High test scores, higher expectations, and presidential hype
Should South Korean schools point the way to American reforms?
What South Korean schools can teach us
(1) Note the law of diminishing returns: Past a certain point, long, grueling hours won't substantially improve your child’s performance. Find out how much homework is too much.
(2) High expectations are wonderful, but not if they interfere with your child’s emotional and physical well-being.
By Hank Pellissier
Last year President Barack Obama touted hardworking South Korean schools as a role model for our education system. "Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea,” he told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "That is no way to prepare them for a 21st-century economy." If Obama's point that U.S. students need to study more had many nodding in agreement, choosing South Korea as a benchmark for excellence in education had others scratching their heads.
Today South Korea is often regarded, along with Finland, as one of the two premier K-12 education systems in the world — in no small part due to the spectacular academic performance of its students. According to a 2006 survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates the scholastic performance of 15-year-olds in 57 nations every three years, South Koreans rank first in reading, third in math (tied with Hong Kong), and 10th in science (tied with Liechtenstein). More than 97% of South Koreans graduate from high school, the highest graduation rate in the world. Finally, some 100,000 South Koreans now attend U.S. universities — third overall just behind China and India — despite having a population that is less than 1/20th of those nations.
Superpower, not super scores
Should the United States emulate South Korea by vastly increasing the number of school days and adopting its other educational practices? If higher test scores and graduation rates are the goal, the logical answer would be yes. After all, the United States' position in the PISA surveys is always far below average, seldom cracking the top 20 list. Yet a deeper look at the South Korean model suggests that its success comes at a price.
High expectations gone berserk
South Koreans attend school 220 days per year, almost two months more than the 180 days of Americans. (The Japanese enroll an astonishing 243 days per annum; South Korea abdicated first place in 2005 when its students ceased going to school half days on Saturday.) What distinguishes South Koreans from everyone else, however, is the immense number of hours they study outside the classroom. High schoolers, and even middle schoolers, in South Korea are often engaged in scholastics until midnight or 2 a.m. After taking classes in up to 11 subjects, they attend private academies called "hagwons" where they obtain supplemental learning. The bottom line? Most South Korean children spend 13 hours a day or more with their bottoms glued to a chair.
Although these grueling schedules help South Korea's high test scores, the nation is remarkably inefficient at another PISA criterion known as "study effectiveness." When PISA calculates each nation's achievement based on the number of hours spent studying, South Koreans rank only 24th out of 30 developed nations. The winner in study effectiveness is Finland, the world's true PISA champ, placing first in science, second in math, and second in reading. Finnish students only attend school 190 days per year (two weeks more than U.S. children) and receive less than a half-hour of homework per day.