The American Envy of the Korean Education System

Part 1.  The Korean Education System back in the spotlight.  Are Koreans “good” at Math?  “Huh?”
Korea has returned to the spotlight of the international community as a result the upcoming G20 Summit in Seoul.  As usual, there are stories in the press about President Obama’s envy of the Korean educational system.  These comments, which have been made a number of times, are not useful to Americans who are trying to figure out how to close the gap between the US and the remainder of the world.  The American president has pointed out the obvious facts, but does not address how to fix the fundamental differences between the Korean and American educational systems.  Either President Obama is intentionally avoiding the most important differences, or he just doesn’t know.

Here is the link to the most recent comments:

http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2010/10/22/2010102200924.html

The differences are too great to list.  In the future, The Lost Seoul will most likely write a book aim at both Koreans and Americans to describe the most important of these differences.

Here is a glaring example of the most important of the differences:  attitude.

I have asked many Koreans in Korea the following question:  “수학 잘 공부했어요 (Are you good at math)?”  In the US, this is an actual question.  According to the way that Americans think, and believe, “being good at math” is a natural-born ability.  There are people, according to Americans, that are good at math, and there are others who are not.  Those that do not believe that they are “good” at math essentially stop studying math early during secondary school.

When I have asked this question to native Koreans, the response has been universal.  “Huh?”  “What does that mean?”  “응?”  This question doesn’t exist in Korea.  In Korea, students just practice math and solve problems.  That is it. A Korean student doesn’t think whether or not he is “good” at math, he/she just continues forward without the attitudinal barrier that exists in American students.

With this as a starting point, is there any way for an average American student to compete with an Korean student?  The answer should be obvious.  Nope.  American students have received this attitude from their parents.  So before the US can even think about trying to narrow the difference in the most important subject in education, there is a desperate need for change,  in the American attitude.  Until then, different policies and other efforts will surely fail.

Part 2.  Does this mean that the American education system is doomed?  Definitely not.
According to most studies, the American education system is uncompetitive compared to the rest of the world.  After visiting 30 countries, and having lived in Europe, Asia and the United States, it doesn’t seem that America is uncompetitive, but it focuses on a different set of students.  That emphasis is due to the vast differences in political systems and availability of resources.

First, there is no doubt that the Korean education system is more competitive than the American system through secondary school.  The reason?  Simple supply and demand.  The Korean population is now 50 million.  The American populations is approximately 300 million.  Let’s ignore demographic differences for now (the Korean’s average age is greater than the U.S. at the moment, and that will most likely not change for the foreseeable future).  That means that there are six times more students in the U.S. when compared to Korea.  In Korea, the competition is intense for entry into the top universities as exhibited by the phrase SKY (Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University).  In the U.S., competition is very intense for the top universities.  However, the number of very good universities is far, far greater than 6 times the number of top universities in the US.  Depending on the exact discipline, you could easily state that the there are 10 (30?) times more high-quality universities in the US when compared to Korea.  So there are 6 times the number of students in the US, but there 10 (30?) times the number of high-quality universities.

Second, serious studying, for the most part, begins during university in the US.  For example, a student who gets into an average US university, but then excels at that university, has the opportunity to enter the very best graduate schools in the US.  Many, many years ago, I had a friend at college.  When I first met him, I wondered to myself, “How did this person get into this school?”  He seemed clueless.  Well four years later, he entered Harvard Law School.  There is a saying “Only in America.”  Indeed. Could a similar tale be told in Korea?  No.  In Korea, a student that aspires to enter into the best school in the country must be serious by middle school.  Otherwise, there is almost no hope.  In other words, competition begins much earlier in Korea when compared to the US.  That does not mean that the end result is that much different, especially for the top students.  It does mean, however, that the average student has greater educational skills when raised in Korea.  Once gaining entry into Korea’s prestigious SKY universities, what do the students do?  They PLAY.  Once gaining entry into a US university and having the dream of continuing on to the best US graduate schools, what does an American student do?  He STUDIES.

The idea that the US is uncompetitive is quite wrong.  It is more that Koreans study harder during younger years, and Americans study harder during later years.  The American system supports the best rising to the top when becoming adults, whereas the Korean education system emphasizes greater ability by the average student.  The best Korean students peak before becoming adults, generally speaking.

