South Korea: Kids, stop studying so hard!

South Korea is enforcing a cram-school curfew, writes Time’s Amanda Ripley, who embeds with government inspectors on a hagwon raid. Tutoring sessions are supposed to end by 10 pm.

South Korea’s hagwon crackdown is one part of a larger quest to tame the country’s culture of educational masochism. At the national and local levels, politicians are changing school testing and university admissions policies to reduce student stress and reward softer qualities like creativity.

In 2010, 74 percent of students received private after-school instruction at an average cost of $2,600 per year.  There are more tutors than teachers in South Korea.

South Korean students are the best in the world on international reading and math tests. (Mellow Finland does well too.)

But the country’s leaders worry that unless its rigid, hierarchical system starts to nurture more innovation, economic growth will stall – and fertility rates will continue to decline as families feel the pressure of paying for all that tutoring. “You Americans see a bright side of the Korean system,” Education Minister Lee Ju-ho tells me, “but Koreans are not happy with it.”

South Korean students are encouraged to stay up late studying and sleep in class, Ripley writes. “The typical academic schedule begins at 8 a.m. and ends sometime from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., depending on the ambition of the student.”

When I visited some schools, I saw classrooms in which a third of the students slept while the teacher continued lecturing, seemingly unfazed. Gift stores sell special pillows that slip over your forearm to make desktop napping more comfortable.

Success in South Korea requires winning a spot in a top university.  To reduce the incentives to cram, “500 admissions officers have been appointed to the country’s universities, to judge applicants not only on their test scores and grades but also other abilities,” Ripley writes.

Still hagwons are responding to the curfew by putting lessons online so students can study late at home. Other hagwons claim to be “self-study” libraries to evade the 10 pm curfew. Accompanying government inspectors, Ripley sees 40 teenagers sitting in carrels in “a warren of small study rooms with low ceilings and fluorescent lights.” The air is stale. “It is a disturbing scene, sort of like a sweatshop for children’s brains,” she writes.

 

Brill v. Ravitch

Class Warfare author Steven Brill debated Diane Ravitch on C-SPAN. Ravitch blamed poverty for low U.S. scores compared to rival countries, saying affluent U.S. students do as well as Finns and Koreans.

Big deal, responds Matthew Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog. Our best students do as well as the average for all of their students.

No mention of how the very wealthiest schools in America compare to the very wealthiest schools in Finland and South Korea, or that our African-American kids score closer to the average score in Mexico than that in Finland.

The gap between high-scoring and low-scoring U.S. students is wide compared to most of our high-scoring competitors.

Compared to what?

The National Research Council report dissing test-based accountability is misleading, writes Eric Hanushek in Education Next. The report proclaims:

Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.

The report actually finds evidence that suggests positive impacts for accountability, he writes. OK, it hasn’t turned us into Finland or South Korea. But it’s helped.

Why would we discard an effective program just because it falls short of our hopes of producing the world’s best education?

. . . Nowhere does the report indicate an alternative educational program that leads to as large an improvement in overall U.S. achievement as accountability. Nowhere does the report suggest any single program or package of reforms that would close the achievement gap with the highest performing countries. Nowhere does the report really make the case that alternative reform packages should not include an accountability component.

The report dismisses estimated achievement gains of 0.08 standard deviations as insignificant. Even very small gains have very big pay-offs, Hanushek writes. “If the future follows the patterns we have seen historically, the present value of achievement gains of this magnitude would be over $13 trillion.”

“Existing but imperfect accountability schemes could be modified in order to improve on the first generation of plans,” Hanushek adds, but the NRC panel ignored this possibility.

Test scores should be audited independently to prevent cheating, writes Herbert Walberg in the Washington Times.

World’s best classrooms are low-tech

In nations with the highest-performing students, classrooms “contain very little tech wizardry,” writes Amanda Ripley on Slate Magazine.  “Children sit at rows of desks, staring up at a teacher who stands in front of a well-worn chalkboard,” just like in U.S. classrooms in 1989 or 1959.

“In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,” says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

Kristin De Jesus, a San Diego high school student, is attending a public school in South Korea as an exchange student.

“In California, we use white boards, while in Korea they use chalkboards,” she says. “There is a dirt field outside. We have a projector, that’s about it.” Back home, teachers would hand out Mac laptops for kids to work on in class. But in Korea, the only computers are older PCs, and they remain in the computer lab, which is used only once a week for computer class.

Korean students attend school for eight or nine hours a day and then study hard at night.  “When I was in California, I barely ever studied and did pretty well in my classes,” De Jesus admits.

Finland also excels on international tests — but without long school hours or high pressure, Ripley notes. Both South Korea and Finland have one thing in common: Smart teachers. All teachers come from the top third of the class,  according to a McKinsey survey which found only 23 percent of U.S. teachers were top-third students.

On a visit to a high-performing KIPP school in Washington, D.C., Ripley counted four computers in a fifth-grade math class, “an ink-jet printer, and an overhead projector that looked to be at least 15 years old.”

