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High test scores, higher expectations, and presidential hype

Should South Korean schools point the way to American reforms?

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.

Testing taken to its logical extreme

In the face of high expectations and high-stakes grading, South Korean teens don’t enjoy what many would consider a healthy balance of school, play, and sleep. So-called enrichments such as sports and arts are at a low premium, with many high schools lacking modern gymnasiums or sports teams. Supporting student social life is also a low priority compared to U.S. schools. A New York Times article about one of the nation's most competitive high schools describes a teacher scolding two teens for holding hands. Finally, discipline in schools is meted out with canings by teachers for everything from disobedience to low test scores.

Even basics like sleep get short shrift during testing season. Blogger Rob Ouwehand, an English teacher living in Seoul, observed that South Korean high school seniors often sleep only four hours per night for several months leading up to the college entrance exams, thereby adhering to the popular maxim "Sleep five hours and fail, sleep four hours and pass." (For a glimpse of the culture of the all-powerful college entrance exams, in which road and air traffic is rerouted to eliminate distractions and police chauffeur students to their exams, sirens blaring, check out this video.)

Relentless pressure and long hours, followed by tests that are regarded as the marker of all future success, produce unintended, and sometimes tragic, results. Many South Korean kids are alarmingly unready for university work. The Korea Times reported that Samuel Kim, a Columbia University scholar, assembled research revealing that 44% of South Korean students at top U.S. universities drop out. This digit exceeds the dropout rate for students from the United States (34%), China (25%), and India (21.5%). A principal reason for the lack of success is that the rote learning in Korean schools does not prepare students for the creative, active, and self-motivated form of learning U.S. universities require.

The system takes a profound emotional toll as well. South Korea's student suicide rate is among the world's highest, with 17 out of 100,000 students killing themselves — sometimes after a poor performance on entrance exams or because children cannot endure their parent's disappointment. One 2008 poll indicated that 58.8% of students contemplate suicide.

Demolishing the digital divide

Should we use South Korea as an object lesson in excellence or how a culture of high-stakes testing can go too far? Either way, South Korean schools do deserve recognition for their innovative use of technology. In 2001 the country became the first to provide high-speed Internet access to every primary, middle, and high school.

Presently, South Korea is aiming for two high-tech goals: By 2013, "flexbooks," or digital textbooks, will be given to every student — these 3-D learning tools are easy to update with links to online articles and visual and audio material, and they'll lighten backpacks that have been weighed down with heavy outdated textbooks. Robots for kindergarten are also due in 2013. IROBI will be a teaching assistant and a convenient "friend" who can register students, converse, sing songs, take photos, read stories aloud, and show films on its belly that has a seven-inch screen. Though U.S. teacher unions might reasonably object to a non-human teacher entering the labor market, no doubt many educators would welcome a professional stapler and housekeeper to help them with their endless classroom chores.

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer on education and brain development, and the author of  Brighter Brains: 225 Ways to Elevate or Injure Intelligence. He is also a SAT and SSAT tutor and director of the Brighter Brains Institute

