Ministry of Education, The Term Paper (Part 5)

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What’s Wrong?

Koreans are known wherever they go for their passion for education. This diligence and passion for education is not the core of education. Such diligence can be applied to education systems good and bad, to the learning of both the useful and the useless. The gwageo exam and the culture it inspired lives on in Korea in many forms. High school students devote their youth to the memorization of vast bodies of information in order to successfully pass the suneung, the national college entrance examination. Those who wish to become a civil servant today are required to take a comprehensive exam encompassing subjects of little relevance to the job itself. The fireman’s exam, for example, includes sections testing both English and Korean history. Even large companies, most notably Samsung, administer their own tests. Study guides for the SamSung Aptitude Test (SSAT) can be bought wherever books are sold. It is the implied consensus that mastering vast bodies of information is a prerequisite for the most attractive positions in society and the demonstrated ability to do so is one of the best criteria for selection of top candidates from among large pools of applicants.

James Collins’ Good to Great discusses the ‘hedgehog concept’, a focus on one simple practice or process that one does so well that all the clever counter-measures in the world are rendered useless against it. In the field of education, one may imagine that the most likely hedgehog concept would be ‘provide a high quality education’, and in most every case that would be a correct assumption. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons that is simply not possible in South Korea. Because of the position that the existing education system occupies in society there is little chance for fundamental change. It is unthinkable that the college entrance exam be dismantled and few Koreans would agree with any such proposal. Because of the passion of the Korean parent, any possible replacement for the college entrance exam would be subject to the same strategic studying that has turned the suneung into a no holds barred memorization competition. Most people know what the problem is, they’ve seen the solution profiled on TV news magazine programs and they actively seek the right kind of education, finances permitting. And yet the system itself resists change.

Despite the commonly heard sentiment that the focus on testing is detrimental to the future of education in Korea, the situation is getting worse rather than better. In October of 2008 the government revived a suneung-like exam for third grade elementary school students that had been abandoned ten years previously. The reaction from the Korean Teachers Union and some parents was outrage, and some parents and teachers boycotted the exam. The parents of nearly 600,000 students at 5,756 schools, however, made sure their children were ready for the exam (The Korea Times, Oct. 8, 2008).

So who are the vested interests keeping the country test-based? Does the Ministry benefit from failing to provide the kind of education that parents know they should prefer? Do parents of children who test well and those whose success in life began with a high suneung score perpetuate the system? The answer is that, for all the arguments against the college entrance exam as it exists today, it does what it is designed to do, which is rank every graduating high school student in in indisputable order from top to bottom in a way which is more or less fair, if only on paper. Whether or not that is what’s wanted by the individual students or needed by industry, that is what South Korea, an extremely low trust and class conscious society with exacting standards of fairness, demands of the Ministry of Education.

What’s Right?

It is impossible to label the Ministry of Education a failure. Korean students consistently rank in the top of international math and science skills rankings and the Korean economy rests on the back of Korea’s disciplined, hard working and well educated population. The point of this paper thus far has been to enumerate what is wrong with the system, but the fact remains that Korea’s education system has played a role in the development of the country. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education has shown itself to be aware of the direction in which it must move in the future, as have the Korean Teachers Union and the Korean public. Furthermore in the wake of Lee Myung Bak’s attempt to institute English language education the Ministry demonstrated that it has a vision of its role, however infrequently it may have the opportunity to express that vision. The building blocks for change are all there.

What’s Next?

The potential for education reform in Korea is palpable. The public is unhappy with the current system. Every political party makes education reform a top priority. But is education reform likely to succeed in the Korean political environment? The conclusion of this paper is that education reform is likely to fail for reasons having nothing to do with education. Political realities make education reform in Korea impossible, simply because a more modern education system would require evaluation methods too subjective to satisfy Korea’s low trust culture. Parents would never accept their children’s grades if they felt that there was any room for negotiation. Decreasing the difficulty of the college entrance exam and raising the weighting of writing scores, school records or any other criterion would raise the fairness question to a level of prominence that would nullify any of the perceived benefits of a more comprehensive evaluation.

That said, solutions should be sought to the problems of fairness, fostering the elite versus raising the standard, balanced regional development, the prominence of standardized testing that take the sociopolitical landscape into account rather than throwing an egg against a rock.

Ministry of education policies most likely to work are those that achieve the goal of improving the education system while still keeping the political environment in mind. The future of education should be to synthesize the need for elite, world-class education with the political demands of fairness and balanced regional development. Projects like the New University of Regional Innovation Project, which brings the needs of the education system in line with the conditions of Korean politics by attempting to foster elite programs within the context of balanced regional development, are a step in the right direction.

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~ by Joshing on December 19, 2008.

One Response to “Ministry of Education, The Term Paper (Part 5)”

  1. thanks for the PDF link

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