Thursday, December 30, 2010

South Korea's Abandoned Rural Schools

Some estimates put the population of greater Seoul at 23 million, nearly half of South Korea's population. And while only three in ten people lived in or around a city fifty years ago, the ratio is closer to 9 out of 10 today.

Sangri Elementary
Mass migration to cities has left a string of abandoned or nearly-abandoned schools in the countryside. I visited one such school a few weeks ago.  Sangri Elementary is in a mountain-top village outside of Yecheon in a farming area known for apple orchards and garlic fields.

This school had 13 students - thirteen - down from a high of 160 a few decades ago. And while thousands of schools with similarly dwindling enrollments have closed, this one - and many more - have stayed open, propped up by national government support.

Kindergarten class at Sangri
Sangri has a nearly 1:1 staff to student ratio. Field trips and free lunches. A fully stocked computer lab and huge flat screens in each classroom. Itinerant art and music teachers. Native English teachers who visit the school or give live web-cast lessons from the Philippines every day. And while public school doesn't typically start until first grade, kindergarten is offered on site for free.

I was stunned to see resources like this flowing into such a small school, particularly in a country where class sizes of 40 are still common. It's the most compelling evidence I've seen of the Korean government's commitment to equity.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Kickin' it in Geumchon - Teaching English in Korea

Here's a little glimpse into English teacher culture here in Korea. Ten years ago, English teaching was done almost entirely by Koreans who had studied the language mostly through text books. Today, there's a huge demand for native speakers, and Korea recruits thousands of them from the US to South Africa.  New faces mean new night life and magazines and music catering to this scene.  This rap video was made by the EV Boyz, three American English teachers living in a town northwest of Seoul. The video made a big splash among expats here when it was released a few years ago. The trio went on to write a musical plea for Taco Bell, lamenting the "anti-texmexican consumptionism that had gripped the Asian peninsula." (Taco Bell has since arrived...)

A little translation:

Geumchon - A district northwest of Seoul, not far from North Korea, that's home to an "English village," where  students visit for the day or stay over night to practice speaking English as if they were visiting a foreign country.
Waygooks - Slang for Waegukin or foreigner
Anyong haseyo - Hello
Kamsa hamnida - Thank you
The cabbage that we ravage with the chili paste taste - Kimchi of course!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Corporal Punishment In South Korea

It's customary in Korea for teachers to brandish a stick -- the leg of a stool, a reed of bamboo, some solid piece of wood. Students say teachers sometimes use them to hit the palms of their hands or their hips or shoulders.  Stress positions, such as push ups or kneeling in the corner, are also common punishments.

Holding your hands in the air is another stress position that's
used as a punishment and now banned in Seoul.
Seongju High School in Gumi.
But students started capturing videos of harsher abuse on their cell phones and posting them on-line, gathering fresh attention around the long-debated question of whether corporal punishment's time had come.  As of November, the liberal superintendent of Seoul schools banned it completely.

The decision has been extremely controversial, with many opposing it, including the superintendent of Busan, Korea's second largest city, who said that a ban would strip teachers of an important tool to control unruly children.  "I think we still need 'love of the rod' in the classroom," she told the Korea Times.

Interestingly, many of the people I have talked to about this, including students, don't like it.  Most teachers say the new punishment regulations, which involve issuing warnings, calling parents, and sending students to an "introspection room," are confusing and don't really work.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Schools of One - Preparing for Boarding School

Jung-Min Ku is studying American History, earth
science and math so he can join the 8th grade
at his new school
Tens of thousands of Korean primary and secondary students study abroad each year. They scatter the globe, some going for a quick English-language immersion course in the Philipines over winter vacation, others applying for international schools in China. Some young children move with their mothers to New Zealand or Canada to attend school for a year or two.

American boarding schools are a popular choice for an elite group of Koreans, who can afford the annual tuition and expenses, which can run up to 70k a year.

I wrote a story for the Global Post about how one student is preparing for the transition from his public middle school and late night academies in Seoul to English literature classes and basketball games and at a Baptist boarding school in Texas hill country.  Take a look.

These are some photos that did not make the story.

