Korea’s school secrets

Korean students ranked first in the world in reading, third in math and fifth in science on the PISA exams. In South Korea for five months on a fellowship, Washington Post reporter Michael Alison Chandler is blogging about the Korean education system on Confucian Times.

Anthony Jackson, vice president for education at the Asia Society, explained why he thought Korea and other East Asian countries scored so well. The top-scoring countries have some things in common:

*An emphasis on teacher quality – Hiring teachers from the top of their class, and training them well

*An emphasis on equity — Making sure that all schools have access to quality teachers

*Longer school days and/or longer school years — By the time they are ready for college some of these students have logged an extra year in the classroom (And were are talking about public schools, not private tutoring here.)

*Greater coordination of academic standards and higher standards for all students (In the US, it’s traditionally been every locality and state for himself).

In addition, as many as three-quarters of Korean students attend cram schools or tutoring, Chandler writes. korean culture makes success in school very, very important.

By the way, some commenters have suggested PISA tests the top students in foreign countries but tests a wide range of U.S. students. That’s not true. A lot of effort goes into testing a representative sample of students in each participating country.

Thanks to Alexander Russo for pointing out Chandler’s blog.

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  1. I was one of those commentators that suggested that and it’s based on my having lived overseas for several years.

    Many countries aggressively track students in ways that we would/could never do in the US.

    Many countries have a high stakes test that students take at about age 13 that essentially determine the level of education for what would be our high schools. Or if they even attend school at that age.

    So, the question is not whether the PISA is representative of the students, but it is representative of the demographics of the country. (Which is more reflective of what the US testees are, with respect to the PISA.)

    I’m still suspicious.

  2. On the other hand, Finns do NOT spend much time on schoolwork— but have a culture that values education.

    The common denominator seems to be cultural values.

    So, how does one go about changing the culture?

  3. “In addition, as many as three-quarters of Korean students attend cram schools or tutoring, Chandler writes. korean culture makes success in school very, very important.”

    This. You cannot discuss education in Korea or Japan without addressing cram schools.

  4. Thunderchief68 says:

    To paraphrase the campaign slogan of a previous presidential administration, “It’s the culture stupid.” I see it every day in my classroom. We can implement reform out our a__, throw additional billions of greenbacks at our educational system it will go for naught. Stating the obvious, the culture of valuing education value starts at home and until the majority of children arrive in the system with that value inculcated in their bones we’ll still be reforming in the next millennium.

  5. And, of course, the kids who don’t value education and see school as something to blow off ruin the learning experience for the kids who DO care.

    Perhaps we should just seperate schools into two sub schools– the ‘want to be here’ school and the ‘don’t want to be here’ school. The kids who are willing to show up and work (or at least not disrupt) can spend the day in the classroom. The kids who are disruptive can spend the day sitting in a ‘rubber room’ with nothing to do but stare at the walls. Each day, we could let the kids choose whether they wanted to be in the classroom or the rubber room–they could be sent to the rubber room at any time of day, and have to remain there for the rest of the day.

    Once we had the disruptors permenantly out of class, teachers could foc us on the kids who wanted to learn, or the kids who at least didn’t MIND learning, if they had to be in the building anyway…….

  6. superdestroyer says:


    the initial way to get the right culture is to make high school voluntary. Do not check role and make no effort to keep troublemakers in school. Also, is a student acts up in a voluntary high school, show them the door. In the end, there will be fewer disruptive students and the total academic improvement of students will increase.

  7. I agree with Deidre and Super. Teachers can pour energy into trying to fix the anti-school kids, but the yield on investment, in my experience, is abysmally low. Why keep the disruptors in a situation where they gain no benefit and cause a lot of harm? Were they sent to a rubber room, some would wake up and reform themselves –probably at a greater rate than if they were kept in the regular classroom. With a rubber room (or a drop-out option), all public schools would become veritable KIPPs overnight. It would be a much bigger boon to American education than all of Gates and Duncan’s reforms combined!

  8. Two years ago I tutored an 11 year-old Korean girl whose mother brought her to Hawaii for a year of English language immersion (really. That’s why they were here. Father stayed home and paid the bills). Cute as a bug and the sweetest little woman you’d ever meet. She played violin and recorder, and got proof by induction the first time I showed her an example. She had been enrolled in a university-affiliated G/T program not attached to any conventional school and was going to have to test into it again or enroll in a conventional schoolwhen she went back.
    If the Korean government spots her talent, she’ll become a policy planner for their State Department or some such and we’ll never hear of her again.

  9. It’s cultural and it’s rigid competition for spots in higher education. The cram schools are clear evidence. When I was Asia in the 90s, Seoul used to shut down air traffic – nationwide – for thirty minutes while high school and college students took the “listening” portion of the English section on their national exams.

    That’s the difference – and it is as vast as the ocean that separates our two countries.

  10. Diedre, you are forgetting that the courts have upheld the property right to education for students. So showing them the door is tough, as they have a constitutional right to blow off their education – they paid their taxes.

