Why Following South Korea’s Education Model May Be Dangerous for the US

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The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about a $4 Million English Teacher in Korea named Kim Ki-Hoon. Immediately I said to myself, “He makes $4 million teaching English? Apparently, I’m doing it wrong!” After further inspection I realized that Mr. Kim is in the private sector – he teaches via hagwons or private academies. Hagwons are big business in Korea. Many of my students attend public school classes with me from 8:40am – 2:40pm before attending classes at hagwons in subjects like English, math, music, science, and Korean from 4:00pm to 10:00pm. To say these kids are busy is an understatement.

Moreover, the push to learn English is big here and is driven mostly by the parents. Those who are willing to pay for extra lessons are the ones whose children will benefit the most. As a public school teacher, I definitely see the difference between my students who attend English hagwons and those who don’t. My hagwon students are always the sharpest and most outspoken ones in the class while the non hagwon students are struggling to understand what’s going on around them. At this point, I’ve deduced that my job is to teach to the non-hagwon kids and try to catch them up to speed.

But I don’t really want to get into the “Hagwon vs. Public School: Which is better?” debate right now. I bring up this article because it praises Mr. Kim, the hagwon system, and South Korea as a potential benchmark for what the US public school system should do to improve the quality of education American children are receiving. And this is where I’m calling a flag on the damn play! I would advise anyone modeling an education after Korea to be extra cautious.

From what I’ve noticed in this country, learning (English and many other subjects) consists of listening, memorizing, and parroting back answers to the same questions you’ve been asked a million times. This is maddening to me and is absolutely NOT how you master a language or anything for that matter. What you have, for example, are several children who can read, write, and may even be able to pronounce English words… BUT! That is where the razzle dazzle ends. I’ve yet to see any critical thinking skills developed here. You have a nation of many people who can pass a standardized test, but simply cannot think of alternative solutions to a problem in the real world. Don’t believe me? How about an education board that is struggling with funding, but follows a contract so strictly and blindly that no one questions the idiocy of forcing (and paying) contract teachers to sit around on their asses in school when they have no classes to teach because the regular school hours are finished or there are absolutely no classes in session due to a school vacation. Critical thinking would have nipped this foolishness in the bud already.

I’m not saying that the US is not without its own problems when it comes to teaching critical thinking skills in the classroom, but it is doing a helluva lot better than South Korea on this front. Furthermore, I seriously question anyone who favors a singular measure/indicator, such as performance on a standardized test, to determine the academic success of students or a nation. If anything, I think what should be emulated from South Korea and this hagwon culture is an incredible work ethic. I don’t think children need to attend classes until 10pm like they do here, but I think extending the school day and providing quality education (not the babysitting that is done at many afterschool programs throughout the US) may be working in the right direction.

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