In South Korea, Cha Kil-young sings with famous actresses, works out of an office in Seoul’s exclusive Gangnam district, endorses brain-boosting drinks, and takes home an $8 million paycheck—all in the name of teaching math to high schoolers.
Cha runs an online “cram school"—a hagwon—that helps students prepare for South Korea’s version of the SAT. A recent profile of Cha and his fellow Korean “teaching stars” in the Washington Post describes the increasingly important role of such teachers in Korea:
The vast majority of teenagers here do a double shift at school: They attend normal classes by day but go to hagwons for after-hours study. Increasingly, online hagwons are replacing traditional brick-and-mortar cram schools. The hagwons have become a $20 billion industry.
The Korean education system regularly appears at the top of international rankings, leading the pack in everything from efficiency and innovation to problem-solving skills and overall performance. Many critics, however, suggest that the country’s heavily test-focused system has its downsides.
In an August 2014 Education Week opinion blog on the subject, Walt Gardner writes that Korean students are three-fourths as likely to report feeling content in school as their international peers, and that a slight majority report suicidal feelings. The Washington Post article on Cha notes that South Koreans themselves have concerns about the pressures on students but aren’t sure how to fix the problem:
Some politicians and educators are questioning whether things have gotten out of hand. But even parents opposed to this punishing system find it difficult to opt out—their children complain that they can't keep up if they don't go to a hagwon.
But though long hours may be the norm for Korean students, Cha isn’t an average teacher, even by Korean standards. Regular school teachers in South Korea generally max out at just above $80,000 a year by the end of their career, according to data from the Center on International Education Benchmarking. Granted, that’s $30,000 more than the OECD average, and South Korean teachers generally spend fewer hours in the classroom than teachers in almost all other developed countries. Still, it’s not hard to see why another hagwon star quoted in the Post article opines that “regular school teaching has its limits.”
Photo: Cha Kil-young (right) and actress Clara cheer on students in a music video about South Korea’s version of the SAT. Image from YouTube.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.