Saturday, January 29, 2011

Down With the College Entrance Exam?

A grueling national exam has long been the key gatekeeper to college in Korea. High school students spend nearly every waking hour cramming for it, taking practice test after practice test.

But the ministry of education wants to phase it out and replace it with an American-style process, one that considers talent, passion and independent thinking. Leaders say they want to nurture creativity and innovation, not just endurance and memorization. And they want to limit the soaring demand for private tutoring.

Sound radical? Sound...Un-Korean?  Possibly. The testing culture here goes back hundreds of years, and undoing it is going to be hard.  I wrote a story about how this nascent change is going in South Korea. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

South Korea and the State of the Union

Once again, South Korea's education system got a nice shout out from President Barack Obama.

The reform-minded president has been known to wax poetic about Korea's longer school day and parents' dedication to education. In the annual State of the Union address Tuesday night, he added the prestige of the teaching profession to South Korea's list of academic advantages. 

"In South Korea's teachers are known as nation builders," he said, urging Americans to treat their teachers with the same respect. 

I think it's true that teachers have been seen this way - in so much as the education system has a whole has been the backbone of building the country's economy over the past 60 years and its identity as a distinct democratic and capitalist country once it separated from North Korea.

But the identity of teachers is getting more complicated in a developed South Korea, where wealth is abundant and children aspire to be chief executives or movie stars and where many say they respect their cram school teachers even more. More on that here. 

Other edu-excerpts from the speech:

China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations -- they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America. 

Going Rate for an English Tutor

Going rate for a native-speaking English tutor in Seoul's high-rent districts, according to a mom who just found one, a Dartmouth graduate no less...

50,000 KRW ($45)per hour for one student

60,000 KRW ($54) for blonde female "premium"

500,000 KRW ($446) The cost for the referral agency who found the English tutor

You can specify nationality, gender, hair color, prestige of degree, as well as how much you are willing to pay, in your request.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Introducing the English Village: Study Abroad Without Leaving Korea Take 3

Stonehenge entrance to the English
Village in Paju
The lengthy winter break means travel for thousands of Korean students, many of whom go abroad for month-long language training programs. Intensive English camps abound in the Philippines, Long Island, New Zealand, Vancouver, and even Beijing, where students can get a mix of English and Mandarin lessons.

But for those who can't afford the plane fare and the cost of tuition, there's a more affordable option closer to home: an English Village, where for a small admission fee, you can stroll along a cobble-stoned Main Street. And with a few stops at the bank, the post office, and a general store, you can practice your day-to-day English with a native speaker who might have a British accent.

Student going through immigration
upon entering the English Village
The Gloucester-like-theme park-slash-outdoor-schoolhouse is an outgrowth of the national obsession with English acquisition, as well as concern among policy makers that students who have the most money for private lessons and study abroad are getting farther ahead in school and society.

The first village opened in 2004; about a dozen have sprung up since around the country.

I visited the Gyeonggi English Village in Paju, one of the first programs to open and among the largest with more than 100 teachers from English-speaking countries and 50 staff members. The teachers all live in small apartments on site and they are encouraged to bring their spouses or get a dog, to make the village seem as lived-in as possible.  The village also employs "edutainers" that write and produce plays and songs in English that also teach vocabulary and help students role play.

On weekends, people can come for a day or bring their kids.  The village has also become a stop on the tourist circuit, so it's not uncommon for a big bus full of camera-toting Thai visitors to pull up next to the mock 'Stone Henge' that marks the village entrance.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jump Roping Tutors?

Is it possible, you ask?

In Seoul, any kind of tutoring is possible. In this city of strivers you can pay for jump roping lessons in English or in Korean.

Why, you ask?

So your child can win the annual jump roping competition at school.

I was invited to lunch today at sixth grader Yoo Jin Seo's house.  When I arrived she brought out a binder full of certificates and a stack of medals displaying her awards in penmanship, book reports, English summer camp, and jumping rope.  She also performed a speech for me -- about her dream of becoming an anchor for CNN who will be "at the center of world events"-- that recently earned her first place in a speech competition.