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Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/20/2010:
"I am a Korean mom. If I had to decide where to raise my children, I would choose the U.S. over South Korea. Just as it is easier to add salt to bland food than to remove saltiness from already salty food, it is easier to add discipline and learning to a flexible and somewhat lax system than to separate the essential part of learning and growing from the overly complicated mesh of educational ambitions. The troubles that I am having in this country (the U.S.) are, 1. Books are too expensive. 2. Extracurricular activities (music, art, language lessons) are too costly (at least where we live). 3. Teachers' tenure does not make sense. Teachers' union does not do good. 4. The U.S. education system is marching backward to where China, Japan, Korea used be 20-30 years ago. The Asian countries are trying their best to move away from rote memorization and simply picking up facts. Instead, they are switching their focus to creativity, logic and both convergent and divergent thinking. Although invisible to the public eyes, there are many Asians creating and inventing (not bettering as someone below said) in the fields such as engineering and medicines. There is an index for science/engineering publications for the proof. See which region has increased publications in recent years. I heard the American schools used to nurture children's individualities, creativities and divergent thinkings. Well, not so any more, at least in my children's school. I guess No Child Left Behind is behind this detrimental consequence?"
05/20/2010:
"Well, there are a lot of pros to the Korean education system for Koreans, but probably wouldn't fare well in the US. In Korea it is the family that pushes the student to succeed, not the school. The school is a tool for the student to utilize, not for the student to just go through the motions like they do in the US. I could go on and on about such things, but what needs to be taken into account is Korea's high suicide rates amongst teenagers mostly due to stress, their consistent lack of sleep (which is made up during classes, so spending more time in school isn't necessarily productive) and the push on memorization rather than retention through understanding is frightening. Standardized test scores mean nothing in the long run. Just means that they're able to study for tests, not necessarily contribute to society, which in the long run, is what education is about."
05/12/2010:
"In reading the below... if they would teach the kids both in the US and Korea the fundamental skills in the day time than perhaps we would have a better school system in both. As far as the statement not the teacher's fault...hmm... I think that a lot of teachers focus on the minimalist.... giving the class the minimalist for the one that knows the minimalist to keep up... forget about the high achievers and those that are bored out of their minds...its more important to reach the kid that is struggling to read...no child left behind... too bad soo many of the kids that went into elementary school ahead of the class... end up dropping out, developing poor coping, study skills, get labled as trouble makers early on...and told to wait for the class to catch up.... The way I see it.... the cop out here is it's too hard for the kids...they are just kids... let them be kids... the problem with that... is the expectation is set sooo low and it's raised quickly and then in 9th gra! de you find these kids behind because they weren't pushed or challenged in Elementary school when they are really learning and developing their back bone, and learning skills... quit treating them like babies.... or they never grow up and we have a nation of adult of ignorent, uneducated folks that dropped out when the going got tough. "
05/11/2010:
"It is a kind of my statement of Korean education for trial."
05/10/2010:
"Given the stats given in the article, why wasn't there more focus on what the Finns do? It seems much more appealing."
05/10/2010:
"The biggest factor in the success of both Finland and S. Korea-MOTIVATED STUDENTS, CONCERNED PARENTS. Unfortunately, this is what the United States is lacking in the areas that need it the most. You can throw money at the problem as much as you like, but without kids that care, and parents that monitor, it is a waste of resources. "
05/10/2010:
"As a teacher, I'm scared! If we are to be judged/paid based on how well our students do on tests, as our president suggests, maybe some will advocate we go back to beating students who don't perform well. I'm sorry to have to say this, but 'Look to the parents!' I can not guarantee a student who is not adequately rested, nourished, and supported emotionally at home will benefit from anything I do in the classroom. "
05/10/2010:
"The retirement age in S. Korea is 63."
05/6/2010:
"One of my friends has a daughter that is a teacher. She was sent to Japan for a month in the summer of 2008 and came back a different person. What she absured was male teachers beating male students for doing poorly on a test, while the rest of the class watched. This did not happen everyday but often. One of my favorite sayings: There are two sides to every story and somewhere in between is the truth. Great article!!!!"
05/6/2010:
"Show me the money! We teachers would love a longer school year...but our district has been cutting hours & services along with pay cuts. Next year, we may not have health clerks, aides, coaches, etc. Already cut are the music programs! How do we compete when school funding is not a priority in this country? Teachers already work countless extra hours without pay to help tutor kids afterschool. When is it going to get better? We teach because we love kids & want the best for them...our hearts are in it...but where is our government who show us 'better' systems...but don't implement positive changes?"
05/5/2010:
"As a current public school teacher in a large high school, I can cite some simple reasons why our schools are not as successful as they should be. Every time our students do poorly on tests, we re-do the test so more students will score well. Every time a student is caught cheating on a test, we must give him a re-test. A student can turn in work up to 4 1/2 weeks late and still not make lower than a 60. Tardies are 'erased' after 9 weeks. Administration is more interested in keeping misbehaving students in class 'so they can learn' instead of removing them so the other 30 can learn. I could go on and on..."
05/5/2010:
"What is the retirement age in S. Korea?"
05/5/2010:
