Monday, November 22, 2010

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.

They want their kids to excel because they understand that whichever country out-educates the other is going to outcompete us in the future. So that's what we're up against. That's what's at stake—nothing less than our primacy in the world.

This quote comes from a National Governor's Association meeting in Feb. 2010 when he unveiled a plan for tougher academic standards.  The same story formed the lead-in to a new math and science initiative last November, and a speech about global competition at a backyard barbeque in Albuquerque this September.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also relayed the president's lunchtime chat with Lee Myung-bak at the Mom Congress in Washington D.C. where he said,  "The challenge facing South Korea is one, quite frankly, I would love to have here."

The attention from Washington has caused a lot of buzz in Korea, and not a little bewilderment, since the government here is involved in a massive education reform effort aimed at improving the country's competitiveness in the 21st century.

Nurturing creativity in a system that rarely rewards it is a major challenge.  And many policy makers will tell you that "too-demanding" parents can cause a fair amount of trouble, including a massive investment in a shadow education system that keeps kids in school until the early hours and drains many families of their disposable income. Education today, with its intense competition and high costs, is now considered the culprit for some of South Korea's most serious social problems, including a rapidly declining birth rate, record numbers of youth suicides, and a growing divide in opportunities between rich and poor.

Many families who can afford to send their children overseas opt out of the Korean system all together. More than 200,000 students went abroad in 2007, the largest share going to universities in the United States.

What's hard to understand from far away is the sense of urgency people here feel to do better, to improve, to get better jobs, to make more money, to make parents proud, to learn English, to learn English fluently, to learn one more language besides English, to get a better score, to get just one point higher. And it's not some people, it's really a lot of people.

A collective goal.  A heavy burden.

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