I was impressed by her many accomplishments, including her job as a reporter for the Blue House student newspaper. But I was very curious about the jump roping.

She explained how the competition works: Boys and girls are separated. When the teacher says "start," students jump rope. When they trip or stop, they must sit down. The last person jumping gets top prize.

How long can this last?

Yoon Jin, now 12 years old, said she jumped for 40 minutes one year, until only she and one other friend were left.

"I didn't want to lose," she said.

"She just kept jumping," said her mother.  "She wouldn't stop."  She was so exhausted when she finally sat down that her teacher called home to see whether she should call the paramedics.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

English Lessons in Korean Culture

Most Korean teens have no idea what it's like to have an after-school job, or to wear a halloween costume or go to the prom. But they spend countless hours in the classroom talking about these and  other detailed aspects of American life, not to mention American history and politics.

"So many Koreans learn how to describe the U.S. flag with its 13 stripes and 50 stars. They know what each part stands for. But they don't know how to talk about their own flag," said Lee Hyun Suk, an English teacher who broadcasts lessons on government-funded tv and radio stations. "Knowing about other cultures is good, but we need to share information about our own. That's how we connect," he said.

Lee co-hosts a radio show that gives Koreans some English vocabulary to help them talk about their daily lives. So rather than discussing the latest episode of Friends or the growth of the Tea Party Movement, they can talk about the latest episode of Secret Garden, a Korean drama, or the latest controversy surrounding President Lee Myung Bak. It's a more engaging way to learn another language and it builds more confidence, Lee said.

As English becomes an increasingly global language, more English-as-a-foreign-language teachers are finding it helpful to separate the language from western culture. Cyrus Rolbin, a lecturer at Boston University and a former English teacher in Japan, saw that his students there were more motivated when they used the language to talk about themselves.

He encouraged them to "think locally and act globally" by creating videos or web sites in English about their communities and Japanese culture that they could share with the world on-line. One group of his English students created a new method of teaching the Japanese alphabet that also shares parts of Japanese culture.

Recently in Seoul, I attended one of Lee's free, in-person classes for listeners of the show. His lesson provided English words for a wide range of topics in Korean history and culture.  He talked about Korean weddings, funerals, card games, and drinking etiquette.  He discussed Korea's pro-democracy movement in the 1980's, and hemorrhoids, a leading cause of hospitalization in Korea.

My favorite topic was a description of "lifties," the small wedge heels that many Korean men insert into their shoes to make them appear taller.

Here's a video of Lee Hyun Suk describing the concept of his class, as well as the concept of "lifties."

Cho Hye-Yeon, a mother from Seoul who was in the audience, said she wakes her son up early each morning so he can listen to the radio show while having breakfast.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Day from the Hermit Kingdom

It's interesting to reflect on the American Civil Rights legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr this year from the Hermit Kingdom, where the vast majority of people are the same race and speak the same language and have a shared history that goes back hundreds of years. 

The population in South Korea is beginning to diversify, as the birth rate plummets and migrant workers come in from other Asian countries to fill factory and agricultural jobs. There is a wave of English teachers and business people, and of course military.  But white faces like mine are still rare in some parts of South Korea; Black faces are more rare. 

In such a homogenous country, education plays an enormous role in differentiating people and setting their place on the social ladder. After the Joseon Dynasty lost power and the Japanese occupation ended, a social system that concentrated power among a small number of royalty, scholars and elites was flattened. Nearly everyone was left destitute by the Korean War, and education is what brought people wealth and success in the coming generations. This could help illustrate why academic striving is so intense here.

At first, the system was heralded as a true meritocracy -- whoever studied hard enough and performed best on the college exam or the civil service exam got in. But now, many fear that the resulting class system is simply reproducing itself, with the wealthiest parents providing the best tutors and opportunities for their kids. Today government officials in Korea fret about a class-based achievement gap the way Americans talk about the gap in school performance between different races or ethnicities.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Made in Korea - An Air Purifier to Help You Study Better?