Ock-Kyung Chun, an educational
 adviser working with Ku.
A sidenote: Ms. Chun was an early leader in South Korea's booming English language industry, opening her own hagwon (cram school) shortly after graduating from college more than thirty years ago.  She was a female entrepreneur at a time when many Korean women identified more with their husbands' careers. She has written several books about English education, including one describing her path from $500 dollars to $5 million.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Korea Tops International Tests (Again)

South Korea was among the highest performing countries in an international standardized test released today.  It took top billing in reading comprehension, third in math and fifth in science in the PISA test.

Finland, Singapore, and Hong Kong were also at or near the top in every subject. The United States, as usual, scored somewhere in the middle. 

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned in a statement, "Other high-achieving nations are out-educating and out-competing us" and said the United States needs to "urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive."  At a televised town hall meeting, he shared the often-told tale about President Obama's lunch with the Korean president who said his biggest education challenge is that Korean parents are too demanding.

In Korea the news was mostly drowned out by the more pressing anticipated results of the annual college entrance exam, an event that warrants a four-page spread in a local newspaper analyzing which scores will lead to acceptance in which colleges.

I talked to Anthony Jackson, vice president for education at the Asia Society, to see why he thought Korea scored so well, along with other East Asian nations (including, for the first time, Mainland China through stellar results in Shanghai).

He said the top scorers tend to have some things in common:

*An emphasis on teacher quality - Hiring teachers from the top of their class, and training them well
*An emphasis on equity -- Making sure that all schools have access to quality teachers

The Fairfax Brand Goes Global

In a country where academic prestige is paramount, Fairfax County Public Schools has cachet.

Fairfax GT Education academy is opening
in southern Seoul this spring.
Matthew Lee, a former counselor for Fairfax schools and the operator of a Korean-style after-school academy in Northern Virginia,  is opening an English-language kindergarten in Seoul this winter - and selling it with the Fairfax label.

Many Korean parents are familiar with the high performing 170,000-student school system thousands of miles away in the Washington DC suburbs, Lee said. They compare it to Gangnam, the high-rent, education-obsessed neighborhoods in southern Seoul, where he is opening his academy.

His school is designed for children who will eventually study abroad. Citing research that shows a large share of Koreans who go to Ivy League colleges end up dropping out - and his own difficult transition from Korea to America 30 years ago - he said students who prepare early will be more likely to succeed.

"I want to bridge the gap," he said. His school will offer a full-day kindergarten program as well as after-school classes for older students. The focus will be teaching English but also  skills that American students learn, such as reading books and debating the ideas in them.

Director Matthew Lee in the entry to
his new academy
Class size will be limited to six, and students will sit around a table and talk. The American teachers he has hired will use theories of multiple intelligence to tailor instruction for each child, he explained.

His own family moved to Fairfax County when he was 16. He was a good student in Korea and didn't want to leave. He vividly remembers the first time he was called on in class at Lake Braddock High School and all he could do was smile, prompting giggles from his classmates, because he he didn't know enough English to respond.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Korean Education - Praised the World Over But in Need of Reform

This year is the 60th anniversary of the US-Korea Fulbright program. If you're not familiar with Fulbright, it is an international exchange program for scholars of many stripes. The US government and its partners in more than 150 countries fund research in the arts and sciences, at universities and all manner of non-governmental organizations.  It's the reason I'm in Korea.

At a dinner commemorating the anniversary this fall, South Korea's former Minister of Education Ahn Byong Man gave a keynote address that sums up the highs and lows of Korean education today. 

He said: During the more than two years I served as Minister of Education, Science and Technology... I could not help feeling astonished that the entire world seemed to be taking note of South Korea's education system and showering lavish praise on it. At the same time, I could not conceal my bewilderment at the fact that within South Korea, that same education system is subject to constant criticism as the nation's biggest problem. 

I got a copy of the full speech, so I could share it with you. 

**By the way, this is the first time I've tried this web site for posting document on-line. If you'd like to read the speech without having on-line dating advertisements flashing at you, just click "full screen" ;-)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Study Abroad without Leaving Korea, Take 1

With tens of thousands of middle and high school-aged Korean students going abroad every year to study English, the government has developed a new strategy for bringing some of those dollars and students back home:  Import western schools to Korea.

