Pink Floyd’s notable lyric from Another Brick in the Wall (albeit edited for conventions) has been trending in educational commentary as of late, and the recent issue of Time is no exception. In Teacher, leave those kids alone, Amanda Ripley reports on the intensely demanding, ferocious study habits and schedules of South Korean students. Ripley follows a group of Seoul government officials whose evening mission is to patrol and discover children who are studying after 10 PM and to stop them from doing so.
South Korea has begun enforcing a curfew in order to attempt to quell the nation’s obsession with private tutoring, which erupted out of its longstanding emphasis on one-size fits curricula leading to high-stakes, college-entrance exams. Consider the following, shared in Ripley’s article:
- 74% of all students participate in private after-school instruction
- the average cost of this after-school tutoring is approximately $2,600 per student per year
- there are more private instructors in South Korea than there are teachers, the most successful of whom earn millions of dollars per year through face-to-face and online classes
- when students fail to gain entrance into top universities, they spend their next year after high school attending hagwons to improve their scores on entrance exams (and only 14% of those students are accepted into the most sought after hagwons)
- fertility rates are declining as families feel pressured to financially support students’ education
- South Korean students are working hard, but not necessarily smart – Ripley noted her observations of students sleeping in class during the school day in order to have the energy to stay up late to study
- hagwons continue to be an impenetrable force because the stakes are still the same: students feel a strong desire to get into one of the country’s top universities. “Where you attend university haunts you for the rest of your life,” noted Lee Beom, former cram-school instructor
- students are crammed into poorly lit, small spaces, late into the evening hours, devouring common worksheets and study guides; daily schedules range from 8 AM to 10 PM-1 AM, depending on the ambition of the student
- parents relentlessly push their children academically in order to compete with other students who are attending after-hours tutoring
Are South Korean students successful? They outperform students in nearly all other nations in reading and math. Their country has benefited: its GDP has increased nearly 40,000% since 1962. However, government officials are concerned that the rigid system must be transformed in order to make way for more innovation, otherwise economic growth will stagnate. Schools all across Asia are looking to make their schools more “American” (a recommended read is Yong Zhao’s Catching up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization) in order to equip students with a more global skill set. South Korean education officials are working to improve public schools by creating more rigorous evaluation systems for teachers and principals (sound familiar?) and requiring more professional development for low-performing teachers.
As an American administrator I’ve been introduced to the ins and outs of the educational systems of foreign nations, such as those in Singapore, Finland, Canada, and South Korea. The propensity for comparing the supposed abysmal performance of our students to those in more “successful” nations is becoming quite the popular pastime. I still have a hard time believing our system is as broken as many claim it to be, however Ripley’s account of her nocturnal journey (she describes the hagwon she visited as “a distributing scene, sort of like a sweatshop for children’s brains”) solidified in me a great appreciation for our desire to teach and value the whole child; to encourage passion-driven, student-centered, and inquiry-based learning opportunities; to ensure the time students spend within our brick and mortar or online learning environments is time well spent: that it’s engaging, authentic, creative, collaborative, and intellectually stimulating. That we allow for play, mistakes, and continuous growth in a nurturing environment.
Films like Race to Nowhere examine the detriments that the pressures associated with academic competition, grades, and homework can play on our children’s lives. I shared my thoughts on this documentary last spring and some of my colleagues did as well, including Jonathan Martin, who most recently shared a guest post on his blog pushing back against Nowhere’s claims that homework in itself will be the downfall of our children, but rather than homework and academic overload is to blame. When I consider the implications of the South Korea system, hagwons, and the inordinate amount of pressure to perform experienced by those students on a daily basis, the word overload doesn’t quite do it justice.
Administrators, we owe it to our students to examine often and in depth the demands our school systems are placing on students’ intellectual, emotional, social, and behavioral well-beings.
Ripley, A. (2011) Teacher, leave those kids alone. Time. December 5.