Americans who deem South Korea’s education system a model (US President Barack Obama, among others) might be surprised at one message leaders in Seoul are delivering to their youth — Drop out, please.
Well, that may be a slight exaggeration, but the South Korean government has decided that too many people are going to college. It is working to restore the luster of a high school diploma as a stopping point for some and to establish a vocational track for others and that has to be sobering for anyone who has assumed that education would be the antidote to the downward-mobility pressures of globalization.
Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, frequently cite South Korea in contrast to the US’ shortcomings — the diligence of its students, the commitment of its parents, its success in equipping successive generations to compete.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the East Asian nation’s progress, in just half a century, from abject poverty to developed-world prosperity owes much to its schools and its devotion to schooling. South Korean 15-year-olds rank first in reading and math, and third (behind Finland and Japan) in science, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. US teens rank 14th, 25th and 17th in the three categories.
Yet South Koreans are deeply unhappy with their system — to the point that many blame their world-lowest birth rate (1.1 child per woman) on their schools. They complain about an emphasis on memorization, a stifling of creativity, a failure to teach usable English and a weakness in developing leadership skills.
Finding state schools inadequate, parents spend millions on tutoring. Children study in after-school academies, known as hagwon, until 11pm and beyond. The expense — Seoul families spend 16 percent of their income on private schooling — is one reason many parents say they can afford only one child.
The shadow system makes South Koreans worry about their children’s health, but also, in a society that values equality of opportunity, about unfairness. In response, the government has limited how much hagwon can charge and how many hours they can meet (in theory, not past 10pm).
Because violations are routine, the law allows citizens to report lawbreakers and collect part of the fines for themselves. So now, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, there are hagwon to teach people how to catch the miscreants.
Much of the pressure arises because South Koreans believe their children must go to college to guarantee themselves a middle-class future. As a result, South Korea has one of the highest college-going rates of any nation — a category in which, as Obama has complained, the US has slipped to 12th. More than 60 percent of South Koreans ages 25 to 34 have higher educations, compared with about 40 percent in the US, and the gap is growing, but South Korean officials are alarmed that many graduates are not finding jobs — more than 40 percent in the past year, even though the South Korean economy was doing pretty well. That is why South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is promoting alternatives.
Last month, the president urged employers to hire more high-school graduates and promised, as an example, to hire three into the presidential Blue House this year and three more next year.
“Professional footballers just need to be good at kicking balls,” Lee said. “They don’t need to graduate from Seoul National University.”
The government also is investing in vocational schools designed to put young people on a career track without going to college.
“Reckless entrance into college is bringing huge losses to households and the country alike,” Lee said.
Obama is not wrong to stress the urgency of improving US education. The scandal in the US, unlike in South Korea, is the number of poor and minority children consigned to dropout-factory school systems that hollow the promise of class mobility. If South Koreans have put too much emphasis on tests, US schools, allowing so many kids to grow up illiterate, for too long put too little.
However, the South Korean experience does suggest that no nation will find an easy answer to the stresses of the global economy, especially as so much of the work of knowledge occupations — lawyer, editor, radiologist — proves as outsourceable as building cars or staffing call centers. An educated population will still fare better than an uneducated one, but if you think everything will be OK if the US can just be a bit more like, say, South Korea — well, ask a few South Koreans what they think about that.
Fred Hiatt is the Washington Post’s editorial page editor.
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