  11. Mm- But that means when they’re disruptive and undisciplined, they’re depriving OTHER students of their right to an education!

    I’m open to leaving well-behaved but unmotivated kids in the classroom — they don’t ruin it for everyone else. The problem is the students who actively work to UNDERMINE order and discipline in the classroom.

    An improvement on my earlier ‘rubber room’ theory. Individual cubicles, where the audio from lectures is piped in but where there is NOTHING ELSE TO DO.

    In my experience, what HS students most detest is BOREDOM and isiolation from their peers (some of my worst students HATED Snow days, because they were stuck at home away from their friends.

    So the key is to make the disruptors see that behaving in class is preferable to ‘rubber rooms’

  12. Also, we’d get more educated teachers if we had better discipline. The reason new teachers burn out so quickly is because discipline is exahusting and miserable, and because in most cases parents are actively working against you.

    If we want to be like Korea or Scandinavia and keep good teachers, we need to make teaching more appealing than getting a job as an administrative assistant (where you don;t use your subject-area knowledge, but hey, at least you’re not exhausted and burned out at the end of the day, so you can curl up with interesting ideas in the evening!)

  13. One thing I’d like to see more widespread in public schools is the Waldorf school policy of having parents sign a contract that their children will not watch TV, movies, video games, etc. during the school year. That would be very bad news for advertisers but very good news for educators.

  14. Oh, I’m with you, Dierdre. I like the Joe Clark approach as well.

    However, fair and equal access – and restrictions on just how easily schools can revoke classroom privileges – will prevent the kind of discipline you’d like to see. And public schools can’t do what Waldorf does – that’s why Waldorf is private. However, charter schools have had success with contracts. But it can’t become the norm because the kids who can’t cut it still have a legal right to their education – and opinions of “disruptive” is relative, especially when minority kids are disproportionately suspended and expelled for behavior.

    We simply and literally aren’t going to be like Korea or Finland.

  15. CarolineSF says:

    Crimson Wife, my kids had a friend at Waldorf at the time that the Harry Potter movies were starting to come out, and they grilled her quizzically about why the Waldorf kids were allowed to read the Harry Potter books but not see the movie. The Waldorf girl just shrugged and rolled her eyes. Personally I thought my kids were the ones being encouraged to do the critical thinking — what WOULD be a rational explanation for that?

  16. Reading stimulates the imagination while screen-based entertainment tends to deaden it. The late Neil Postman wrote an excellent book on the topic called Amusing Ourselves to Death.

    I do permit limited amounts of screen time (the occasional DVD, trip to the movies, fitness games on the Wii) but I’d be willing to give that up in order to comply with a contract from a school. The benefits would vastly outweigh the costs IMHO.

  17. It is my impression that both Korean and Finnish kids come from intact, two-parent families, unlike American kids.If true, it would be a big advantage. Does anyone have data for that ?

  18. Proving again that denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Sure, culture matters. Sure, teachers matter. Sure, all that diligent work matters.

    But so too does IQ and basic potential.

    Ask how people of Finnish and Korean descent do in the United States, when they’re immersed in our culture.

  19. Reading stimulates the imagination while screen-based entertainment tends to deaden it. The late Neil Postman wrote an excellent book on the topic called Amusing Ourselves to Death.

    I’ve read that book, too (a long time) back. I don’t remember much data (in the form of studies, and then confirming studies), though, although the book was well written.

    I have found that History, Nature and Science documentaries can be super good adjuncts to a written curriculum. The “Building Big” series by David Macaulay, for example. And the “Engineering and Empire” series. And “Universe”. And “Walking with Dinosaurs.”

    I can imagine teaching about these subjects and *not* showing any videos, but I think the teaching would be weaker for it (and no, I don’t have any studies, either!).

    -Mark Roulo

  20. I agree about the documentaries. We usually borrow one or two a week from our local library (we don’t have cable/satellite). But I think it would be much more feasible for a school to have a blanket ban on media than to wade into the thicket of determining which specific programs are okay and which aren’t. I’d give up the history and science DVD’s if it reduced the secondhand exposure to inappropriate media via their peers. If all parents were conscientious about keeping their kids away from inappropriate media, then it wouldn’t be an issue.

  21. It is one thing to use a good video as an adjunct to written classwork and discussion and another to substitute the one for the other. My kids loved the Macaulay videos( “Cathedral”, “Castle” and “Roman City”) but they were each shown only after we had read, studied and discussed the books. As an adjunct, videos have a lot to offer; metamorphosis, plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanos, plays, historical footage of speeches, events, battles etc. but they should never take the place of reading, writing and actual instruction.

  22. Ha ha. Silly courts. “A right to an education” is as unrealistic as a right to 100 IQ points. The poor dears in black robes are confusing schooling seat time with education. Or worse.

    Remember that in the movie The Wizard of Oz the wizard couldn’t give Scarecrow a brain but he could give Scarecrow a diploma.