The $4 million teacher

South Korea’s “rock-star teacher” earns $4 million a year, writes Amanda Ripley in the Wall Street Journal.  Kim Ki-Hoon teaches in a private, after-school tutoring academy or hagwon.

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

“The harder I work, the more I make,” he says matter of factly. “I like that.”

Some 150,000 students watch Mr. Kim’s lectures online each year, hoping to raise their college admissions scores. He employs 30 people and runs a publishing company to produce his books.

Hagwons compete to hire top teachers and pay them based on the number of students they attract, students’ progress and student evaluations.

In a survey, teenagers gave their hagwon teachers better scores than their regular teachers.

Hagwon teachers were better prepared, more devoted to teaching and more respectful of students’ opinions, the teenagers said. Interestingly, the hagwon teachers rated best of all when it came to treating all students fairly, regardless of the students’ academic performance.

Private tutors are also more likely to experiment with new technology and nontraditional forms of teaching.

Nearly three of every four South Korean kids use hagwons, writes Ripley. In 2012, their parents spent more than $17 billion on tutoring.

South Korean students rank at the top on international tests.

Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way follows Americans going to school in South Korea, Finland and Poland, The book will come out Aug. 13.

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  1. “Nearly three of every four South Korean kids use hagwons, writes Ripley. In 2012, their parents spent more than $17 billion on tutoring.”

    This is something to be remembered the next time someone claims that Korean schools are better than ours. It’s not the schools, it’s the motivation and effort of the students and parents.

    • Yeah well, that’s not the only thing that ought to be remembered.

      Korean public schools were sufficiently inadequate that Korean parents thought it wise to spend $17 billion to make sure their kids were adequately educated.

      What fascinates me is why there’s still a Korean public education system if it’s so clearly seen as second rate? Maybe the Koreans will all wake up one morning and be struck by the realization that it’s pretty stupid to fund two education systems, one public and inadequate and another private and superior, and just do away with the also ran.

      • They don’t think there is anything wrong with their schools. The same thing occurs in many Asian cultures…the kids go to school for up to 8 hours a day, and then the ones who can afford it, sacrifice so their children can go to several hours of afterschool tutoring a day. The goal is not to make up for substandard schools, the goal is to out compete all the other students and get into the best schools.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          3 out of 4 students attend a hogwan. They’re hardly getting any sort of advantage if 75% of them are attending. I bet the distinction is in the hogwan the kid attends. More prestigious more money – much like private schools in the US.

          • When I was in high school, you only practiced the sport you were playing during that season. In the off season you played other sports or did other activities. Then some high schools began off season practices and weight training to get an advantage. Today, most high schools have off season practice and weight training programs. The early adopters are looking for an advantage, and if there is one, the practice becomes the norm.

        • What they’re trying to “out compete” on is the high stakes testing set up by the government. If the government schools were adequate preparation for those tests there wouldn’t be any market for the hagwons. The smart kids would do better and the dumb kids would do worse. The hagwons are clearly offering something not offered by the government schools or Korean parents are pretty stupid.

          I don’t think Korean parents are stupid.

          Rather more likely is that, like government schools everywhere, they’re only as good as they have to be to avoid adverse controversy and criticism. And really, why would they be any better then that? It’s not like there’s anything to be gained by, as a teacher, working harder and smarter. The same paycheck arrives whether you’re a superstar or a putz.

          A government education system doesn’t require teachers to be putzes, neither does it put much in the way of impediments for those inclined in that direction.

  2. To argue that South Korean parents use hagwons because they believe their schools are sufficiently inadequate is incredibly naive and reflects a deep ignorance about Asian culture, society, and education systems. Having lived and taught in Southeast Asia, I will attest that these parents are not disappointed in their schools or that they feel they are inadequate. The humility and social pressure of their culture leads them to believe that despite excellent schools or teachers, they fear they (or their children) are inadequate despite their education system. Thus, they attend “cram schools” to make up for their own inadequacies – and it’s motivated by the high stakes testing environment which severely limits who can access how much education. This is radically different than the America system – which is often sufficiently inadequate. Though in the United States, parents too often accept inadequate schools out of the convenience of neighborhood access. The prominence of cram schools in Southeast Asia has nothing to do with parents’ disappointment in their public schools. Nothing. Asian parents don’t think in terms of “smart and dumb” kids; that’s an American convention. They believe in hard work, and they believe anyone one can be the top student if he simply works hard enough. In surveys of parents in both countries, Asian parents view academic success as a result of effort, whereas Caucasian parents are more inclined to see academic success – especially in terms of math – as more of an innate ability. Thus, Asian parents think more school is better, whereas Caucasian parents believe “if he doesn’t do well in math, he’s just not math oriented.” Again, the hagwon culture has nothing to do with parent perception of school quality. And to believe so is to attempt to view all cultures and countries as exactly the same, which is incredibly myopic and biased. Viewing Asian school systems and culture through a middle class, white American lens is quite foolish and misinformed.