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.