Later, I asked (Lisa) Suben, who has been teaching for eight years, what the perfect classroom would look like. “If I were designing my ideal classroom, there’d be another body teaching. Or there’d be 36 hours in the day instead of 24.”

Suben praises computer-adaptive tests, which produce instant results she can use to understand how each student is doing.”It might say, ‘You know how to round to the hundreds, but you don’t know how to round to the thousands?’ That’s, for me, an aha moment.”  But Suben’s desert-island teaching tool is the overhead projector. “I wouldn’t be able to give up the overhead, because then I’d have to turn my back to the class,” she said.

KIPP DC founder Susan Schaeffler, a former teacher, says it would cost $300,000 to put an interactive white board in every classroom in the school.  “I’d rather pay Lisa Suben more to stay forever.”

Few teachers come from top of the class

Singapore, Finland and South Korea, all countries with high-performing school systems,  recruit teachers from the top third of college graduates.  In the U.S.,  only 23 percent of teachers are top graduates; that falls to 14 percent in high-poverty schools. A majority attend colleges that admit virtually all applicants.  So concludes a report by the McKinsey consulting firm.

For top U.S. graduates, teachers salaries aren’t competitive with other careers.  The average teacher starts at $39,000 and peaks at $67,000.

In contrast, starting salaries in Singapore are more competitive, and teachers can receive retention bonuses of $10,000 to $36,000 every three to five years, the report says. Teachers also receive merit-based bonuses and increases, ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent of their base salaries. In South Korea, teachers receive salaries that would translate to between $55,000 and $155,000 in the United States, it says.

Teaching lacks prestige in the U.S., the report adds.

“Smart, capable people have to feel confident they will work with other smart, capable people,” responded Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality,

By contrast, in Finland, the process for becoming a teacher is “extremely competitive,” and “only about one in 10 applicants is accepted to become a teacher,” according to the McKinsey report. Applicants to education schools are drawn from the top 20 percent of high school classes and must pass several exams and interviews. In Finland, “teaching is the most admired profession among top students, outpolling law and medicine,” it says.

Teacher attrition is very low in Singapore and even lower in South Korea, the report notes.

The U.S. could attract more top graduates by “subsidizing teacher-preparation tuition costs; ensuring more effective administration and training opportunities in high-need schools; improving teachers’ working conditions; and providing performance bonuses of up to 20 percent,” McKinsey suggests. A pricier alternative would be to raise pay substantially, starting new teachers at $65,000 and offering a maximum salary of $150,000.

Keeping top-level teachers is another challenge. If working conditions are lousy, smart people with options won’t stick around, even for high pay.

Half of current teachers are expected to retire in the next 10 years. Who will replace them?

China, Singapore are 'ugly models'

Americans should stop envying the education system in Singapore and China, argues Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago philosophy and law professor, in The New Republic. For any nation that aspires to remain a democracy, Singapore and China are ugly models, she argues.

Rote learning and teaching to the test are so common in Singapore and China that both nations are worried their graduates lack the “analytical abilities, active problem-solving, and the imagination required for innovation,” Nussbaum writes.

In 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Education proposed a “New Curriculum” that is supposed to “[c]hange the overemphasis on … rote memorization and mechanical drill. Promote instead students’ active participation, their desire to investigate, and eagerness … to analyze and solve problems.”

Singapore, similarly, reformed its education policy in 2003 and 2004, allegedly moving away from rote learning toward a more “child-centered” approach in which children are understood as “proactive agents.” Rejecting “repetitious exercises and worksheets,” the reformed curriculum conceives of teachers as “co-learners with their students, instead of providers of solutions.” It emphasizes both analytical ability and “aesthetics and creative expression, environmental awareness … and self and social awareness.”

The reforms haven’t been implemented: Teacher pay is  linked to test scores and teachers find it easier to “follow a formula.”

In both nations, there is no freedom to criticize the government or the political system.  Singapore’s citizenship education consists of analyzing why the government’s policy is correct, she writes.

Singapore and China aren’t producing the innovators their economies will need, Nussbaum argues. They suppress “imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it.”

Nussbaum recommends South Korea and India for those looking for an Asian education model. I thought both put a lot of emphasis on tests.


Mellow Finns, studious Koreans

Why do Finland’s schools get the best results? The Finns top international comparisons with the shortest school day in the developed world, reports the BBC.

Children don’t start primary school till age seven and stay at the same school till age 13. Teachers follow the children for several years, so they know their students very well. “I’m like growing up with my children,” says Marjaana Arovaara-Heikkinen, an elementary teachers.

A tactic used in virtually every lesson is the provision of an additional teacher who helps those who struggle in a particular subject. But the pupils are all kept in the same classroom, regardless of their ability in that particular subject.

The education minister has started a pilot project to focus on the needs of gifted students.

Finnish parents often read with their children at home and have “regular contact with their children’s teachers, the BBC says.

By contrast, South Korea’s school day is very long. Students work very hard. And also get top scores in international tests.