Orange trees in Jeju-do
In an ambitious and expensive venture, the government is underwriting a 940-acre "Education City," where the lingua franca will be English and where students can get an international experience without ever leaving Korean soil.

The back drop for this ambitious education experiment is Jeju Island, also known as the Hawaii of Korea. Blanketed with mandarin orange groves, golf courses and volcanic peaks, the tropical island is better known to honeymooners and hikers than to scholars.  But it's a 30-minute flight from Seoul and within a two-hour radius of 750 million people across Asia, where the education market is booming.
The construction site of  North
London Collegiate, Oct. 2010

The campus will eventually host a dozen big-name private schools.  The first, North London Collegiate School, plans to open in Sept 2011. Also considering the move are Branksome Hall in Canada and Washington DC's own St. Albans School, the alma mater of one-time vice presidential candidate Al Gore and Washington Post chairman Donald Graham.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The School Day That Doesn't End

This is the daily schedule at Seongju High School.  
It's a high school I visited recently in Gumi, an industrial city in the middle of South Korea.

8:20 to 9:10 - Study period for the college entrance exam 
9:20 to 10:10 - First period
10:20 to 11:10 - Second period
11:20 to 12:10 - Third period
12:20 to 1:10 - Fourth period
1:10 to 2:10 - Lunch
2:10 to 3:00 - Fifth period 
3:10 to 4:00 - Sixth period
4:00 to 4:20 - Cleaning time - Students do chores around school
4:20 to 5:10 - Seventh period
5:20 to 6:10 - Study for the college entrance exam
6:10 to 7:10 - Dinner
7:10 to 8:20 - Study for the college entrance exam
8:20 to 8:40 - Break
8:40 to 10:00 - Study for the college entrance exam
10:00 to 11:00 - Extra study time for students applying to select colleges

*Some hagwons or cram schools open at 10:00 p.m. and go until 1 a.m.  In Seoul these late night schools have been outlawed, but they are still legal in many parts of Korea.  Many high schools in Seoul clear out after the last class, because so many students pay for private tutoring after school rather than studying on their own or with public school teachers.

Photo: Art Class

Art Class at Sangri Elementary School near Yecheon

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Teens Respond to North Korea

Last week's attack by North Korea on Yeonpyeong Island may be breaking down a long-standing generational divide and getting more South Koreans behind the idea of war, according to this Washington Post story.

Older Koreans, especially those who fought in the Korean War or had a living memory of it, were vastly more inclined to view North Korea as a hostile enemy to be confronted. Young people, particularly those in their 20s who came of age during the sunshine policy, had no interest in a conflict and were just as inclined to disbelieve their own political leaders as to blame North Korea.

But North Korea's Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong island, which killed two civilians and two soldiers, may be narrowing that divide.

I talked with several teenagers over the past week and found a range of fear and dismissal. One Posung High School student wrote in an email, "Nobody cares about this in Korea. They just ran out of rice.  We have skirmishes like this annually. Don't worry about it. It will just be an interesting experience to see...Actually, I was furious rather than scared. I don't like this easy going Korean government policy. They just talk loud and actions little."

Other high schoolers joked about whether a life time devoted to studying will come to nothing if there's a war, and one college student worried aloud whether evacuation routes from Seoul should be marked in case... 

That "in case" feeling occurred to me well before the latest flare up.  North Korea is amazingly close to Seoul. A 50-minute bus ride from one of the trendiest night life districts will put you in rolling hills within eyeshot of the nearest North Korean city. 

Sometimes -- while crossing eight lanes of traffic on a pedestrian bridge surrounded by towering apartments or while taking in the sprawling view from a hillside in Seoul -- a feeling of precariousness will take me by surprise.  So much unfinished business hangs in the air.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Slideshow--Posung High School

A day at Posung High School, an all boy's school in southern
Seoul. You can click on any of the photos to read a description.