"It is easy to look at a school system that is doing well and say -wow that's a great system, we need to do what they are doing! The thing is, it takes a great deal more than the school system to produce successful students. A very large part of success can only be achieved by the parents, in the hours outside of school to enforce studying and homework time. Maybe we should focus on the demographics of the successful kids and the parents of the kids and start some programs designed for parents to help the kids succeed. There are a lot of parents out there in failing school districts who need training and support outside of school to help their kids succeed. If a parent does not care about their child's success, guess what-the student won't either! It's time to stop pointing the finger at failing systems and start looking to the parents and families of these students and make a change that goes beyond the system."
05/5/2010:
"Maybe sitting for 13 hours a day and contemplating suicide are not what we want to emulate in US schools. But teaching greater dignity in learning--without the caning please--IS part of what we could consider.Nevertheless, what happens in South Korea and in Finland in school is part of an entire lifestyle that we cannot and need not try to copy --except in certain features proven to be effective,of which, by the way, there were none presented in the article. Please, next time, don't give such a misleading title to an article: What we can learn from this article about schools is what NOT to do, and your title gives hope that something more substantial and more on target with the title might have been discussed "
05/5/2010:
"If our President had any child education he would realize we dont need more presure in our schools or our society. We need to educate our children in more ways then mathmatically and logically. The human being learns in over 20 different ways and arounnd the globe we still educate in only 2 ways.Einstein touted imagination as the key to success, without it we are producing drones."
05/5/2010:
"I am a Korean-American, educated in America (with a BA from UCLA and an MS from Boston University). And I have seen what my poor cousins in Korea are going through. I would never want that kind of pressure on me or my children! It's really awful. This article does not exaggerate. And yes, their education system/family expectations go too far and it shows in the kids rebellion after they finish high school. There is a saying among a new generation of Koreans... 'Take what's good in Korea, but don't be afraid to throw out the bad.' People in Korea are afraid to change all they know... study, study, study! The system in Korea is bad in many ways (good in some); they need to help parents adjust their expectations and value other things beyond simply academics. The health of the whole person is more valuable than the laser focus on studies. It seems this unbalanced focus is doing more of a disservice to the people of Korea and beyond."
05/5/2010:
"It's not the quantity of seat time, but the quality of the teacher time. There is a time for rote memorization and that is to also prepare for the need to remember facts later on. (I wouldn't want my doctor trying to remember which symptom go with which illness.) I don't think we in the USA are anywhere close to the discipline of the Koreans with regards to learning. Many students go to school for the social time and the sports time. SAD!!!! Lets not shoot the discipline of the Koreans down before we even start trying it. I'm just thinking of rescueing our education from the brink of 'only child care' and moving it to actually 'learning facts'. We go straight to teaching analyzing of facts, but the kids don't even know what the facts are. (i.e. What country did the majority of 9-11 terrorist come from? Not Iraq, but Saudia Arabia.)"
05/5/2010:
"Please give us more information about Finland's education success. Thank you"
05/5/2010:
"I have a 14 year old son who has attended a public elementary and middle school from 2nd to 8th grade. I have been to meetings with teachers,counselors, principals concerned about my son's education. He will be entering 9th grade next fall and does not know his multiplication tables, does not know how to count money or what proper change he should get back, does not know the calendar and what month comes after what month,let alone how many weeks or days in a given month, does not know TIME,except digital,has no orginizational skills at all. I have been told not to worry about it, it will eventually click.The so called tutoring they offer very early in the a.m. is a joke, and the teachers aid for students having trouble in math is a joke. I am not a teacher, I do not have a college degree,nor am I getting a paycheck to teach him. He does have an IEP, but that is a joke too. It is not worth the paper written on. The No Child Left Behind, left my child behind about 4 years. And not one person in this West Tennessee county could care less.He will be passed on thru 12th grade I am sure,and probally want know anymore then as he does today. Most of the teachers, are there for a paycheck only.And most of your Jr High and High Schools are so crowded kids like my son just fall thru the cracks and NCLB just leaves them there. The Tennessee school system needs a complete overhaul, not just increased ciriculum credits to obtain a high school diiploma. "
05/5/2010:
"Would like to hear more about Finland's educational system. Where's a good resource?"
05/5/2010:
"what is needed is balance; while putting children through a punishing academic schedule will not make them well balanced adults, we do need more emphasis ,culturally , on high academic standards. Kids who study well should be held up as models , not 'nerds' and the responsibility for good grades should rest on the kids and parents along with teachers"
05/5/2010:
"A few reasons why Finnish school system works. Teachers have to pass a very demanding university masters program. Children start school at 7 years old and are not required any knowledge of reading, writing etc. before that. School is demanding. Kids are expected to learn and pay attention. And they do since they are more mature at the age of seven. The class lasts 45 minutes after which there is a break for 15 minutes outside. Hot school lunch is offered every day. Curriculum is very united and follows state guide lines. Education is high priority with the Finnish goverment. Yes, Finland is a very homogenous society, does this mean that Scandinavian, white people are better learners. I think it is just excuse not to investigate why Finland is so successful with their school system. It boils down to money and how much the goverment is really willing to invest in our children."
05/4/2010:
