Obama and Duncan on South Korea: What can they be thinking?

South Korean students get high marks on the international competitions like the PISAs.  In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said we should emulate its educational system. 

Arne Duncan has repeatedly extolled South Korea as well,arguing that  parents in the United States should demand the same sort of excellence that Korean parents demand of their children.

In several speeches,  he has repeated the story about how Obama asked the President of South Korea “”What is the biggest education challenge you have?”

Without hesitating, President Lee responded: “The biggest challenge I have is that my parents are too demanding.”  We cannot say that our biggest educational challenge is an insistent demand from all parents for excellence in the schools. The challenge facing South Korea is one, quite frankly, I would love to have here.

In another widely noted speech, called the “New Normal,”  Arne Duncan cited South Korea as a reason that school districts throughout the nation should increase class size:

Many high‐performing education systems, especially in Asia, have substantially larger classes than the United States. According to OECD data, secondary school classes in South Korea average about 36 students.

Yet recently, Byong Man Ahn, the former minister of education in South Korea, warned Americans against praising the “educational zeal” of South Korean parents,  said that  Korean schools had become too test-centered and too focused on rote learning, and that they “force the students to memorize so much that they experience pain rather than pleasure [of] acquiring knowledge through the learning process.”

In today’s Washington Post, there is an article that  reveals the horrors of the South Korean educational system.  It describes how  fully three quarter of all students attend private “cram” classes to make up for the deficiencies of their schools, and that the average Korean family spends nearly 20 percent of its income on private tutoring.  The President of South Korea is trying to reform its education system to make it more like ours!

The crackdown on South Korea’s “cram schools” is part of President Lee Myung-bak’s effort to wrest control back from a frenzied private tutoring industry that enrolls three-quarters of Korean students, the highest rate in the world. He hopes to restore confidence in the country’s education system and reduce the financial and emotional burden on families. … The academic intensity that fueled the country’s economic rise is now blamed for a high suicide rate and a plummeting birth rate, as prospective parents weigh the costs of educating children.

Kim Hee-Jeong lives in Mok-dong, an affluent Seoul neighborhood, and spends about $1,000 a month for 20 hours a week of private lessons for her third-grade son in English, math and science…. Kim worries that he will burn out from being “much too busy from a young age.” But he is far ahead of his public school lessons, she said, and classes are too big for personal attention. [emphasis mine.]

One has to ask, is this really the sort of school system we want to adopt here in the United States?  What can Obama, and Duncan be thinking? Here is what a Korean-American teacher recently wrote about Obama and his apparent  admiration for South Korean schooling:

The constant pressure to succeed in school and place in the top of the class-in order to get into a good school–makes for a very unpleasant childhood …To this end, parents, and students alike, will go to extremes. …As someone who has straddled multiple cultures throughout my life, I can firmly say that the “culture” of education in the United States is the one in which I would want my child; South Korea’s would be one of my last choices.

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5 Responses to Obama and Duncan on South Korea: What can they be thinking?

  1. David B. Cohen

    The concerns expressed above are similar to those I hear about from my Korean students. In addition to intense pressure to memorize, to sit still and quiet and take notes, the teachers also maintain order through corporal punishment. I hadn’t heard about the private tutoring, but I did hear about high school students studying all day, having a quick dinner, and continuing to study at school into the evening.

    But what do you expect? When people who don’t really know what they’re talking about grab ahold of a partial story and a few talking points that sound good, look out. I’m sure the best private schools in the country are taking note and raising class sizes, right?

  2. abcde

    I think South Korea is concrete evidence of the Red Queen principle: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” The education system there is so focused on competition that the big picture is lost entirely. Students spend their entire lives cooped up in “hakwon” (the Korean word for cram school) and don’t have the chance to enjoy life. And for what?

    We may have an opposite problem here in the US. Education, for whatever reason, is not taken seriously enough by broad swathes of the population. We should be upping the competitive spirit–though not by following South Korea’s lead.

    And thanks for the shout-out!

  3. philip kovacs

    I taught in a South Korean Public school. Each of my classes had at least 45 students. The juniors and seniors went to school 6 days a week. they also went from 7 in the morning and often stayed to 11 at night.

    the last thing we want is a school system anything like South Korea’s.

  4. Sally Kidder Davis

    I would be cautious with praise of South Korea’s school results – I just heard that some working parents have chosen to keep their children in 24 hour day care in order to work long hours. They clearly have a different standard for raising and educating their children, not wrong just different. I for one think we can parent and educate our children with more heart.