South Korea's Young Social Entrepreneurs: A Solution to a Broken Education System?

By Park, Rufina Kyung Eun | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

South Korea's Young Social Entrepreneurs: A Solution to a Broken Education System?


Park, Rufina Kyung Eun, Kennedy School Review


ON THE SURFACE, South Korea's education system has notable merits. In the OECD's (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which measures the cognitive skills of fifteen-year-olds from sixty-five participating economies around the world, South Korea ranked fifth overall in mathematics, reading, and science. (1) In the same year, South Korean students placed second, just behind Singapore, in the first OECD assessment of problem solving skills. (2) US President Barack Obama has made repeated references to South Korea's successful education system, even suggesting that American children are not adequately prepared for the twenty-first century economy because they spend less hours in school compared to South Korean children. (3)

While the United States and other countries applaud South Korea's academic achievement, the deeper reality reveals an education system ruled by intense competition and an obsession with grades. Unless viable and equally rewarding alternatives to the standard postsecondary pathway are made available, students will continue to sacrifice their health and creativity for South Korea's top position in international education league tables. Developing a strong, young social entrepreneurial sector that challenges cultural norms may be a solution to the education crisis.

SOUTH KOREA'S EDUCATION CRISIS

South Korean society places an unusually high value on being admitted to one of the nation's top three universities--Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Graduating from one of these prestigious universities is a golden ticket to the best jobs, social networks, and even marriage partners. (4) Among OECD countries, South Korea has the highest proportion of twenty-five to thirty-four-year-olds with tertiary education. (5) With so many students vying for limited spots at top universities, the competition is especially fierce. (6) Consequently, this has forced K-12 schools to focus on test preparation and rote memorization while neglecting creativity, self-expression, and discussion. (7) An article by the BBC, "South Korea's Schools: Long Days, High Results," reveals the dark side of South Korea's education system through the story of Hye-Min Park. Park, a teenage girl living in the affluent Gangnam district in Seoul, studies for more than thirteen hours each day, waking up at 6:30 a.m. for school and studying until 11 p.m. at an after-school hagwon (cram school), where she continues to learn academic material necessary for the college entrance exams. (8)

Research confirms that Hye-Min's story is not an isolated incident. According to Statistics Korea, in 2013, nearly 70 percent of students from grades one to twelve took part in after-school activities. In total, South Koreans spent over $18 billion on after-school programs. Additionally, individual families paid $239 each month per child, about 80 percent of which was allocated to after-school academic programs. (9) Although it is difficult to measure the actual hours students spend studying, it is reported that South Korea's middle school students sleep an average of six hours and thirty-nine minutes a night, which is considerably lower than the recommended eight hours and thirty minutes. More worrying is that older students in high school sleep even less, on average five hours and forty-five minutes. (10)

This obsession with academic competition is causing more serious damage than just disturbances in sleep cycles. A 2014 Korea Health Promotion Foundation survey of fourteen through nineteen-year-olds found that about 65 percent of respondents expressed feeling severely stressed about future uncertainty and school grades. (11) Even more disturbing is that 2012 South Korean government data revealed that, for the sixth time in a row, suicide was the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of nine and twenty-four. …

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