Ministry of Education, The Term Paper (Part 3)
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The Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology
All MEST up?
English and its Discontents
Lack of consistency has been a defining quality of the MEST’s recent policy towards English in recent years. For years the government’s official policy towards English has been to focus on reading and writing. The logic behind this decision was solid. The vast majority of Koreans’ exposure to English is in written form, whether that be email, textbooks, technical manuals or print media. By gearing the English education system to developing these skills, the government could make the claim that it was fulfilling the primary educational need of its citizens. The structure of tests like the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) emphasize the domestic focus of English education in Korea. TOEIC is the most widely used gauge of job applicants’ English skills in Korea. Due to the intensely competitive nature of the job market, employers are often required to use this examination to weed out job applicants even when English is completely irrelevant to the job being offered.
While written English comprehension is still crucial to success in Korea, a shift in attitude has occurred in the public. Comments by the current Education Minister, Kim Doh-yeon, reflect the current attitude regarding English education in South Korea: “The government’s intention is to enable people to carry out English conversations easily by the time they complete mandatory public education. Speaking English well isn’t easy. The government policy is not to put an absolute emphasis on English but to change English education here so it focuses on listening and speaking.”
There are many obvious problems with this plan. The average Korean student has very little opportunity to speak English outside of the classroom. While some schools currently teach English in the English language, the typical Korean student currently receives no classes taught in English. The fact remains that the majority of Koreans remain far more likely to encounter written than spoken English, and a focus on spoken English may come at the expense of the ability to access knowledge written in English. The utility of this focus on spoken English is questionable. Finally and most crucially, it is exceedingly difficult to test spoken English skills.
With standardized testing at the core of Korean education, the question of testability is crucial to any addition to the school curriculum. One need only look to the example of the writing exam. Writing skills were stressed in the late 90s as an alternative or complement to standardized testing as a means of distinguishing high-quality students. It was reasoned that students who had mastered their subjects and were able to write convincing, logical papers based on that knowledge were better candidates for college admissions than those that merely achieved high scores through memorization. At its core was an earnest effort to escape from standardized testing and move towards a more comprehensive, holistic view of the student. The result, of course, was the rapid establishment of private institutes devoted to the teaching of formulaic answers to such essay questions. Students who had prepared in such a way were indistinguishable from those with actual writing skills. These schools teach a standard essay style that, if followed, would guarantee a satisfactory score, and thus defeated the purpose of the writing exam itself. There is every reason to expect that the same would occur with respect to a spoken English exam, with students learning to deliver the answers that provide the most points while avoiding answers that may betray the limits of their abilities.
The question over the direction of English education in Korea reached a crescendo at the beginning of 2008 with the inauguration of Lee Myung Bak. One of Lee’s campaign promises was to provide classes in English in public schools throughout the country. Something of a visionary leader, Lee refused to acknowledge the fact that people with the required English skills simply didn’t exist in the numbers required by his pledge. In March of 2008, two months into his administration, Lee conceded that English immersion education was ‘impossible’ given existing resources. Lee reinterpreted his own campaign pledge, saying “What I meant was that public English education should be able to fill the gap between those who have been abroad and received expensive classes and those who haven’t. English is needed to be competitive but I do not want people to run to cram schools to catch up.” (Korea Times, Mar. 21, 2008). The Ministry of Education at this time refused to make a statement to the effect that the capacity for English immersion education was insufficient, instead saying that it had assessed public opinion and determined that resources should be placed in programs likely to have the greatest impact. Those programs chosen over English immersion were online English education for sixteen schools in agricultural and fishing villages and four million won scholarships for 74,000 university students from the lowest income bracket.
This move away from English immersion and towards these two programs to help the least advantaged students in Korea is interesting. Immersion was popular among the middle class, which is burdened with a large proportion of the six trillion won that Koreans spend on English education every year. The alternative plans chosen do nothing to benefit this group, which was instrumental in Lee’s election. This suggests that, seeing the hopelessness of Lee’s English immersion promise, the Ministry was called upon to offer an alternative and that the alternative chosen came from within the Ministry rather than from the presidential administration or from public opinion polls. If this is the case, the result of this failed presidential initiative demonstrates a possible window into what the Ministry’s own vision for education in Korea might be.
If the aftermath of the English immersion eruption stands as an example of the Ministry skirting politicians to achieve its own goals, the movement to create English Villages stands as a perfect example of Ministry policy hijacked by political considerations. The first major English Village was established in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. Part Disney World, part Space Camp, part Colonial Williamsburg, the English Village is an attempt to stem the outward flow of education dollars by parents seeking English immersion for their children by building an environment where students can be surrounded by spoken English without leaving the country. The first English village was a huge initial success, and soon every region in the country was developing a plan for its own total immersion English village. In the name of balanced regional development, the Ministry was driven to grant licenses to nearly every English village proposal without regard to market considerations, such as whether or not there was a student pool large enough to sustain the villages or whether they served overlapping markets. The English Village craze peaked at the construction of 21 large-scale English villages around the country and countless smaller scale immersion facilities. Although initial hopes ran high, the revenue never materialized, and as of September 2008 every one of the 21 English villages in the country was operating at a loss.
