Monday, April 4, 2011

Korea's Cram Schools Crackdown

...Hello all, I'm in Tokyo helping my newspaper to cover the earthquake and its aftermath, but I wanted to share a story I wrote from Korea! It ran in the Washington Post today.

Here's a taste:

By the numbers, the South Korean system is the envy of the world: The nation regularly places among the top five countries on international math and reading tests, the high school dropout rate is less than 4 percent, and the college completion rate among young adults — at 56 percent — is among the highest in the world.

But many South Koreans say praise for those achievements often overlooks where the gains come from and at what cost. South Koreans poured $19 billion into private tutoring in 2009, more than half the sum spent on public education. That paid for a range of lessons, including English tutoring, accelerated math classes and endless college exam preparation.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Megastudy Millionaire Turns Education Reformer

Lee Beom is not your typical bureaucrat. He brings home a regular salary from his job as a policy advisor at Seoul's Metropolitan Office of Education, but has millions stashed away in the bank. And he trained for his government job not by passing a civil service exam, but by rising to the top of the cram school industry that the government is now trying to reform.

In the 1990's, as a PhD candidate at Seoul National University and a degree holder from a top science high school, he was a prime recruit for the cram schools in Daechi-dong, Seoul's most notorious cram school ghetto.  He started tutoring middle school students in science a couple days a week and then moved on to preparing high school students for the college entrance exam. He became a star in the test prep industry, tutoring every night and all weekend, reaching thousands of students.

"My income was so huge," he said in an interview. "For five consecutive years, I made more than one million dollars."

Nearly 3 million students were "members" of
Megastudy and downloaded lessons in 2009
Around 2000, he helped collaborate on the launch of a new on-line cram school that would bring the best tutors in Daechi-dong to students throughout South Korea for a third of the cost. was an instant success, and his lectures soon were being downloaded tens of thousands of times.

He and his wife -- another Daechi-dong tutor  -- bought a four-bedroom house with a yard, a rare luxury in this city of skyscrapers, and they started a family.

Over time, though, the shine of his cram school fame tarnished. "I began to hate my job," he said. The tutors he worked with vied intensely for students, and he recalled that some colleagues paid people to write nasty comments about his classes. And as he got closer to some students, he saw how stressed out they were. "I realized the education system was ruining a lot of students - not just low performers but high performers, too."

He quit his job in 2003. A year later, Megastudy went public and he made more than $15 million, he said.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Tiger Times - Student Journalists in Seoul

I want to give a shout out to some young journalists I met at Seoul International School last week. I visited an intro-to-journalism class led by Carolyn Brown, a sharp and enthusiastic teacher. And I was really impressed by her students' insightful questions about the writing process, changes to the newspaper industry and, especially, journalism ethics (They knew who Janet Cooke was!).

Scouring the latest edition of Tiger Times
I also got to meet the staff of the Tiger Times. The students had just received shipment of their latest issue - hot off the presses. True to neurotic journalist form, they scoured the stories, not in appreciation, but in search of errors. "That should have been in italics," one moaned. "This picture is way too pixelated," said another.

Some recent headlines in the Tiger Times:
"Mr. Hong's Departure Surprises Students," "Tapping Teenage Smoking," "Students and Faculty Admit to Facebook Addiction."

There is a photo of the month and a regular "cooking made easy" feature.

At least one story took students into the working class neighborhood surrounding their exclusive campus. Last year, a few reporters explored a village of squatters down the road, where about 80 families live in sub-standard housing. The village was originally designated as an agricultural area, but its proximity to a sewage system has made it difficult to grow plants. In addition to poor water quality, the village is susceptible to frequent fires due to gas leaks, and many residents don't have proper bathrooms.

A year later, the story is having some impact. The school's Habitat for Humanity club is applying for a $25,000 grant to help improve living conditions in the village and they are proposing that the school hold a spring-time fundraiser to match that sum. Good luck!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Seoul’s liberal superintendent

Kwak No Hyun.  The Korea Herald.
Since taking the reigns of the country’s largest school system last year, Kwak No Hyun has ignited controversy over a ban on corporal punishment and a plan to offer free lunches to elementary school children, a strategy the Seoul Mayor calls “nation-destroying populism.”  He has also proposed ending school regulations on students hair styles and clothes. 
Kwak, a human rights activist and lawyer, replaced the more conservative Kong Jung Tack, who was removed from office and imprisoned for accepting bribes. In one of the first popular elections for superintendent in South Korea, Kwak ran on a campaign pledge to 'send corrupt education to jail and send old education to the museum.'
I sat down to talk with him just before the lunar new year, and I asked him about his ideas for reforming schools. Here is a short transcript adapted from our conversation:
Why did you run for superintendent? 
If you want to see or imagine what Korean society will be like in 20 years, then you must look at what is happening in the classroom today. If you find democracy and human rights in the classroom then you can see a Korean society 20 years later that will respect  these things. But I could not see this in today’s classrooms.
Too many students are abandoned..not in the literal sense but in a substantive way. Students, especially those who do not perform well in their studies, are abandoned in the sense that their needs are not cared for... Suppose you are very strong athlete in sports or in art or in drama, then your interests are not respected in school, which is driven by the competition for the top universities, because the SAT does not test any knowledge of drama or sport or art.
There are 1,300 schools in Seoul and huge differences in educational opportunities among schools in the wealthier and poorer neighborhoods. Public education should work for reducing the disparity between parental economic power. But in order to do that, we have to mobilize all the means within in our reach. Otherwise, economic and social bi-polarization will continue.
Why did you decide to ban corporal punishment?
Corporal punishment is not allowed in prisons or in the army.  But in the name of the ‘rod of love,’ it's allowed in schools. I don’t buy that.
Corporal punishment is a very easy way to control students. In most cases, it’s imposed with anger on the part of teachers. And I think in most cases where corporal punishment is committed, students have low regard for their teachers.  

