I’ve started reading The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way and the author follows a Midwestern exchange student to high school in Korea. Here’s what it is like…
A few minutes later, he glanced backwards at the rows of students behind him. Then he looked again, eyes wide. A third of the class was asleep. Not nodding off, but flat-out, no-apology sleeping, with their heads down on the desks. One girl actually had her head on a special pillow that slipped over her forearm. This was pre-meditated napping. How could this be? Eric had read all about the hard-working Koreans who trounced the Americans in math, reading, and science. He hadn’t read anything about shamelessly sleeping through class.
Next was science class. Once again, at least a third of the class went to sleep. It was almost farcical. How did Korean kids get those record-setting test scores if they spent so much of their time asleep in class?
Soon he discovered the purpose of the teacher’s backscratcher. It was the Korean version of wake-up call. Certain teachers would lightly tap kids on the head when they fell asleep or talked in class. The kids called it a “love stick.”
At ten past two, Eric left school early. Since he was an exchange student, he was exempt from having to experience the full force of the Korean school day. He asked one of his classmates what would happen after he left. “We keep going to school.” Eric looked at him blankly. “Until when?” “Classes end at ten after four,” he said.
Then he went on: After classes, the kids cleaned the school, mopping the floors, wiping the chalkboards, and emptying the garbage. The kids who had received demerits—for misbehaving or letting their hair grow too long—had to wear red pinnies and clean the bathrooms. Work, including the unpleasant kind, was at the center of Korean school culture, and no one was exempt. At four thirty, everyone settled back in their seats for test-prep classes, in anticipation of the college entrance exam. Then they ate dinner in the school cafeteria. After dinner came yaja, a two hour period of study loosely supervised by teachers. Most kids reviewed their notes from the day or watched online test-prep lectures, as the teachers roamed the hallways and confiscated the occasional illicit iPod. Around nine in the evening, Eric’s classmates finally left Namsan. But the school day still wasn’t over. At that point, most kids went to private tutoring academies known as hagwons. That’s where they did most of their real learning, the boy said. They took more classes there until eleven, the city’s hagwon curfew. Then—finally—they went home to sleep for a few hours before reporting back to school at eight the next morning.
Even over summer break, libraries got so crowded that kids had to get tickets to get a space. Many paid $4 to rent a small air-conditioned carrel in the city’s plentiful supply of for-profit self-study libraries. Korea’s sky-high PISA scores were mostly a function of students’ tireless efforts, Lee [an education minister] believed, not the country’s schools.
How far have they come?
the country had no history of excelling in math. In fact, the vast majority of its citizens were illiterate as recently as the 1950s. When the country began rebuilding its schools after the Korean War, the Korean language did not even have words for modern concepts in math and science. New words had to be coined before textbooks could be published. In 1960, Korea had a student-teacher ratio of fifty-nine to one. Only a third of Korean kids even went to middle school. Poverty predicted academic failure. If PISA had existed back then, the United States would have trounced Korea in every subject.
Listening to Lee, I realized that the rest of the world could learn as much from what worked in Korea as from what didn’t work. First, countries could change. That was hopeful. Korea had raised its expectations for what kids could do despite epidemic poverty and illiteracy. Korea did not wait to fix poverty before radically improving its education system, including its teacher colleges. This faith in education and people had catapulted Korea into the developed world.
What happens when it is time for college?
University admissions were based on students’ skills as measured by the test. Full stop. Nobody got accepted because he was good at sports or because his parents had gone there. It was, in a way, more meritocratic than many U.S. colleges had ever been.
It was an extreme meritocracy for children that hardened into a caste system for adults. Even when more universities opened, the public continued to fixate on the top three.
How much does it cost?
Per student, Korean taxpayers spent half as much money as American taxpayers on schools, but Korean families made up much of the difference out of their own pockets.
Are the students happy?
One Sunday morning during that school year, a teenager named Ji stabbed his mother in the neck in their home in Seoul. He did it to stop her from going to a parent-teacher conference. He was terrified that she’d find out that he’d lied about his latest test scores.
According to his test scores, Ji ranked in the top 1 percent of all high school students in the country, but, in absolute terms, he still placed four thousandth nationwide. His mother had insisted he must be number one at all costs, Ji said. When his scores had disappointed her in the past, he said, she’d beaten him and withheld food. In response to the story, many Koreans sympathized more with the living son than the dead mother. Commentators projected their own sour memories of high school onto Ji’s crime. Some went so far as to accuse the mother of inviting her own murder. A Korea Times editorial described the victim as “one of the pushy ‘tiger’ mothers who are never satisfied with their children’s school records no matter how high their scores.” As for Ji, he confessed to police immediately, weeping as he described how his mother had haunted his dreams after he’d killed her. At the trial, the prosecutor asked for a fifteen-year prison sentence. The judge, citing mitigating circumstances, sentenced the boy to three and a half years.
Is a country where every bureaucrat is good at math able to sort out bad teachers from the good ones?
To elevate the profession, Lee rolled out a new teacher evaluation scheme to give teachers useful feedback and hold them accountable for results.
Korea’s teacher evaluation scheme did not include student test-score growth; officials I talked to seemed to want to use this data, but they didn’t know how to assign accountability, since so many students had multiple teachers, including outside tutors, instructing them in the same subjects.) Under Korea’s new rules, low-scoring teachers were supposed to be retrained. But, as in U.S. districts where reformers have tried imposing similar strategies, teachers and their unions fought back, calling the evaluations degrading and unfair. Pretty policies on paper turned toxic in practice. As a form of protest, some Korean teachers gave all their peers the highest possible reviews. In 2011, less than 1 percent of Korea’s teachers were actually sent for retraining, and some simply refused to go.
What does the author think that we can learn from this system?
As Eric [the exchange student from Minnesota] had noticed on his first day, Korean schools existed for one and only one purpose: so that children could master complex academic material. It was an obvious difference. U.S. schools, by contrast, were about many things, only one of which was learning. This lack of focus made it easy to lose sight of what mattered most.
it was clear that the real innovation in Korea was not happening in the government or the public schools. It was happening in Korea’s shadow education system—the multimillion-dollar afterschool tutoring complex that Lee was trying to undermine.
More: read the book.