring expenditure per student reached 350,000 won in 2008, double the figure in 2000.
Education experts often liken private education to an arms race ― parents engage in never-ending competition to let their children get ahead of others, staking all resources, and this vicious cycle goes on. Parents rely heavily on cram institutes because schools fail to perform their proper functions: teaching students what is worth learning well. Against this backdrop, the Lee Myung-bak administration has been championing ``self-regulation and competition'' as its guiding education principles in its belief that schools will be able to stand at the vanguard of tackling private education.
After all, the key to school reform appears to lie in teachers. That is not to say that all responsibilities rest with teachers, but schools could be completely different depending on how teachers act. Of course, it might be difficult for schoolteachers to devote themselves as much as hagwon lecturers, who work hard entirely for money. But taking into account the fact that schoolteachers are ensured lifetime employment, it wouldn't be too much even if they were asked to do their best in teaching.
To our regret, however, teachers often become the object of criticism for their negligence of duty, disregarding the collapse of public education. More recently, we have often heard about instances where teachers do little to control unruly students in class.
The Korean Teachers and Education Workers' Union or Jeongyojo celebrated its 20th anniversary last week, but there was hardly a festive mood. Given that the progressive organization was launched after years of fierce fighting against the then-conservative government, the gloom might have been unusual. But the teachers' union, which had voiced ``chamgyoyook'' or clean and open education dedicated to the upbringing of a whole person from the time of birth, disappointed parents due to its overly left-leaning movements while failing to tackle pressing education issues. Its earlier campaign to uproot ``chonji,'' the long-standing practice of parents offering under-the-table money, won heartfelt support from parents but its heady days didn't last long.
The number of members fell to about 77,000 at the end of last year after hitting a climax of 94,000 in June 2003 as its leadership grew bureaucratic and engaged in political infighting. The union's outright refusal to accept an appraisal system for teachers and obsession with protecting teachers' ``iron bowl'' were decisive in isolating it from parents.
There is no quick fix to education but teachers must be the troubleshooter to these complicated problems. Parents expect teachers to usher their children into the arena of future-oriented learning: more debate and exploration, problem-solving and critical thinking. They don't want their children to repeat rote memorization that has become the symbol of Korean education throughout the world.