What Korea's 'Race to the Top' does to Korean children

[Editor's Note: The following essay by an Indiana professor who just spent a year in Korea was posted by Jim Horn to Schools Matterat 12/08/2009 08:54:00 AM. George N. Schmidt, Editor, Substance.

Introduction by Jim Horn: As middle class Korean parents battle to get their children out of the kind of testing sweatshopsthat characterize Korean schools in particular and Asian schools in general, American education, now highjacked by the Crooks of the Business Roundtable, want to turn American schools into the same kind of testing boot camps that breed total compliance and unswerving fealty to career advancement. Read this op-ed from Prof. Sheena Choi, just back from a Korean visit.]

Korea's test prep schools

By Sheena Choi

As it has done numerous times in the past, America is once again looking to education for solutions to national social and economic problems. While education is in need of reform, it is worthwhile to pause and reconsider the educational reforms we are engaging in, especially high-stakes tests.

Since the 1980s, the U.S. has been fascinated with the economic miracle of the Newly Industrialized Countries of East Asia. Along with economic growth, these countries score high on international standardized tests. Recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TMSS) scores find U.S. students “still lag behind” those in East Asian countries. The TIMSS average score is 500, with Koreans scoring the highest at 597, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. American students scored 508, lower than the Russian Federation at 512.

I can appreciate Americans wanting to do better, but do they know the price these Asian countries are paying for higher test scores?

Recently, I spent a year as a Fulbright Researcher in Korea and had an opportunity to observe intimately the South Korean education system that has produced the highest TIMSS scores in the world.

Students from the moment they start elementary school begin the race toward high test scores. Students take many supplementary classes after their formal school, returning home past 10 p.m. Once students enter high school, the entire family’s attention is focused on preparing children for college entrance exams.

Students sacrifice childhood and family life. Mothers become managers of their children’s studies; fathers, material providers for that pursuit. Poor families spend as much as one-third of the family income on supplemental studies; richer families spend eight times more than poorer ones on supplemental studies. Elite universities become bastions for upper-middle-class students.

The exam preparations leave scars on students and families. Stress and lack of sleep cause students to be physically and emotionally ill. South Korea reputedly has the highest youth suicide rate among newly industrialized countries.

Students protest their role as exam-taking machines and want to know why they have to work longer hours than adults. Adults lament that schooling is relegated to test preparation instead of preparation for citizenship. The public worries that the shadow educational system of supplementary schools is taking over the formal education system.

South Korea is experiencing an exodus of middle class families who are fed up with the highly stressful educational system. Middle class families are emigrating to the U.S. and other countries and, in some cases, even endure family separation to avoid the system built on “examination hell” for their children’s education.

Korea also experiences the lowest birth rate in the world. Education’s high private costs and the examination stress are primary reasons that young couples are having fewer children.

Americans need to learn from Koreans. We need creative educational reforms, not just more high-stakes testing. We can also learn from the positive side of East Asian countries, which endow educators with respect and provide them the equitable salaries of dignified professionals. Respect and financial reward attract high-caliber students to the teaching profession.

We can learn from Koreans about the unhealthy results of an educational system built on high-stakes tests, as well as the positive consequences of respecting and rewarding teachers. We should be investing in teachers, not in high-stakes tests. The price of high-stakes tests is too high. 

*Sheena Choi *is a professor of education at Indiana University Purdue University-Fort Wayne. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette. 


December 14, 2009 at 11:05 AM

By: stan


Q: How many Koreans have won Nobel Prizes again?

A: Two, which is one less than Mexico and equal to St. Lucia.

December 21, 2009 at 1:43 AM

By: chicagoteacher

Stat knows nothing about Korea

Korea has no natural resources. After the Korean War, the country was in shambles, one of the poorest country in the world.

Since then, Korea has transformed itself into an economic power. How did it do it? Its miraculous transformation was the result of improving its education.

You won't find too many Koreans without a college degree.

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