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.