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy New Year - A Slow and Stressful Time in Seoul

It's the lunar new year this week, the biggest national holiday in Korea. Seoul has slowed WAY down as people take a break from work and school to gather with relatives, pay respects to their ancestors, and ring in the year of the rabbit!  My favorite waffle maker shut down his stand on Wednesday for a five-day break. The six lanes of constant traffic near my apartment today is a mere trickle of cars.

I stopped at the grocery store to stock up before it closed down too, along with the restaurants, and I found a lingering rush of people buying family presents (Gift boxes of spam are popular; So is scotch whiskey).  On the walk home I enjoyed the wide open sidewalks and thought about how nice it is that this stressed-out city takes a real break once in a while, that the manic energy pulsing through the air can actually subside, that the 80-hour-a-week workers and studiers can remember to put family time first, if only for a few days.

Then I remembered. Holidays are stressful. I just don't happen to celebrate this particular one, so it's not stressful for me.

A local newspaper reported a survey showing that the holiday stress of the average married Korean woman was actually "as bad as the pain of losing a close friend." Yikes. The article urged men to give their wives a helping hand in the painstaking meal preparations and hosting relatives.

"According to the survey, about 36 percent of 1,400 wives chose their husband as their least favorite person during the Lunar New Year holiday, followed by sister-in-law and parents-in-law...Some blamed their husbands for being only concerned about their in-laws and also for sleeping throughout the entire holiday."

A 30-something unmarried teacher explained her version of holiday stress to me: "It's a time when relatives ask me, 'Why aren't you married?' and when they ask my nephews, 'Why aren't you doing better in school?'"

For me, an expat living alone in Seoul, it's a time to read, to sleep, to write and to wander the empty city.  A rare stress-free holiday.  Happy year of the rabbit.

Meet Donghwan Park: Months Away from the College Entrance Exam

Donghwan Park next to his book shelf
full of test preparation manuals
Donghwan Park wasn't always a stellar student with a voracious appetite for learning. In middle school, he says, he was just a regular kid. "I played many computer games," he admits. "I watched many animations."

Like many kids, he attended cram schools at night, but he never paid much attention. "I was like a pendulum on a clock. I was learning by inertia," he said.

It wasn't until he reached high school that he had an epiphany.  "I realized I had to change."  He cut his Starcraft CD in half and went on a study abroad program in America, where he was one of a handful of non-white students at a public high school in rural Indiana.

"I lived without video games for 10 months," he said. "It's really a hard habit to break. Sometimes your hands feel shaky."

He came back an English speaker with new confidence and new focus. He started his first year of high school staring straight ahead at a goal of getting into the best college possible. "Three years of high school determine the next 80 years of your life," he said.

Two years later, he has made great strides. He starts the school day at 7:30 in the morning. After his last class at 4 p.m., he stays at school or goes to the public library near his house to study until 10 p.m. or midnight.  Some nights, he goes to another late night study center, that's operated privately, to put in a few more hours. He has memorized whole books of English vocabulary words. Twice a week, he meets with a math tutor.

In S. Korea, it's hard to turn on the steam in the middle of the academic race. It's so competitive to get into top colleges that the best candidates typically have been the top achievers, the hardest workers, all along.

A particularly unforgiving aspect of the system is the way students are graded -- by rank rather than by score.  "In the United States, if I did my best, I could get an A-plus," he said. "Here I have to beat all my friends."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Down With the College Entrance Exam?

A grueling national exam has long been the key gatekeeper to college in Korea. High school students spend nearly every waking hour cramming for it, taking practice test after practice test.

But the ministry of education wants to phase it out and replace it with an American-style process, one that considers talent, passion and independent thinking. Leaders say they want to nurture creativity and innovation, not just endurance and memorization. And they want to limit the soaring demand for private tutoring.

Sound radical? Sound...Un-Korean?  Possibly. The testing culture here goes back hundreds of years, and undoing it is going to be hard.  I wrote a story about how this nascent change is going in South Korea. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

South Korea and the State of the Union

Once again, South Korea's education system got a nice shout out from President Barack Obama.

The reform-minded president has been known to wax poetic about Korea's longer school day and parents' dedication to education. In the annual State of the Union address Tuesday night, he added the prestige of the teaching profession to South Korea's list of academic advantages. 

"In South Korea's teachers are known as nation builders," he said, urging Americans to treat their teachers with the same respect. 

I think it's true that teachers have been seen this way - in so much as the education system has a whole has been the backbone of building the country's economy over the past 60 years and its identity as a distinct democratic and capitalist country once it separated from North Korea.

But the identity of teachers is getting more complicated in a developed South Korea, where wealth is abundant and children aspire to be chief executives or movie stars and where many say they respect their cram school teachers even more. More on that here. 

Other edu-excerpts from the speech:

China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations -- they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America. 

Going Rate for an English Tutor

Going rate for a native-speaking English tutor in Seoul's high-rent districts, according to a mom who just found one, a Dartmouth graduate no less...

50,000 KRW ($45)per hour for one student

60,000 KRW ($54) for blonde female "premium"

500,000 KRW ($446) The cost for the referral agency who found the English tutor

You can specify nationality, gender, hair color, prestige of degree, as well as how much you are willing to pay, in your request.