While the desire to learn conversational English remains strong in Korea, there are disagreements about the nest way to achieve the goal. The past ten years has seen a huge influx of native speakers of English coming to Korea to teach spoken English. While many welcome them as a necessary part of English education, others fear that low standards and unsatisfactory recruitment methods lead to the entrance of so-called ‘unqualified English teachers’. The Ministry’s response to the 2007 discovery that a man later arrested for molesting his English students in Thailand had been teaching in English was to drastically increase the visa requirements for native English teachers. The Ministry required that all incoming English teachers submit to an in-person interview at a Korean consulate in their home country and provide a criminal background check. Ignored was the fact that these additional requirements would not have caught the teacher who started the controversy in the first place, as he had no criminal record. The initial Ministry mandated visa requirements were so strict that applicants from some country were actually unable to apply for visas to teach in Korea and had to be eased, another instance of the Ministry of Education putting public sentiment before thoughtful planning.
Intended to be the Ministry of Education’s slam dunk plan to provide English education, the English Program In Korea (EPIK) Program was created to provide a native English speaking teacher to every school in the nation by 2010 (한국일보, Nov. 12, 2007). The program has been viewed by many as a success, especially in terms of the quality of teachers that it brings to the country by offering pay and accommodations superior to those of the typical English institute. The Ministry promotes these high quality teachers with public relations offensives and by issuing awards such as ‘best native English teacher in Korea’, awarded in 2008 to Michael Balfour, a teacher in Jeju City (제주투데이, Nov. 12, 2008). The good name of the program have been tarnished, however, by problems of teacher supply. In 2008 there have been a number of salacious news articles about alleged drug use and sex abuse by English teachers in public schools. The Ministry’s response, while accurate, is insufficient. The Ministry asserted that EPIK will be expanded to include every school in the country by 2010, but at the moment EPIK provides only 9.9% of the nation’s schools with English teachers, the rest being provided by agencies of questionable repute which may fail to provide top quality teachers. This excuse is particularly weak considering that it is the Ministry which oversees the actions of such agencies, thus placing ultimate responsibility back in the Ministry’s hands.
College Entrance Exam Blues
As the case of English demonstrates, the Ministry of Education has a very bad track record of following through on its policy decisions. The regularity with which the Ministry changes its positions and abandons its goals is matched only by the inconsistency of the projections and statements made by its top officials. This simple common outcome is actually the result of a highly complex interplay of political, cultural and social factors.
While English is the most talked about example of the general trend of uncertainty and vacillation that one finds in the Ministry of Education’s actions, the most drastic example of how the shifting sands of education policy in Korea can harm is that of the ‘specimen room 89ers’ (‘표본실 89년생’). For students born in 1989, the effect of repeated changes in government education policy led to wasted time, wasted youth, and misdirected energy. The Ministry’s education plan for this class was released in October of 2004 and presented significant changes from previous years. The ‘cut line’ for elite schools were lowered, and the relative importance of school records was raised over college entrance exam scores. Many students who had focused on achieving high entrance exam scores at the expense of their school grades were believed to be disadvantaged by this change, which the government made in the name of leveling. The government soon found that entrance exam scores and school records alone were insufficient in locating what it defined as ‘the best students’ and a plan was released in the 89ers’ second of three years of high school to emphasize writing skills as a further method of determining the best students. In order to compensate, the Ministry of Education forced top universities to lower their minimum entrance exam score. The result of these repeated changes were, predictably, chaos.
Note that this was not the first time that the college entrance question became a national issue. Prior to the 2001 college entrance exam, Ministry officials had made statements indicating that the exam need not be as difficult as it had been in the past. The reason they cited was the fact that the exam was a mere indicator of a student’s future ability to commit him or herself to study rather than a test of knowledge or intelligence. Following these announcements, daily newspapers conducted public opinion surveys in which they found that most parents opposed the new, easier exams. The Ministry’s reaction was to follow the will of the people by issuing the most difficult exam of all time. The average score for the 2001 college entrance exam was 60 points below that of the previous year. Public reaction to the government’ sudden about face was so severe that the Minster of Education and others involved in the development of the exam publicly bowed in apology to the Korean people (University News Network).
The story of Korean college entrance doesn’t end with college entrance criteria. There is an additional question of school choice, not in terms of a student’s ability to choose the school they attend but rather the discretion of schools to choose students. This question came to the forefront in 2007, when colleges began pushing for more ability to develop their own criteria for choosing students. The Ministry initially strongly opposed this move, citing the fact that the Ministry is currently in total control of the proportions of each criterion that enters into the student selection process.
Continued pressure from universities and the entrance of the Lee Myung Bak administration led to a change in the Ministry’s official position. Lee planned to change college admissions with a number of new policies. He pledged to decrease the number of subjects from seven to five, and vowed that universities would have full autonomy with regard to both admissions criteria and student recruitment (by region, income bracket, etc.). Lee threatened to abolish the Ministry altogether, and subsequently softened his stance to merely severely downsizing the Ministry. None of these pledges came to pass. The Ministry itself eventually announced that it would allow school choice in January of 2008, but the announcement wasn’t followed up with concrete action (The Korea Times, Jan. 2, 2008). In July of the same year the Minister of Education embarrassed himself and the Ministry by telling a Conference on College Education that the Ministry would ensure that student bodies reflected the broader society, and two hours later telling a group of professors that the Ministry would ‘protect school freedom’. At the conference he vowed to raise the weight of school records from 30% to 50% in the college entrance process, while he told the professors’ group that schools should be able to determine the weight of entrance criteria. Finally, at a third meeting two days later he said the Ministry would raise the weight of school records to 40-60% (매일경제, Jul. 7, 2008).
Do these inconsistencies demonstrate pandering, or do they reflect a lack of concrete ideas at the heart of the Ministry’s education policies? The fact that the numbers changed within two days suggests a good deal of the former, while the assertion that the Ministry would grant school choice even as the issue of what weight to give school records was clearly being considered suggests the former. Both situations spell trouble for the Ministry.