South Korea: Placing Education on Top of the Family Agenda

By Ellinger, Thomas R.; Beckham, Garry M. | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997 | Go to article overview

South Korea: Placing Education on Top of the Family Agenda


Ellinger, Thomas R., Beckham, Garry M., Phi Delta Kappan


While we may not agree with all aspects of the Korean mother's role in her child's education, we cannot deny that a strong family commitment and a demanding curriculum have been driving forces in Korean students' enviable academic achievement, Messrs. Ellinger and Beckham point out.

Overcoming a long history of Japanese rule and a devastating war, the small Republic of South Korea (just 45 million people) has achieved transformations that took centuries in most nations in the West. With its push toward heavy industry - steel, construction, ship building, automobiles - and a substantial investment in high technology, South Korea has surpassed such regional rivals as Taiwan and has gone on to challenge both Japan and the U.S. At the heart of this remarkable achievement is Korea's education system, which has been the major source of trained labor in the various fields and at skill levels needed for economic development.

Education in South Korea is compulsory only through the sixth grade. However, most students continue through high school. Parents of high school students must pay tuition of approximately $1,200 a year, a figure that could triple when one adds the additional costs of textbooks and private tutoring. Students in middle and high schools attend school Monday through Saturday (half a day on Saturday) for a total of 222 days. The school year runs from March to March, including a winter break from late December until the end of February. Class schedules resemble university schedules in the U.S., with courses taught on alternate days. Students take required courses, including such subjects as ethics, math, biology, chemistry, physics, literature, grammar, a second language, composition, and technology and industry.

The days are long for Korean students. High school students, for example, attend school from 8 a.m. till 4 p.m., but they return to study hall at 6 p.m. and do not leave before 10 p.m. During the day, poorly heated classrooms house an average of 40 to 50 students, sitting in well-worn desks arranged in long straight rows; evening study halls are conducted in equally cold rooms that seat 200 students, hunched over tiny wooden desks, many of which are of 1920 to 1940 vintage. After study hall, a Korean student's day is still not over; many of them view an educational television channel or work on homework assignments from 10:30 p.m. until midnight. Others attend evening hak gwan - private institutes in which they receive supplementary academic lessons.

Another important link in this intricate system is private tutoring. Educated people from all age groups - from retired people to university students - share their special skills as tutors, earning supplemental income in the process. In the preschool and kindergarten years, students receive tutoring in such subjects as art and music. In elementary school, they receive private instruction in English, writing Korean, and music. While these tutoring sessions during the early years are mostly fun, once a student enters middle school the lessons become a vital component of his or her education.

Like everything else in Korea, education matters. South Koreans view education as they view the rest of life: a process of winning and losing. They have no concept of a game played well for its own sake.

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