School Choice & Charters

South Korean ‘Teacher’ Makes $4 Million

By Liana Loewus — August 08, 2013 1 min read
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In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Amanda Ripley wrote about a “rock star” teacher in South Korea who makes $4 million a year.

Kim Ki-hoon, she explains, “works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans, and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).”

Ki-hoon teaches at a private, after-hours tutoring academy, known as a hagwon. Students sign up for particular teachers there, so the most respected tend to have larger classes. Teachers act as free agents and don’t need certification. Ripley explains that to find the best teachers, “hagwon directors scour the Internet, reading parents’ reviews and watching teachers’ lectures. Competing hagwons routinely try to poach each other’s celebrity tutors.”

Pay is based on performance, and performance is typically determined by “how many students sign up for their classes, their students’ test-score growth, and satisfaction surveys given to students and parents.” Ripley calls the system “as close to a pure meritocracy as it can be.”

She also notes that the free-market approach is “troubling” and “creates a bidding war for education.”

It’s interesting to note that Ripley wrote about hagwons two years ago in an article for Time—but in that case focused on how the South Korean government was enforcing curfews on these after-hours tutoring companies, which were stifling innovation and demoralizing young people.

The differences between the South Korean system and that of the U.S. are monumental—to the point that it’s unclear what, if any, comparisons are really fair. In making any comparisons, though, I’m wondering if it might be more helpful to view Ki-hoon like a high-priced tutor or a massive tutoring company (Kaplan Inc., Sylvan Learning, etc.) in the U.S., rather than a “teacher” at all.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.