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.