Obama's South Korea-isms

A headline in the Korea Times last August declared that Korea is a "Large Part of Obama's Vocabulary." After analyzing 18 months worth of speeches, the Times found that South Korea "appeared in more than one in 10 key speeches" that the president had given since taking office.
Lee Myung-Bak and Barack Obama
at the White House June 2009

Indeed, the leader of the free world does seem to drop the name "South Korea" regularly, and often in admiring tones. The country's rapid economic rise is a favorite subject; its education system is also near the tip of his tongue.

When advocating for a longer school day, Obama pointed out that Koreans spend more than a month longer in school every year, and when talking about international competition, he often mentions this conversation he had with Korean Pres. Lee Myung-Bak, shortly after he took office.

When I visited South Korea last year—and I've told this story before—I had lunch with President Lee, and I asked him, "What's your biggest education challenge?" And he said, "My biggest issue, my toughest fight is that Korean parents are too demanding. They want their kids to learn English in first grade, and so I've had to ship in a whole bunch of foreign-speaking teachers to meet the demand." They want their students learning everything—math, science, foreign languages—all as soon as possible.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reaching for the SKY: Competition for Korea's Top Universities

South Korea has more than 400 institutions of higher learning, up from just 19 at the close of World War II. But only three stand out in the aspirations of many young Korean students. The country's top schools are collectively known as SKY-- Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University.

Korea University
A degree from one of these schools is a life-long badge of honor, and prized jobs at Samsung or government agencies often overwhelmingly go to graduates of these top schools.

Seoul National is considered the best, by rankings and reputation, and Korea University and Yonsei University are second and third depending on whom you ask. (Yonsei enthusiasts will often tell you that the acronym is actually SYK).

Many children in Korea pin their hopes on attending these schools.

I visited an English class at Sindong Middle School in an affluent neighborhood in southern Seoul, during which the students stood up one at a time to give a short speech about where their lives would be 20 years from now. Their speeches went something like this:

First student: I was born in Seoul in 1995. I graduated from Sindong Middle School in 2011 and entered Seoul National University in 2014.

National Test Day

More than 700,000 college hopefuls took the College Scholastic Ability Test this week. In South Korea, Test Day is treated with the reverence and preparations of a national holiday. 

A student who's running late gets
escorted to the 2009 exam. Life.
The government prepares meticulously for minimum distractions.  Airplanes are not allowed to land or take off during the listening portions of the foreign language tests. Many businesses and offices open an hour later to ease morning traffic, and police officers and other emergency personnel have  are often on hand to rush latecomers to their testing centers. 

If you blow your chance, you have to wait another year to take the exam, which is a critical gatekeeper for colleges. 

The exam takes nearly ten hours.  Sections include Korean language, math, English, social studies, science, and a second foreign language. Students usually take the social studies section or the science section.

At the high school in my neighborhood, the gates were closed at 8:30 a.m. and the normally busy street was quiet. About a dozen mothers stood quietly at the fence, not ready to leave just yet.  At some testing sites, underclassman come with tea and posters to cheer on the test takers in the morning.

Producer at EBS, test in hand,
preparing a program that will
review all the answers.
In the afternoon, I visited the Education Broadcasting Service, a public television network that was preparing for a marathon post-test wrap-up program including detailed answers to each question and analysis of how it compared to previous years. 

Later on, I checked in by phone with Oh Dong-Kwoang, who took the test for the second year in a row, after studying at a specialized academy for ten months, at least 12 hours a day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Study Abroad by the Numbers

More than 72,000 South Korean students were enrolled in American universities and colleges in 2009-2010, down from about 75,000 the year before, according to the latest numbers from the Washington DC-based Institute of International Education.  Only the giants of India and China sent more students American schools of higher education.

The number of Korean college students going overseas has grown dramatically over the past 20 years, from 24,000 in 1985 to 218,000 in 2007, according to government data. The largest share went to the United States, with China a close second.  Japan, England, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are also popular.

The high rate of study abroad is evident in almost any government office, university, or corporation here in Seoul, where you can almost count on finding an English answer to your question.

More and more frequently, students are studying abroad at younger ages for short-term intensive language programs.  Korea's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology reports that the number of primary or secondary students studying abroad to learn English grew from about 1,500 in 1998 to more than 27,000 in 2008.

