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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Education in the U.S. and South Korea: Why Would We Want a Hagwon Hell?

Test scores are not a good measure of the value of an individual or of an education.   

In a speech on January 14th, Arne Duncan praised Korean parents and the Korean educational system for producing strong test results and high college completion rates.  He qualified his statements by stating, "I'm not saying we should be just like South Korea."  Referencing Amanda Ripley, he pointed at Korean students who are so sleep deprived that they are driven to wear napping pillows on their wrists in schools.  He says there should be a "sense of balance and common sense." 

I find no balance in his words.  Why should the United States of America mimic South Korea's educational system?  If we do, it's time to change our paradigm.  Why should we ram a square peg into a round hole?  American success has traditionally been built by individualism and creative thought going hand in hand.  In the Korean system, the emphasis is on rote memorization and  cramming for examination hell.  Students rarely have the opportunity to ask questions and hundreds of thousands emigrate to learn in less rigid systems like the U.S. of A. 

It sadly seems we have already come a long way towards mimicking the nondemocratic aspects of education in South Korea.  South Korea's Ministry of Education took power from local-school boards and concentrated it in its own hands.  After 1973, school-board members needed to be approved by the minister of education.  In N.Y., under Mayor Bloomberg, the nondemocratic aspects became blaringly apparent following the Monday Night Massacre with the P.E.P. (Panel for Educational Policy).  Then, there is Michelle Rhee who stated as D.C. chancellor, "I'm not running this district by consensus or committee.  We're not running this school district through the democratic  process."  Most recently, in Newark five principals were suspended by state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson for exercising what one would assume to be their rights to free speech.  They spoke against school closings.  America has been a beacon of democracy and public education is its foundation.  In order for a democracy to work, individuals need to be educated.  Now, ironically, there is little democracy left in education.

In South Korea, parents go to huge extremes to ensure that their children's heads are crammed full of the kind of facts that will help them score high on tests, enter a top university and obtain a high position.  The costs of these private cramming academies, or HAGWONS, are high, both monetarily and psychologically.  Some families are driven into debt.  They are prohibitively expensive for the poorer classes.  Ironically, many students end up studying late at  private cram schools and then sleeping through school during the day.  Hence, the need for wrist pillows.  Does Duncan believe that American children should attend school for fifteen hours?  Should American students focus on cramming for tests at any price?  Should we dispose of hopes for well-rounded individuals, free to pursue their own paths of learning?  Does Duncan want a two-tier system in which wealthier parents obtain phenomenal tutors after hours, poor kids have none, and no one really wins while the test scores sure look great!

In South Korea, the situation became distorted.  A curfew was placed upon study hours given that students were staying up until 1 or 2 a.m.  Now, legally, students cannot study past 10 p.m. at the hagwons.  Still, some continue illegally underground and, in at least one instance, on a rooftop.  Saturday classes were outlawed, but apparently many still attend, albeit illegally, to give their children an advantage to make it to the best universities in a very high-pressured system. 

South Korean children lose many of the pleasures of childhood.  Youth suicide rates in Korea are very high and most sources point towards the stress engendered by the academic system.  Why would we want to replicate this system, or anything like it?  

Many students graduate from schools in South Korea with skills, yet there are no jobs waiting for them.  Instead of the bashing American schools and trying to destroy the lives of generations of kids with some demented idea of reform, why don't we focus more on raising children with diverse talents and diverse interests while simultaneously creating more jobs that support a comfortable middle-class lifestyle?

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