When American policymakers measure the performance of their schools on the global scale, few nations inspire as much curiosity and admiration as South Korea, a country regarded as something of a math and science juggernaut.
Yet observers say the East Asian country’s prowess, as demonstrated on international tests, is rooted in a number of distinctive educational and cultural characteristics, some unconnected to what occurs in public school classrooms.
In addition to having a national curriculum and what appears to be a talented, motivated corps of teachers, South Korea is home to an enormous network of private tutoring and out-of-school academic services, which are in heavy demand.
Families spend about 10 percent of their annual incomes on those services, according to Hee-Chan Lew, the dean of budget and planning and a professor at the Korea National University of Education, who has studied schools there. Other data suggest a relatively large percentage of South Korean students receive some sort of a shadow education, in addition to their public school studies.
The pursuit of private services reflects families’ determination to bolster their children’s chances for admission into the country’s highly selective universities and thus to improve their career prospects. A similar conviction in the power of education prevails in such countries as China and Japan.
“There’s a huge emphasis on using school systems as a tool for social mobility,” said Jae Hoon Lim, an assistant professor of educational research at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who was raised in South Korea and has studied its schools. Education, she said, is regarded as vital to “moving up to a higher-class status.”
A Society Transformed
Koreans have placed a strong emphasis on education and examinations as a way of measuring students’ abilities for hundreds of years. During World War II, Korea’s society and schools were dismantled under Japanese occupation. Parents who lived through that period came to regard education as a way of climbing out of poverty and improving their families’ lives.
After the founding in 1948 of the Republic of Korea, as the southern half of the divided Korean peninsula is formally known, the government established a more structured education system, with mandatory years of school and a greater emphasis on teaching. From 1960 to 2002, the student-to-teacher ratio in South Korean elementary schools fell from 59-to-1 to 28-to-1, according to government estimates.
Total population: 48.5 million
Primary and secondary student population: 7.3 million
Public spending per pupil as % of GDP: 18.8 percent (primary), 23.4 percent (secondary)
Education governance: National curriculum
Sources: National data: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
South Korea experienced decades of economic growth after 1960. As a new middle class emerged, Ms. Lim said, families saw even greater evidence of a connection between academic prowess and a better life.
Today, much of the outside interest in education arises from the country’s strong performance on international exams. South Korean students score well above average in science on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, and on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, known as TIMSS. In math, their marks are consistently near the top.
See where the United States and other countries, including Australia, Slovenia, and South Korea, rank on two prominent international mathematics and science exams, PISA and TIMSS. The two tests measure different skills for students in different grades and age groups.
Science Literacy, PISA
8th Grade, 2007
8th Grade, 2007
SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement
Students in South Korea attend six years of elementary, three years of middle, and three years of high school. Eighth graders in South Korea attend school 205 days per year, compared a median of 180 days in the United States, according to 2007 TIMSS data. By another measure, U.S. 8th graders spent a greater median number of hours in school, 1,146, than Koreans did, at 923, partly because American school days are longer, a calculation of TIMSS data on instructional time shows.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama cited South Korea’s academic calendar as evidence the United States should demand more of its students, through summer programs, longer school days, and other means.
In math, the subject in which South Korea produces the strongest test results, the national curriculum delves deeper into topics, with greater expectations that students master lessons before moving on than the U.S. approach generally does, said Janice Grow-Maienza, a professor of education at Truman State University, in Kirksville, Mo. Ms. Grow-Maienza has analyzed Korean math lessons and teaching materials with the help of native Korean speakers who translated them into English.
South Koreans also tend to use similar, effective strategies across the math curriculum, Ms. Grow-Maienza said. She cited lessons on addition and subtraction, which are taught together, with one as the “inverse” of the other; many American schools tend to teach those topics in isolation, she said. Similarly, South Koreans constantly return to ideas such as the number line—a visual depiction of positive or negative numbers—to connect lessons, Ms. Grow-Maienza added.
“There’s a lot of coherence in the curriculum,” she said. “From 1st through 6th grade, they’ll be putting every problem on the number line.”
Pointing to the practices of top-performing countries, U.S. policymakers and teaching organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, have called for schools to streamline and refocus curriculum in the early grades.
South Korean textbooks, like those in Japan and Singapore, are less bloated and redundant than U.S. brands, Ms. Grow-Maienza said. Perhaps equally important, she argued, is South Korea’s promotion of teacher guides, which explain the mathematical background to problems and help teachers make connections to topics that come before and after a math lesson.
Teaching is a highly desirable profession in South Korea. Mr. Lew, citing placement statistics from his university, located in the city of Chungbuk, said there are about 20 applicants for every secondary school teaching job. In elementary schools, the applicant-to-job ratio is about 2.5-to-1.
Both beginning and veteran teachers earn more money than they do in the United States, and their ratio of salary to gross domestic product is much higher than that of most countries, including the United States, according to statistics from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, the Paris-based organization that administers PISA. Those rewards, and the rigorous screening of applicants through exams and interviews, help produce a strong teacher pool, said Ms. Lim, of UNC-Charlotte.
More Equity Online?
Despite the apparent high quality of public school teaching, many South Korean families are determined to challenge their children through other means. Nearly 58 percent of South Korean students reported getting tutoring from nonschool teachers, more than twice the average for industrialized nations, according to preliminary data provided to Education Week by the OECD. About 25 percent of U.S. students receive those services.
This is the fourth and final installment of a yearlong, occasional series examining the impact of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.
View the complete index of stories in the A Nation at Risk series.
The first installment was published on April 23, 2008, as the 25th anniversary of the report was being marked. It explored concerns about global competition and efforts by policymakers and educators to benchmark American performance against that of students in competitor nations.
The second, published September 24, 2008, looked at U.S. progress toward finding more time for children’s learning.
The third installment, published February 25, 2009, focused on charter quality and came a quarter-century after A Nation at Risk declared that a “rising tide of mediocrity” was eroding U.S. education.
Many Korean tutoring programs are informal businesses run out of a home; popular subjects include math and English, said Jeff Matthews, the director of North American franchise development for E.nopi, a private academic-services provider. The parent company of E.nopi is Daekyo, one of the largest providers in South Korea. Nopi is an abbreviation of the Korean term for “eye level.”
The popularity of private services has, in turn, raised concerns that students from poorer families are losing out. “Richer students go to higher-quality programs, with better circumstances, and more famous tutors” who can provide better services and test preparation, Mr. Lew said in an e-mail. In an attempt to address those worries, the South Korean government is supporting efforts to increase free public access to supplemental academic lessons, which include a “cyber learning” program that provides customized, online tutoring programs to students at no cost.
The demand for private services was evident to Mr. Matthews, who taught English as a private tutor in South Korea and also trained natives of that country to work for Daekyo. He remembers meeting students who would leave their public schools and attend tutoring services until midnight.
While there is a strong emphasis on test preparation in South Korea’s tutoring system, Daekyo, which has expanded its online programs, seeks a broader focus, Mr. Matthews said.
“We develop foundational skills,” he said, and seek “to invest in the whole child, academically.”
Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as Out-of School Classes Provide Edge