Thursday, February 3, 2011

Seoul’s liberal superintendent

Kwak No Hyun.  The Korea Herald.
Since taking the reigns of the country’s largest school system last year, Kwak No Hyun has ignited controversy over a ban on corporal punishment and a plan to offer free lunches to elementary school children, a strategy the Seoul Mayor calls “nation-destroying populism.”  He has also proposed ending school regulations on students hair styles and clothes. 
Kwak, a human rights activist and lawyer, replaced the more conservative Kong Jung Tack, who was removed from office and imprisoned for accepting bribes. In one of the first popular elections for superintendent in South Korea, Kwak ran on a campaign pledge to 'send corrupt education to jail and send old education to the museum.'
I sat down to talk with him just before the lunar new year, and I asked him about his ideas for reforming schools. Here is a short transcript adapted from our conversation:
Why did you run for superintendent? 
If you want to see or imagine what Korean society will be like in 20 years, then you must look at what is happening in the classroom today. If you find democracy and human rights in the classroom then you can see a Korean society 20 years later that will respect  these things. But I could not see this in today’s classrooms.
Too many students are abandoned..not in the literal sense but in a substantive way. Students, especially those who do not perform well in their studies, are abandoned in the sense that their needs are not cared for... Suppose you are very strong athlete in sports or in art or in drama, then your interests are not respected in school, which is driven by the competition for the top universities, because the SAT does not test any knowledge of drama or sport or art.
There are 1,300 schools in Seoul and huge differences in educational opportunities among schools in the wealthier and poorer neighborhoods. Public education should work for reducing the disparity between parental economic power. But in order to do that, we have to mobilize all the means within in our reach. Otherwise, economic and social bi-polarization will continue.
Why did you decide to ban corporal punishment?
Corporal punishment is not allowed in prisons or in the army.  But in the name of the ‘rod of love,’ it's allowed in schools. I don’t buy that.
Corporal punishment is a very easy way to control students. In most cases, it’s imposed with anger on the part of teachers. And I think in most cases where corporal punishment is committed, students have low regard for their teachers.  

There are some teachers who are grumbling and who are complaining about the ban. But according to a poll, 72 percent of teachers said they were beginning to change their way of teaching and their way of disciplining students. This is a positive sign.  
What is lacking in korean schools is a support system for students, including counseling for students in crisis or who are in the initial stage of delinquency. I hired 300 student counselors trained as psychologists for middle school students... who can be the most unruly. 
Why free lunch? What are your ideas and why is it important?

Healthy or eco-friendly free lunch...has so many added values. It improve students’ health, of course, and improves equality and welfare in public education and increases the demand and customer base for eco-friendly (organic) farmers, which will also alleviates environmental concerns. It has a great chain effect.
Starting this March we will provide all 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders in Seoul an eco-friendly free lunch. In the past, only students from poor families, 11 percent of the total, were given free lunch.
The mayor of Seoul has called this a kind of “nation-destroying populism.”
Schools exist for social justice and integration, and children are there for equal dignity and opportunity, and meals are the basic necessity of life to which everyone is entitled. 
If we harbor the idea of universal welfare, then meals at schools for kids are the perfect choice for the application of that idea, in contrast to selective welfare which tends to be accompanied by stigma and discrimination.... In this area, nobody is superior and nobody is hurt.... This is not a benevolence but a right. 
What are the greatest strengths and challenges for Korean education now?
Korea ranked 2nd in PISA. That is a great thing. That is like a reserving the second place in the world 20 years later. We must be very proud and very comfortable about that. I applaud everyone involved: teachers, parents, principals and students. The combination of their efforts made this wonderful outcome possible.
I have reservations though. Will this expected outcome come true? In 20 years, will Korean society rank first or second later in terms of national competitiveness and national transparency and democracy and human rights? Is this outcome sustainable? My answer is, I’m afraid not.  
This is the result we achieved by spending our efforts to the limit. We cannot go beyond. We cannot achieve more -- unless we change our mode of education. Because everyone is unhappy. Students feel bored and exhausted, and parents are exhausted. And teachers are losing their sense of dignity. 

Why are teachers not proud? About a third of our high school students are sleeping in class. How could a teacher sustain a sense of pride in such a classroom. "Why do you sleep my dear student?" "Well, I studied already. I studied late last night, and I have to go to hagwon [cram school] this evening, and I have to reserve some energy."

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