South Korea is a small country -- about the size of Indiana with 50 million people -- surrounded by the giants of China, Russia, Japan, and a dangerously unpredictable neighbor to the north. With few natural resources, Koreans have pinned their future success and independence largely on caps and gowns.
A massive investment in education helped the country tap into centuries-old Confucian values and rise from ruin after the Korean War. Thanks to universal schooling, the illiteracy rate dropped from 78 percent in 1948 to less than two percent today. More than 80 percent of high school graduates now go on to college, and Korean students routinely outperform those in nearly every other country on international math and science exams.
Today Korea has the third largest economy in Asia and the 13th largest in the world. Seoul is sprawling and cosmopolitan, home to multinational corporations and a huge middle class. The G-20 meetings to be held here this fall are considered proof that the country has indeed arrived.
But this nation of strivers is also straining from the weight of its rapid rise. Thanks to an almost singular focus on white collar work and prestigious degrees, competition is severe for corporate or government jobs and college entrance. Side effects include intense pressure and little sleep for many Koreans. The society is grappling with elevated suicide rates and a plunging birth rate. And the public education system is losing relevance in an environment where parents will pay a premium for ever more customized private schools meant to give their children an edge.
Families invest hundreds if not thousands of dollars every month in private cram schools that offer accelerated instruction, test preparation and strategies for besting classmates. Many who can afford it send their children overseas, opting out of the system entirely. More than 100,000 students go abroad each year for schooling, including, as of 2008, nearly 30,000 primary and secondary students in pursuit of english fluency and competitive advantage.
Korea's government today is involved in a tough self evaluation: questioning whether the same system that powered its economic development can carry the country into the next century. Reformers are looking for ways to transform a system that rewards endurance and that differentiates students by fractions of percentage points into a more dynamic system that encourages a fascination with ideas. It's a huge and long-term challenge.
At the same time, politicians and educators in the United States and elsewhere are interested in Korea's formula for success -- how it has managed to set such a high bar for achievement in such a short time. Delegations from developing nations routinely visit Korean schools in search of a road map, and President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have talked in aspiring tones about the country's longer school hours and motivated parents. In a globally competitive world, each country is looking to learn something from each other.