Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Megastudy Millionaire Turns Education Reformer

Lee Beom is not your typical bureaucrat. He brings home a regular salary from his job as a policy advisor at Seoul's Metropolitan Office of Education, but has millions stashed away in the bank. And he trained for his government job not by passing a civil service exam, but by rising to the top of the cram school industry that the government is now trying to reform.

In the 1990's, as a PhD candidate at Seoul National University and a degree holder from a top science high school, he was a prime recruit for the cram schools in Daechi-dong, Seoul's most notorious cram school ghetto.  He started tutoring middle school students in science a couple days a week and then moved on to preparing high school students for the college entrance exam. He became a star in the test prep industry, tutoring every night and all weekend, reaching thousands of students.

"My income was so huge," he said in an interview. "For five consecutive years, I made more than one million dollars."

Nearly 3 million students were "members" of
Megastudy and downloaded lessons in 2009
Around 2000, he helped collaborate on the launch of a new on-line cram school that would bring the best tutors in Daechi-dong to students throughout South Korea for a third of the cost. Megastudy.net was an instant success, and his lectures soon were being downloaded tens of thousands of times.

He and his wife -- another Daechi-dong tutor  -- bought a four-bedroom house with a yard, a rare luxury in this city of skyscrapers, and they started a family.

Over time, though, the shine of his cram school fame tarnished. "I began to hate my job," he said. The tutors he worked with vied intensely for students, and he recalled that some colleagues paid people to write nasty comments about his classes. And as he got closer to some students, he saw how stressed out they were. "I realized the education system was ruining a lot of students - not just low performers but high performers, too."

He quit his job in 2003. A year later, Megastudy went public and he made more than $15 million, he said.

With his fortune secure, he became a kind of benevolent tutor, giving free government-sponsored lectures in person and on television.  He wrote a book about his experiences with education and his vision for reform, and he started consulting for liberal candidates during political campaigns. Most recently he helped get Seoul's superintendent Kwak No-hyun elected.

His ideas for change include moving away from a heavy reliance on multiple choice tests.

"We are hoping to create an environment where students think more and project opinions freely. That is the education we are longing for."

1 comment:

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