Making matters worse is the obligatory military service served by Korean males.  While you can certainly make arguments supportive of the military service, the fact is that when males are in their early 20s, is there any better time to learn?  Young men have the physical ability to endure long hours of studying and the energy to pursue their dreams.  At precisely that time, Korean males need to serve in the military.  Americans?  They are able to focus on their studies when they still have great capacity, and maturity, to learn.  In that way, the Korean system, I have always believed, is quite unfair in many ways to the young men of Korea.

These are, of course, generalizations. They are observations of the systems, not of individual cases. The fact that these systems are this different explains why Korean students that attend to the top American universities do not meet the lofty expectations when in America.

Part 3.  Can American high school students ”Catch Up” to Korean high school students?  On average, the answer is no.

Here are links to the previous posts in this series, which is going to the basis for a book I am writing about educating Korean children, and the efforts to send Korean children to English-speaking countries for high school and university.

It is the open question then, on whether or not the American education system can “catch up” to the Korean education system through the high school.  In one short word, the answer is no.  In addition to the difference in attitude of students with respect to mathematics, the difference can be seen in attitudes at home.

Now, the examples I am taking here are from Gangnam, where the premium placed on education is the highest in Korea, so the examples are going to be extreme.  A student from elementary school attends how many different hagwons (study centers)?  5?  That is entirely possible.  Let’s take a family with 1 child, and let’s assume that each hagwon costs approximately 200,000 KRW (About USD 180) a month.  A Korean student attends these hagwons 11 months a year.  That means 11 x 200,000 = 2,200,000 a year.  That is USD 2,000 a year per hagwon.  A student can easily enroll in 5 of these.  That makes it 2,000 x 5 = 10,000 USD per year, per child, spent on hagwons.  Is there any chance that American students use, or would be willing to use, USD 10,000 a year for private study centers?  No.  For students that are attempting to excel in Korea, the amount of money for hagwons make the savings rate for an upper middle-class family in Gangnam…zero.  Every last KRW is spent on hagwons.  That is for employees of Korean corporations that make somewhere around USD 75,000 a year.  This is an inconceivable concept to an average American family.  Absolutely inconceivable.  Yet, for all Korean readers of this post, I am quite certain that you personally know someone that experiences this.  To my fellow Koreans, please know this:  the Americans that do not know Korea are shaking their heads in disbelief right now.

Let’s talk about the time spent at hagwons.  For high school students, studying ends in the evening, and many students return home at 10-11 PM everyday.  Maybe a secondary student doesn’t go on Saturday evening.  However, Sunday is certainly a study day.  For American students, except those at the very top prep schools, this study habit does not exist.  Perhaps someone from America would say that Korean students are studying inefficiently.  Perhaps that is true.  Nevertheless, even at 50% efficiency, is there any doubt that a Korean student spends more time studying, and a Korean family uses far more of their monthly resources to further a child’s education?  There is, of course, one huge mitigating factor.  A Korean student dedicates a great deal of time, effort, and money to the goal of learning English, and an American student obviously does not use this amount of time to study a foreign language.

Nevertheless, the gap between the US and Korea cannot be closed without not only changes to the official education system, but more importantly, the amount of resources that the average American family dedicates to a child’s education.  Is there any hope of that?  No.  Only at university does the ”playing field” become more level.

Why has this occurred?  That is the topic of Part 4 of The American Envy of the Korean Education System.

Part 4.  Why Do Koreans Stop Studying When Entering University?

There are many, many possible explanations.  If you go to Seoul National University or nearby Yonsei University in Seoul, as well as the subway stations that surround the various universities in Korea, you will find the identical scene everywhere you go.  Lights, lights, and more lights which are illuminating shopping, restaurants, and PC rooms.  What do you not see?  Tired students carrying books.  If you go to the top universities in the U.S. (except Stanford which The Lost Seoul still contends is like fantasy-land), you cannot find those scenes.  That is quite remarkable:  even New York University, right in the middle of Manhattan, is strikingly quiet except on one street (8th Street).  In England, Oxford is deadly silent.  Why the striking difference?  In Korea, the students are PLAYING, not studying.  This part of The American Envy of the Korean Education System looks for a partial explanation.

Possibility 1.  Korean students are burned out. It is true that the average student that has entered a college in Korea has studied much more than a student that has entered the same-caliber college in the U.S.  An American student has endured 3-4 years of high pressure, high-intensity preparation.  In Korea, that student has been doing this since the 6th grade, at the minimum.  That means 2-3 extra years of high-intensity studying.