JoongAng Daily
Oh my. Only in South Korea: These encyclopedia-shaped air fresheners emit an organic compound called phytoncide. They are being marketed to help kids concentrate on their studies.

Friday, January 14, 2011

American Cram School Industry

Private tutoring in South Korea is a $23 billion industry. A huge part of the market is test preparation for the national college entrance exam.  Students spend years, and many spend thousands of dollars, preparing for it.

In the United States, the private test prep market for the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams is much smaller, but growing. The National Association for College Admission Counseling estimated it to be worth as much as $ 4 billion.  Some of the tutoring centers are mom and pops modeled after Indian or Korean cram schools; Others are major companies, such as the Princeton Review or Kaplan, which is owned by the Washington Post Co.

The college counselors' association is concerned that outside-of-school coaching is giving some students unfair advantage in admissions. And it has issued a couple of reports on how the industry is changing and what effect coaching can have on college admissions.

Through extensive research - more than 30 studies over a half century - the report found that coaching provides a 10-20 point boost on the math section of the SAT and a 5-10 point boost in English.  The research is much thinner and less conclusive on the ACT.

While not a huge jump, it's enough to give some students the edge they need, particularly if the college sets a cut-off score or weighs the score heavily in comparison to other activities and achievements, the report found.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Korean Cram Schools - By the Numbers

Cram schools are ubiquitous in South Korea. Known as hagwons, their signs are visible in buildings all over Seoul and throughout the country.  These schools include private english kindergartens, taekwondo and violin lessons, and all manner of academic tutoring and test preparation. They help students get ahead and compete more effectively for the college entrance exam and english-proficiency exams that are important gatekeepers for higher education and eventually good jobs.
The Ministry of Education, which maintains data on the private education industry, sent me these numbers:

What percentage of students go to private academies?  Participation rate was 75 percent in 2009, down from 77 percent in 2007.

Number of registered cram schools nationwide 
2005  71,447 (5.7 percent - increase over year before)
2006  74,493 (4.3)
2007  77,284 (3.7)
2008  79,898 (3.4)
2009  83,327 (4.3)
2010  84,123 (1.0)

The number of attendees increased dramatically from about 400,000 in 1980 to 5.4 million in 2010

Cram schools are popular throughout East Asia, but Korea is the leading country in terms of participation, said Mark Brady, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who wrote a report for UNESCO on policy responses to private education around the world. He regards the growth of the private tutoring industry - what he calls shadow education -- with caution.

"Tutoring can be a good thing," he said. "It can help low achieving students catch up and it can help high achievers find a way to stretch. But Korean society feels trapped; it can't afford to opt out. If you do, you fall out of the race," he said.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

R-E-S-P-E-C-T Find Out What it Means for Korean Teachers

Teachers have long been revered in Korea. Confucian tradition puts teachers in the realm of kings. And competition for new teachers is still very tough, as many see it as an honorable and stable career.

But lately, their status seems to be slipping.  The abolition of corporal punishment in classrooms has sparked debates about how much respect (and obedience) teachers can command in today's society. A series of news stories portray classroom chaos and students assaulting or berating their teachers. One video clip circulated on-line shows a student asking his teacher a series of humiliating questions about her sex life.

Such behavior would have been unthinkable a generation ago, many say. 

"When I was little, teachers were heroes to children," said Go In-Gyung, chairman of Pagoda, an English test preparation company. While so many children once pinned their hopes on a teaching career, he said, "now they are interested in becoming movie stars, chief executives, sports figures."

This generation grew up with money. They did not know what it was like to be hungry like their grandparents did or to share a small apartment with four siblings as their parents may have. They have a whole new sense of entitlement and their career goals extend beyond stability.

One More Chinese Mother Post

...Then back to Korea. 

