South Korea’s educational system isn’t quite right.
On a wet Wednesday evening in Seoul, six government employees gather at the office to prepare for a late-night patrol. The mission: to find children who are studying after 10 p.m. And stop them.
In South Korea, it has come to this. To reduce the country’s addiction to private, after-hours tutoring academies (called hagwons), the authorities have begun enforcing a curfew — even paying citizens bounties to turn in violators.
BEFORE CONTINUING, WATCH THE VIDEO TO GET AN IDEA OF WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THAT COUNTRY:
South Korea’s hagwon crackdown is one part of a larger quest to tame the country’s culture of educational masochism. At the national and local levels, politicians are changing school testing and university admissions policies to reduce student stress and reward softer qualities like creativity. “One-size-fits-all, government-led uniform curriculums and an education system that is locked only onto the college-entrance examination are not acceptable,” President Lee Myung-bak vowed at his inauguration in 2008.
But cramming is deeply embedded in Asia, where top grades — and often nothing else — have long been prized as essential for professional success. Before toothbrushes or printing presses, there were civil service exams that could make or break you. Chinese families have been hiring test-prep tutors since the 7th century. Modern-day South Korea has taken this competition to new extremes. In 2010, 74% of all students engaged in some kind of private after-school instruction, sometimes called shadow education, at an average cost of $2,600 per student for the year. There are more private instructors in South Korea than there are schoolteachers, and the most popular of them make millions of dollars a year from online and in-person classes.
In Seoul, legions of students who fail to get into top universities spend the entire year after high school attending hagwons to improve their scores on university admissions exams. And they must compete even to do this. At the prestigious Daesung Institute, admission is based (diabolically enough) on students’ test scores. Only 14% of applicants are accepted. After a year of 14-hour days, about 70% gain entry to one of the nation’s top three universities.
From a distance, South Korea’s results look enviable. Its students consistently outperform their counterparts in almost every country in reading and math. In the U.S., Barack Obama and his Education Secretary speak glowingly of the enthusiasm South Korean parents have for educating their children, and they lament how far U.S. students are falling behind. Without its education obsession, South Korea could not have transformed into the economic powerhouse that it is today. (Since 1962 the nation’s GDP has gone up about 40,000%, making it the world’s 13th largest economy.) But the country’s leaders worry that unless its rigid, hierarchical system starts to nurture more innovation, economic growth will stall — and fertility rates will continue to decline as families feel the pressure of paying for all that tutoring. “You Americans see a bright side of the Korean system,” Education Minister Lee Ju-ho tells me, “but Koreans are not happy with it.”
The problem is not that South Korean kids aren’t learning enough or working hard enough; it’s that they aren’t working smart. When I visited some schools, I saw classrooms in which a third of the students slept while the teacher continued lecturing, seemingly unfazed. Gift stores sell special pillows that slip over your forearm to make desktop napping more comfortable. This way, goes the backward logic, you can sleep in class — and stay up late studying. By way of comparison, consider Finland, the only European country to routinely perform as well as South Korea on the test for 15-year-olds conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In Finland, public and private spending combined is less per pupil than in South Korea, and only 13% of Finnish students take remedial after-school lessons.