In Pursuit of Prestige: Scholastic Struggles, Sacrifices and Success

Chae Yoon Jang, South Korea, Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies, 10th grade, 2nd Place Winner.

In Korea, many of the best performing students grow up attending private academies and afterschool programs known as “Hagwons.” These institutes specialize in focused education; rigorously developing students in subject areas from mathematics to English fluency. They are extremely competitive and an important part of the education system in Korea.Along with these programs, students garner support from private tutors to help achieve top percentile grades in academies and hagwons. This intense competitiveness is a major reason why 72,295 Korean students were able to attend top boarding schools and universities in the United States alone last year.[1] This number is remarkable when compared to the modest number of Korean citizens. Praise for Korean educational prowess even came fromPresident Barack Obama, who emphasized the need to reform the American education system in his 2011 State of the Union. President Obama cited how Koreans view their educators as “nation-builders,” expressing his hope that the United States would emulate the importance of education.[2] The President went on to urge his country that, in order to be competitive in today’s global economy, the American people needed to embrace an educational system similar to Korea’s current template.

However, when one looks beyond the graphs and statistics, we can see a steep price has to be paid bystudents and their families. As a Korean, I grew up in a society with rigid standards of excellence and success. I know how the Korean systemdismisses those who fall behind or whocannot afford to enroll in high quality institutes. In Seoul, if a student is not innately gifted or skilled in an academic subject, it is difficult—if not impossible—for them to keep up with students who come from more affluent families. I must ask: how can a system which is lauded by the President of the United States be so unsupportive to low and middle income families?

I believe that the problem with the current education system in Korea is two-fold. The primary issue is the lack of access to proper education for students from low-income families. Second, the way in which South Korea defines educational success is far too rigid, making it difficult for students without access to high quality resources to excel. The public education system is set up in a manner whichensures that disadvantaged youth underperform academically so that a small percentage of human capital can reap rewards at the expense of the underprivileged.

This is a well-known problem in Korea and has been addressed by policy-makers and government officials. As noted by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), the Korean government has taken steps to promote education for lower income families by subsidizing the expenses of early childhood education. In an article addressing educational reform in Korea,the OECD observes how the Korean government currently is subsidizing early childhood education.

“Since 1991, the government has provided means-tested subsidies, beginning with families below or near the minimum cost of living. By 2009, eligibility had been expanded to the lower 70% of the income distribution, with the subsidy covering between 30% and 100% of basic fees for public childcare or kindergarten.”[3]

Government subsidization certainly is a step in the right direction, but the cost of education still consumes as much as 15% of South Korea’s GNP—and up to 22% of average household income.[4] At this point, Korea turned its focus to the international community for further ideas.

In the United States of America, a program called “Head Start” began with the goal of supporting low-income families with children up to the age of five years old. One of the most intriguing aspects of this program was its aim to aid the communities while, after a revision in 2007 under the George W. Bush administration, requiring assessments every five years to verify effective application of funding.[5] This mandatory evaluation serves as an excellent example for the Korean government, where alleged corruption and embezzlement of funding is unfortunately routine.[6],[7] Applying this practice in Korea would benefit the families of students and any government institutions involved in early childhood education by promoting innovation and competition.

Regarding Korea’s education system as a whole, it is important to consider the limiting factors of what defines educational success. It is important for educators and governing leaders to place value on different modes of learning. In order to do this, the best teaching method for disadvantaged youth may be in a student-centered approach. The curriculum must have direct ties to the student’s lives. For instance, in Australia at Debney Park Secondary College, in order to cater to the needs of African refugees with low literacy levels and motivation towards schooling, the whole structure of the classroom was changed to small groups in order to allow for individual attention to each student.[8] Each student was given a personalized curriculum around four integrated approaches: Communication, Investigation, Recreation, and Design. Extensive interviews with the students have revealed improvement in self-confidence, engagement, and language skills of the refugee students.

Once again turning to the United States, a non-profit organization called The Big Picture Company creates student-centered high schools in which students design their own learning paths with the support of community advisors and mentors.[9] The big idea is for the organization to train schools on new approaches to individualized learning catered to the student population of the students they serve. The Big Picture Company has worked with 60 schools nationwide improve teaching methods across all subjects. For instance, with regards to mathematics, the organization developed a QR Quest, a computer program to interact with students in order to keep them engaged while learning quantitative reasoning. In science, a highly hands-on method of learning through internships is drawn out for each student for maximum application in a real-life setting. I believe it is essential for the education office to study closely of successful programs that have a proven record of improvement for disadvantaged youth. Careful observation of the student-centered method may be the answer.