Here are two Chinese (-American) daughters' responses to Amy Chua's thoughts on Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior:

Julianne Hing in the Atlantic 

My mom would hand us math workbooks to occupy us during car rides the way other parents hand their kids Pop Tarts or carrot sticks. She, like Chua, packed our violins in the trunk of the minivan so we could practice even while we were on vacation and forbade sleepovers and weeknight television well into my high school years. I struggled mightily with math and science and my mother would wake me up at 6 am on weekends so we could go over math drills together for hours. Letting me fail was not an option to her, though I occasionally wished she would have. Thanks to her, I didn't. 

And  Amy Wang in the Oregonian

I feel for Chua's two girls, as I chafed under some of the same prohibitions growing up. Do Chua's daughters feel totally unable to talk to her about personal stuff, like classmates' crushes on them? Do they feel completely left out of the social loop? Do their friends -- if they have any -- openly pity them? Underneath their smiles, are they gritting their teeth and counting the days until they can leave home? Are they going to go wild when they're finally on their own and end up as heavy drinkers or worse? Do they ever contemplate running away or committing suicide? I know far too many Asian Americans who can answer yes to most, if not all, of the above questions.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Western Mom Vs. Chinese Mom

The anime version of the book: Via Atlantic Monthly

"Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior"...Thoughts from South Korea

If you have not seen this article in the Wall Street Journal, you must. It's adapted from a book by Yale professor and Chinese-American mother Amy Chua. 

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids, the article begins. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover 
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
It goes on to enumerate stereotypical differences in parenting styles between Chinese parents and American, parents.  Bullying, spying, berating are all part of the job for Chinese mothers, along with untold hours of tutoring, coaching, and supervising mandatory study or practice time. All the meanness comes from love, of course, and a confidence that their children are capable of the best.  In the US, by contrast, parents are excessively concerned about their children's self esteem. They are loathe to force them to do anything and far more tolerant of failure. 
South Korean mothers are also notoriously strict and controlling about all matters of education. Ajumma, the term for a married woman, comes along with a significant helping of fear and dictatorial power.  Behind every successful child is an education-crazed ajumma and a passive father, I'm often told.
I have not met this exact Chinese mother in South Korea, though I imagine she exists. I have seen their academic devotion in other ways. I have talked to women who quit their jobs to manage their children's school careers, who form tight circles of friends to share secret information about the best tutors, and who will spend their child's entire winter vacations reading book after book with them.

Study Abroad Without Leaving Korea Take 2: Global College Campus

Dubai has Knowledge Village. Qatar has Education City.  Now, South Korea is building Songdo Global University Campus. 

New construction in Songdo.
Each project is designed to be an international university hub, hosting western college campuses. Together, they are leading the way in the latest trend, and many say inevitable future, of higher education in a globalized world. 

South Korea sends more students abroad per capita than any other country. The government hopes to turn the study abroad traffic around and bring college campuses here. (It's building a similar campus for western primary and secondary schools in Jeju Island.) 

An hour outside of Seoul, a new city is rising atop former mudflats in the Yellow Sea near Incheon International Airport. Songdo will be a high tech mecca and future home to dozens of multinational companies, millions of residents, and a half-dozen international college campuses, officials say. 

I toured the vast construction zone, and listened to repeated descriptions of the new city as an ideal place to "live, work, and play."  So far, it looks like any brand of exurbia, with mostly places to live.  In Korea that means the latest in modern high-rise living. 

But the government is hard at work recruiting the universities they hope will anchor their fledgling community.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Korea's Top Students Lagging Internationally

I just ran across this editorial from the Chosun Ilbo fretting that top students in Korea don't stack up as well with those from other countries as do students overall.

Citing the 2009 PISA results, which came out last month, the article said:

Korean students excelled in the overall rankings among the 34 OECD member countries, coming first in reading and math and third in science, and out of all the 65 participating countries they ranked second in reading, fourth in math and sixth in science. But Korea's best lagged behind their counterparts abroad...

Korean students in the upper 5 percent ranked ninth out of 65 participating nations including 31 non-OECD member countries in reading, fifth in math and 13th in science.

Some experts here speculate that the reason top students are slightly less successful is that there are not enough opportunities for elite students to excel. Indeed, the public system puts a strong emphasis on equity.