The Price of Success


South Koreans spend a lot of time and money on education: but money seems to be the defining factor.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

The the Chosun Ilbo recently reported that parental income was the greatest factor contributing to educational development in kids. According to the article:

Youngsters who spent more money on private crammers tended to get better grades in key subjects at school including Korean, English and math. Also, students with high TOEIC scores or who went overseas to study foreign languages had a higher chance of landing a job than those who did not.

The reality that the rich who have the ability to pay for private lessons get a higher quality education should not come as a shock to anyone. The same story rings true in western cultures. But the difference in Korea is the high degree of competition to get even the most basic of jobs.

In Korea, hagwons, privately owned study academies are ingrained in Korean culture. They specialize in math, science, English; even Lego construction, I’ve been told. If it can be studied, it’s available as an after-school program. Students are picked up in buses directly from their schools and are shuttled to various academies to continue learning long after the school bell rings. Some of my students, both past and present, don’t actually finish their day until 10pm. This may only be because of a law that had to be instated that hagwons had to be closed by 10pm.

Hagwon hangover? Photo by Michael Johnstone

Hagwon hangover?
Photo by Michael Johnstone

I have mixed feelings about education in Korea. On the one hand, kids don’t get a lot of free time to themselves. On the other, they are nonetheless genuinely happy children, and are undoubtedly better educated than those in North America, who reportedly spend on average 6 hours a day watching TV and playing computer games. And it should be pointed out that some of these hagwons study Taekwondo, swimming, music, and art; kids don’t always have their faces buried in the books. But things get stressful by the time students reach the sixth grade, where admissions to junior high schools require examinations and evaluations. This only gets more intense as students get older. And by the time they finish their degrees, because the average education level is so high, many end up working in low-paying jobs with high end degrees.

I currently teach at a private elementary school. Most of these kids know more about math and science than I learned in my entire Canadian public education. Photo by Michael Johnstone

I currently teach at a private elementary school. Most of these kids know more about math and science than I learned in my entire Canadian public education.
Photo by Michael Johnstone

What all of this leads to is a huge disadvantage for students who’s parents can’t afford all of these private classes for their kids. The worst part of it is, I don’t know who these students are. I’ve never met them. English teachers in Korea are overwhelmingly employed by these private hagwons; my first job here was at one in Seoul’s Gangnam district, essentially the richest neighbourhood in the richest part of the country. My students were the children of doctors, lawyers, and CEOs. I had none who were the children of bus drivers or city maintenance workers. While these students do get some English education in public schools, 40 minutes a day doesn’t stack up against the onslaught of extra-curricular programs that those who can afford it are enrolled in. In such a highly competitive society, this doesn’t bode well.

The problems are many, but the solutions are few. Current trends suggest that this education gap is only widening and there is little that people can do to change things. It’s clear that something should be done, but neither I, or anyone else, seems to know what.

2 thoughts on “The Price of Success

  1. Clearly, the Korean government needs to get involved by improving the public education system. However, this is unlikely to happen since it’s easier to just let the private sector take over, even if it only benefits the wealthier members of society. I share your concern :( !

    • I agree. I work at a private school, and I often wonder how the level of education compares in private schools. The saturation level of hagwons in the country cannot be proportional to the number of students. Private business is fine, even in education, but I wonder at what point it has gone too far at the expense of those who can’t afford it.

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