"With Finland scoring as the winner in study effectiveness, is their economy showing better in economically? Is there a relationship between being better educated and being tougher economically? I think this is the real test of the school system......you can are argue that sometimes academic excellence comes at the expense of good old fashioned common sense. I think our children need to develop both and I think good old fashioned play, downtime, happiness hobbies, healthy eating and making mistakes in a safe environment along with great schools will give balance to our childrens' quality of life."
05/4/2010:
"Finland has it. They let the parent decide when to send the child to school, seven is the general age that they start. If kids want to be barefoot at school, they can. Classes are not segregated, the older students help the younger. The class can not advance until every student is proficient. Wow our teachers here would croak to think they had to teach skill sets to each and every student. Those that can not perform higher level skill sets are divided off and put in trade school. Oh we couldn't do that here, we might be prejudice about who goes what direction. Those that excell academically go to college on the state (we are talking a small population). The TV shows are in English and subtitled in Finnish. The kids now read before they get to school because they want to know what Arthur did on TV. Put our kids shows in a foreign language and then subtitle with English. It works. But again we would be resistant to this. Our biggest problems with schools is the liberal left th! at has hijacked our educational system and our teacher's failure to see that each and every student is on grade level of all skill sets before promotion. And we can thank the administrator's also for this as they don't do there job either."
05/4/2010:
"it isn't a robot control, So. Korea is a democratic country as is ours, they have a stronger sense of community than of self which would serve our nation well. That being said we have hosted kids from So. Korea for the past 4 years. They are great at regurgitation, math and science scores through the roof however when it comes to creative writing or even answering a question they look for the 'right' answer instead of answering, they respond to formulas even in conversation at first they expect us to talk the way a conversational English book talks which of course is not reality at all. They struggle with free time not knowing what to do with themselves, which I think is also a problem coming up with the generations here instead of just getting outside being active there is way too much computer time. I think part of why Korean's are so short is that they don't get near enough sleep. Its a fight every year implementing a bedtime for the kids. They feel punished that they are! being sent to bed instead of staying up to study more. I love South Korea I have great respect for the people and the culture, I've lived there and had several kids live here with us. I read this article afraid it was going to be touting how wonderful the education system is over there and was happy to discover that it brought out the teen suicide rates, and how little time is spent on play learning there. Do we need a change here? yes. Is the change is forcing more academia? I don't think so I think we need to focus on not losing the arts and creativity that are such a part of our education system. Most Korean technology is taking ideas and bettering them. Name one thing that was invented in Korea, not perfected or bettered but the idea coming from Korea? What they do is amazing, but I feel it would be a huge mistake to take creative thinking out of our education system when it is truly the best thing going for us "
05/4/2010:
"No way!!! We lived in Seoul for 4 years and I am so glad that our kids weren't educated on the economy. Talk about stress. I don't know why anyone would put kids through a Korean style education just to get good test scores. What this article isn't telling you is that most of the day in public school is spent sleeping (for high schoolers) so they can be awake for the after school classes that they take until 11 p.m. or 12 a.m. They go home after that to do their homework!! Everyone's goal is to pass National Exams for university entrace. The problem is that most of the exam content isn't taught in the public schools. That's why the kids have to take classes for that content after a full day in school. There are so many articles about Korean students who gain admission to American Ivy League schools only to drop out early because the degree they were pushed to get doesn't fit them or they have no life skills to help them cope with independence. These kids are coddled while th! ey are in school(from elementary to high school), but expected to reach incredible academic goals. The kids are caught in a double bind of high achievement in school, but everything being done for them to make it happen. Their moms do everything for them!! Their dads are in charge of harsh discipline when they mess up. Sounds fun, doesn't it? One thing that is notably different about our students vs. theirs is the ability to think creatively. Korean students are wonderful at following directions perfectly, but give them a task with no directions and they have a hard time. Asking them to make something up or problem solve is rough too. I can see why the PISA is low for them. They memorize memorize memorize and they put in the hours, but to what end? I'd rather have kids with time to think, ponder and invent while being educated than an exhausted, overstressed kid any day. "
05/4/2010:
"My perception of the problems with our public education system are: 1) parents lack of proper discipline of their children and lack of parent involvement. 2) Teachers therefore have to spend 80% of their time on behavior modification vs. 'teach' 3) Too many students do not speak English which holds back both the students and the teachers. 4) Too many liberals in education!! 5) Catering to the 'average' student. Needs to be more advanced programs. We are dumbing down our children and holding them back. 6) Unions!!"
05/4/2010:
"How much time do students spend in school in Nigeria compared to British Guiana? How do their test scores compare? What are their test scores compared to Finland or South Korea?"
05/4/2010:
"Is this article fair. it obviously came from an uninformed person who apparently hates Obama. "
05/4/2010:
"If you want to produce machine-like people, this is definitely the way to go. It is a great 'control' method. Governments love to control the masses despite the result. What about the freedom to just gaze at the clouds and imagine what animal shape they are forming? "
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