Friday, February 1, 2008

Education and equality

For the past several decades the South Korea's government has been waging war on any education that occurs outside the public school system. This conflict began with Korea's military leader, Chun Doo Hwan, who took power in 1980 and almost immediately banned private teaching (known as kwawoe). Chun's goals were noble, to equalize educational opportunities for the poor and to relieve parents of the burden of paying for education. The ban continued until April 2000, when the Constitutional Court, Korea's highest court, ruled it unconstitutional because it "infringes upon the basic rights of the people to educate their children."
The spending frenzy on kwawoe started in the 1970s during Korea's economic boom, and immediately led to conflicts between the kwawoe-haves and the kwawoe-have-nots. In 1996, Korean parents spent $25 billion on private education, which is 50% more than the government's education budget. A Korean family today typically spends 15 to 30% of its budget on private education.
Korean parents invest this sort of money because they are so unhappy with their school systems. Despite Korean students' high scores on international tests, some parents argue that students lack the ability to think creatively because of the emphasis on testing and rote memorization; and many feel that the children's 18-hour days are simply too long, for which I agree. Lately I spoke with a friend who described her public-school routine:
Middle-School (Monday to Saturday) 7:00-9:00 Pre-school study classes (at school) 9:00-4:00 Normal school hours 4:00-9:00 After-school study classes (at school) 9:00-12:00 Private-school classes for subjects ranging from math and science to music and art (and of course, English) AND/OR private lessons.
High-school all of the above, plus... 12:00-2:00 study classes at a hogwan supervised by a teacher
Count the hours and you end up with 17-19 hours of education for 5-6 days a week straight. She also told me that it is impossible for a child in Korea who has only been educated through the public schools to attend the 'good' universities here. The public school system does not provide the education needed to pass the entrance exams.
Every year students across Asia prepare for "exam hell" which is the annual one-day entrance exam in November that determines which students will enter the elite colleges. Students are told from a young age: Sleep five hours, fail. Sleep four hours, pass. Suicides and nervous breakdowns increase just before and after the exam.
Korean parents are so unimpressed with the education their country has to offer that many of them are sending their children overseas to study. "I would pay higher taxes if the government comes up with ways to improve public education," says Chin Sun-Mi, who sent her 15-year-old daughter to England to study. "It costs just as much to put them through hagwon and arrange private lessons, and there is much less psychological stress on the child."
PS> This blog is a combination of an article from The Washington Post and my own experiences in Korea.


  1. WHAT!!!! I thought i had it bad being at school 8-6 then doing school work until 1am...for a year! - These are CHILDREN!!! When do they get any time to just be a child? I can't believe this is allowed to happen, how on earth can a child develop properly if they spend that amount of time in school and dont get to be a child. They would have inept social skills - no relationship with their family...and im betting they all hate education!!
    The poor kids...i am in shock and disbelief!!!

  2. That's the way the cookie crumbles here in Korea... they think it's unbelievable how LITTLE time we spend in class! I think we really need a balance of both, instead of just extremes!

  3. Four to five hours of sleep...
    That's not even time to be with their family.
    It's truly horrifying; I would not want to be raising a child in South Korea.
    I am touched by the parents who are sending their children to boarding schools!

  4. you're awesome becks. love for you from here (wherever i am)*