College Entrance Exam: Hope it "sticks"

The approaching annual college entrance exam is inspiring a wave of consumerism in Korea.  Bakeries and department stores throughout Seoul are full of sweets and gifts for the nervous test takers.  The test is a major rite of passage in Korea and often viewed as a key gatekeeper for competitive colleges and jobs that are deemed crucial to attaining high status or a good pay check.

A Korean friend told me it's traditional to give "yeot" or taffy as a gift, because the sticky sweet is supposed to be good luck. My Korean teacher explained that's because the word for "to stick" and "to pass" is the same.

Monday, November 15, 2010

If at First You Don't Succeed, Study Study Again

Tens of thousands of Korean high school graduates delay college each year so they can retake the college entrance exam hoping that a better score will carry them to their choice schools.
I met a few such students recently in my own neighborhood in Seoul. I noticed four teenaged boys walking out of a large cram school at lunch time, and I asked them why they were there in the middle of the day, and not in high school. They explained the private academy is specially designed for “study-again students” or jae-soo sang, like them.  They "failed" the first time they took the test last fall, they said, because their scores weren't high enough for top colleges.  
From left: Hoon Lim-Tae, Ji Yong-Chang,
Sun Tae-Mu, Oh Dong-Kwoang
So for the past 10 months they have been engaged in around-the-clock test preparation hoping to gain 30 or 40 points on a 500-point exam. Along with more than 800 other students, they report to the seven-story building every day at 7 a.m. and stay there until 10 p.m., including Saturday. On Sunday, they study from 10 a.m. to 5:40 p.m. 
“Our week is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Friday, Friday," said Ji Yong-Chang,  laughing about his weekend-free year. 
Rules are strict: no dating, no drinking, no noise during self-study time. The goal is maximum focus. The school has a reputation for being “very severe,” Ji said.  That's why his family sought it out from his home town in Taean, southwest of Seoul. He lives in a dormitory down the street.  

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Photo: chemistry class

An elite science high school in Gyeonggi Province, just outside Seoul

English Superstar Competition: My Debut as a Judge

A combination of English fever, a growing mandate for creativity, and a long time love affair with competition means that speech contests abound in Korea these days.

I was invited to be a judge at the 2010 English Superstar Competition at an "English Village" outside of Seoul in early November. I don't know much about public speaking, but English is probably my only expertise here in Korea, so I agreed.

Secretly, I was thrilled.

The judge's table
A friend warned me not to let the title go to my head and break out in Simon Cowell-style criticism during the competition. I assured her I'm much more like Paula Abdul, the original American Idol softie.

The event was held in a cavernous auditorium, and emceed by a Korean television personality and an American actor.  My fellow judges were a Yonsei University professor, a theater expert, two English teachers-slash-"edutainers" (one of whom had just returned from a three-day audition in Los Angeles for the real American Idol!), and one official no-show.

Wearing school uniforms or blue jeans and wireless microphones, students aged 8 to 18 pontificated on points sometimes adolescent and sometimes heady. In three minute intervals, they mounted their soap box to explain -- in almost entirely coherent English -- why it's important to have self-eteem, why Korea needs to welcome more multicultural students, how we can follow our dreams, or how the English language is Korea's "achilles heel," from a failed policy perspective.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Great at Math, But Not Happy About It

South Korea tends to dominate on international math and science exams, competing for top place with the other Asian Tigers. On the 2007 Trends in Mathematics and Science test, Korean eighth graders scored second in math and fourth in science. Americans scored in the middle of the pack - at ninth and eleventh place respectively.
Hansung Science High School in
Seoul  is experimenting with more
creative teaching styles.

But a corresponding survey showed that Koreans lagged in other areas, including self confidence and satisfaction.  Only 38 percent of Korean students said they actually enjoyed learning science and 33 percent said they liked math --- compared to 54 percent and 41 percent of American students. 

Korean students are not alone in their sad state.  The Brown Center on Education Reform published a kind of happiness index in 2006 that mined test data and showed many high performers are similarly disenchanted, while some of the happiest students - in places such as Iran and Botswana - are lagging way behind in skills.