Observing the remarkable accomplishments and innovations cited in the United States and in Australia, I believe Korea must emulate these programs and ultimately redefine how we measure educational success. The reason is not to loosen the strict standards to make things easier for low-income students. Korea’s obsession with standardized tests is far too narrow. An emphasis must be placed on developing a child’s social and emotional intelligence as well. Great interpersonal and leadership skills are extremely important for success in the real world. Hence, Korea’s education system as a whole must find ways to measure other forms of intelligence.

From my own experience in both the Korean and American education system, there exists a clear difference in what defines a successful student. In fact, many Korean international students are at a loss when entering the US college admission process due to a need for social and emotional maturity reflected through activities that go beyond the classroom. Leadership and community impact plays a large role in evaluating the future success of the student. It is the well-rounded student that they seek. These factors play little or no role in the Korean college admissions process, which accounts for the downplaying of such skills. Whether privileged or not, each student’s unique background is reflected not simply in the classroom but perhaps even more so outside of the classroom.

To that end, both schools and non-profit organizations must engage students to develop personal passions and find activities that prepare them for collegiate life and, eventually, adulthood. Though this may be difficult to do for financially strained students, schools should support such individuals to find appropriate ways to help contribute to their families, and more importantly, be acknowledged for it. In regards to extra-curricular involvement, Korean organizations such as YouthECA can provide teens an online space to inspire one another.[10] Originally started by an enthusiastic group of 10 students, it aims to provide ways for students to “take their passion beyond boundaries in globalizing and pursuing more dimensions to your activities.” An excellent resource to prepare for college success and share extracurricular experiences, students from all walks of life can share their stories crossing racial, religious, and even socioeconomic boundaries.

South Korea is one of the top performers in education worldwide. This is true for those who are able to compete given their privileged status in life. For the have-nots, it is a struggle to transcend their circumstances and move up in the social ladder. Without proper changes in curriculum design and the appreciation for each student’s individual passion, Korea as a country will be limited. The forgotten youth of the slums hold the fate of our country’s fate as well and we must tap that potential. The answer lies in one student at a time.

 

Works Cited

“Big Picture History.”Big Picture Personalized Learning One Student at a Time an Innovative Education Alternative News. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

Chang, S. J. “A Cultural and Philosohical Perspective on Korea’s Education Reform: A Critical Way to Maintain Korea’s Economic Momentum.” Korea Economic Institute: Academic Paper Series 3.2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

“Fraud Scandal Exposes South Korean Malaise.” Times Higher Education.N.p., 19 Oct. 2007. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

“History of Head Start.”Home.N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

“MIPs Case Studies – Debney Park Secondary College.”MIPs Case Studies – Debney Park Secondary College.N.p., 28 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

“NCEE » South Korea: System and School Organization.” NCEE.N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.

“South Korean Student Mobility Takes a Dip.” ICEF Monitor Market Intelligence for International Student Recruitment South Korean Student Mobility Takes a Dip Comments. N.p., 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

“State of the Union 2011: President Obama’s Full Speech.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 15 Jan. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

YoutheCA.N.p., 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

[1] “South Korean Student Mobility Takes a Dip.” ICEF Monitor Market Intelligence for International Student Recruitment South Korean Student Mobility Takes a Dip Comments. N.p., 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

[2]”State of the Union 2011: President Obama’s Full Speech.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 15 Jan. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

[3]Jones, R. S. (2013), “Education Reform in Korea”, OECDEconomics Department Working Papers, No. 1067, OECDPublishing.

[4]”NCEE » South Korea: System and School Organization.” NCEE.N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.

[5]”History of Head Start.”Home.N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

[6]Chang, S. J. “A Cultural and Philosohical Perspective on Korea’s Education Reform: A Critical Way to Maintain Korea’s Economic Momentum.” Korea Economic Institute: Academic Paper Series 3.2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

[7]”Fraud Scandal Exposes South Korean Malaise.” Times Higher Education.N.p., 19 Oct. 2007. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

[8]”MIPs Case Studies – Debney Park Secondary College.”MIPs Case Studies – Debney Park Secondary College.N.p., 28 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

[9]”Big Picture History.”Big Picture Personalized Learning One Student at a Time an Innovative Education Alternative News. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

[10]YoutheCA.N.p., 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.