Possibility 2.  No Hagwons Means No Need to Study. Korean students have been used to the hagwon system for more than 10 years each.  All of a sudden, there is no hagwon drill master watching the performance of a Korean student.  There are no drills which supplement classroom lessons.

It is a fact that many top hagwons are more difficult than the school a student attends.  It is no wonder that a Korean student may feel liberated when entering college, and uses that freedom to…do anything else except study.

Possibility 3.  There is no “next step” in Korea. For American students, the path to a top graduate school, like Harvard Law, or the University of Chicago MBA program, will require very good grades while in college.  If you want to become a medical doctor in the U.S., not only do you need good grades, but you need to be involved in extra-curricular activities like laboratory work or volunteer work.  Importantly, there are separate, high-competitive entrance exams such as the GMAT and LSAT to enter graduate programs in the U.S.

In Korea, you apply to a college which may automatically qualify a student to the graduate school.  For example, a student can apply to Catholic Medical School in Korea at the age of 19 before entering university. That means that there is no additional pressure to perform in college for Korean students.  Now, this system is currently under review.  For example, entry into law school in Korea is being transitioned to a system similar to the U.S., which means that a person needs to graduate from college first, and then apply to law school separately.  Whether this system becomes universally accepted in Korea is yet to be determined.  In short, the lack of a “next step” with a new application process in Korea may lessen the need for Korean students to perform at the undergraduate level.

Possibility 4.  Males are “Preparing” for Military Service. The Lost Seoul believes that the mandatory military service, while it may be necessary, services as a barrier to progress in other areas for certain males.  That is not to say that the military is not valuable.  Korean men form unbreakable bonds with one another by collectively going through the difficult times during their military service.  Certain men, who lacked personal responsibility traits, can mature and gain those traits during military service.  Nevertheless, other males, who already possess these qualities, could use their time more productively by pursuing their personal and professional goals, at the very time in life when both physical and mental capacities are at their height.  Knowing that military service awaits, one reason that Korean men don’t study during college is because they all know that their freedom will soon be suspended for 2 1/2 years.

Possibility 5.  The “Mrs.” Degree. There is no doubt that this is fading away in Korea, and quickly.  Given the fact that there is no mandatory military service, the fact is that the women of Korea can use this time to develop themselves personally and professionally.  However, certain schools such as Ewha Women’s University (이대) still have that lingering reputation as being a wife-preparation college.  In the past, perhaps this was true, but now, The Lost Seoul doubts that this is a serious reason for the lack of studying by college-age students in Korea.

Final Answer? The Lost Seoul’s best guess is that it is Possibility #1 and Possibility #2 explain most of the reason.  Korean students have already studied for 3 extra years when compared to American students in order to enter into a highly competitive university.  No hagwons are available to apply additional pressure upon students.  Some of this is changing now, as hagwons also exist at universities.  Nevertheless, these hagwons are not nearly as prevalent at college as they are during a Korean students’ high school years.  These two possibilities also explain Korean students’ relative failure at Ivy League schools, after graduating from Korean high schools.  Perhaps some of this is due to English, but there are other foreign students from other countries that do not have the same failure rate at American universities.

Conclusions. Korea caters to the mean, while the U.S. caters to the extremes.  While the average student in Korea may test better, the top students in the U.S. have almost unlimited resources at their disposal.  This is largely explained by the need for Korea to elevate an entire nation since it has many limitations:  lack of geographical size, lack of energy/natural resources, history of subjugation.  The U.S. knows none of these limitations.  The U.S. has the resources to attempt the extreme, and champions individual rights.  In general, Korea does not know these concepts.  This may change as Korea has risen from one of the world’s poorest nations to one of the richest.  We cannot know this.  We also cannot suggest changing Korea to mimic the U.S. would be a positive for Korea as a whole.  It would be convenient to pick and choose the best aspects of each system, but each system, its strengths and its weaknesses, reflect the nation’s history and political influences.  In short, there are small aspects in which the Korean system can and should be emulated, but the entire system cannot be duplicated.

However, there is no doubt that students in the U.S. would perform better if not ingrained with attitudes such as “I am no good at math” as if that was a blessing or gift:  Korean students know and have proven that just practicing more diligently will largely compensate for any slight differences in natural ability.  American students give up well before they will ever know if they could have attained any goals.

On the other hand, Korean students need to learn the American saying “It is not how you begin, but how you finish.”  Those Korean natives who know this are currently trailblazers in their fields.  Hopefully, Korean students will learn from their example in the future.

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