These findings could have implications for happy and sad students alike: In America, classes are designed to be more interesting and exciting, but many students have a strong aversion to memorization-heavy subjects that offer delayed gratification, such as math or foreign language, subjects that pay big dividends in the work place. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cram School Rush Hour

I met up with some Fairfax County School officials in late October in Daechi-dong, one of the city's famed hot spots for hagwons. The DC-area educators were in town for an education conference and they wanted to see a real "cram school" ghetto during their stay. There are many such neighborhoods in Seoul.

We shivered outside in the dark at 10 p.m. and watched as a virtually deserted sidewalk came alive with crowds of teenagers pouring out from high rise office buildings loaded with tutoring centers. Many wore sweatshirts over their dark blue school uniforms and texted on their smart phones while wandering down the street.

Estimates vary but some show up to 75 percent of students in Korea attend private schools after their regular school day to improve their math or science grades, to learn English, to prep for the college entrance exam.  There are cram schools for sports or violin, for building with legos, for english proficiency exams, for the civil service exam or any exam you can think of.

The government is waging a war against them, trying to crack down on how much money they charge and how late they go. 10 p.m. is cut-off time now; many used to go much later (some still do.)

Here's Fairfax School Board member Ilryong Moon describing the scene.

My Korean Class

When I first got to Seoul, I walked around hungry for two days because I could not figure out what was safe to eat, and more importantly, how to ask for anything.  Pointing and grunting seemed rude (until I got really hungry).

There is no guessing what anything means in Korea, the way you can bluff your way around Europe.  Bathroom is hwa-jang-shil (not toilette), Family is Kah-jok (not familia).  And some sounds in English, such as "I,"  don't exist here, so my name -- Michael -- is pronounced more like Ma-EE-Keul.  It looks like this:

I took a beginner's class in DC at the Korean Embassy last summer, but somehow in the midst planning a wedding and working full time, I managed to show up late and without my homework often, and I remember feeling like the slow kid, making the same mistakes over and over again.

My teacher,  aka "san-seng-nim"

I did learn the alphabet, which is a good start.  Hangul, as its called, was designed in the 15th century as a departure from hanja, the Chinese characters that were used. It's phonemic and meant to be more accessible to regular people, most of whom were illiterate at the time. Koreans are very proud of its clean lines and simple logic and they have a holiday each year to celebrate its creation.

Why South Korea?

As an education reporter for the Washington Post, I became interested in writing about Korean immigrant families in the Washington suburbs, and the lengths they would go in pursuit of education.

I interviewed kirogi, or so-called wild-geese families, that split up while the mother brought her children abroad to learn English and the father stayed behind to work. I talked to teenagers who traveled alone to the United States to study at private schools. I visited Korean-style cram schools that are cropping up in suburban strip malls. And I wrote about Korea's dominance on international math and science tests, as well as trends showing that a minority of Asian students, many of them Korean, are becoming a majority of new students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, considered the top school in Virginia and the country.

I decided to apply for a grant so I could travel to Korea and see the education system first hand. Since September, I have been exploring a system that's very different from the one I grew up in or studied as a reporter. Its students' strengths, including high average skills in math and science - are weak points for American students and, while underachieving is a chronic problem at many American schools, fierce competition and constant studying are key problems here. It's short, it's one of the most intense education systems in the world.

Here in this city of high rises and 23 million people, I have been struck by the nearly universal academic motivation and professional aspirations: the vast majority of high school graduates go on to college.  I learned that "extra curricular" usually refers to extra math and science classes held after school. And I found hagwons or private cram schools all over my neighborhood and the city. There are cram schools to teach you how to give a speech, how to become a deejay, and how to prepare for every imaginable test or college application.

I am mostly curious about how Korean education is changing to adapt to 21st century demands. It's already achieved remarkable success, turning a mostly illiterate population a few generations ago into one of the most educated and ambitious societies on earth. Now, how are educators trying to nurture creativity in a system that still rewards mainly endurance and test taking skills? And how is the government attempting to limit the huge influence of private tutoring and the high rate of study abroad?

I will keep you posted on what I'm finding, and I hope you will share your thoughts along the way.