South Korea education war heats up
By Aidan Foster-Carter
South Korea is famously good at education. In the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings for 2012, published last December, Korea once again led the 34 industrialized democracies in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, ranking first in both reading and mathematics - just as it had in 2006 and 2009.
In a more regional context, be it said, South Korean performance was matched or even bettered by some other East Asian countries: China (Shanghai only), Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
This success has earned praise from United States President
Barack Obama. Yet here is a paradox. On the ground, local perceptions differ sharply from those outside. In South Korea, education is regarded as being in crisis. None of the stakeholders - be it parents, pupils, teachers, employers, or government - are happy with the status quo. I reviewed the causes of this discontent in two articles for Asia Times Online four years ago, and unfortunately most of the issues still remain the same as then.
Success, at a price
Topping the PISA charts comes at a price. Senior high schools charge fees, and most parents spend heavily on hagwon (crammers) to gain an edge in the crucial university entrance exam. In 2013 South Koreans forked out US$18 billion for private education: again, the most in OECD.
For pupils, school plus hagwon means a double day. Studying from 8am till 11pm is common. Large classes and rote learning are the norm; some teachers still hit pupils. This dull, harsh, hothouse regime robs children of their childhood. Bullying and suicide are growing concerns.
All this got little attention outside Korea till recently. The 2012 PISA results prompted some to probe deeper, finding that high performance entailed high stress - a pressure cooker, even.
But still overlooked is how Koreans are challenging all this. Belying stereotypes of Confucian passivity, after decades of mainly military dictatorship South Korea since 1987 has become a vibrant democracy. Both legacies are incarnate in its first female President, Park Geun-hye: the freely elected daughter of the general and coup-maker Park Chung-hee (ruled 1961-79).
South Korean politics remains hard-fought, and this spills into the classroom. As in the UK, my own country, where the current education minister Michael Gove's boundless enthusiasm for right-wing reforms polarizes opinion, schooling in South Korea is a political battlefield where not only pedagogical debates but also broader world-views clash and are fought out.
Many of the issues are familiar, because they are universal: selectivity, elitism, testing, free school meals, syllabus content, corporal punishment. All these matters are fiercely divisive. The conservative educational and political establishment is challenged from several quarters.
A militant union
As in nearby Japan, the struggle has long been spearheaded by a radical teachers' trade union - though unlike in Japan, most South Korean teachers belong to another, conservative union. But whereas Japan's Nikkyoso now cooperates with the authorities, the Korea Teachers and Education Workers' Union (KTU) remains in fighting mode. Originally illegal, it risked such a fate again last October when the government deregistered it for allowing dismissed teachers to remain members. In November, a court stayed that order; a final determination is pending.
On May 15, the KTU weighed in on the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol. Most of the 304 who drowned in the sinking in April were teenagers from a single school and 11th-grade year-group, on a field trip.
While blaming President Park and "neo-liberalism", union head Kim Jung-hoon also held teachers responsible: "We are sorry we did not teach you to question and disobey suspicious orders." (The crew nearly all escaped, after telling their passengers to stay put. Most did and died, triggering an anguished debate about cultural conformism as one factor in the disaster.)
The government threatens to punish the KTU, and 43 teachers who posted a call for Park to resign on the Blue House (presidential) website. However, on June 3 the International Labour Organization criticized South Korea's ban on teachers expressing political opinions.
Electing the educators
Education's politicization has sharpened since 2006, when a liberal administration extended local democracy - itself only introduced in 1995 - to hold elections not only for councilors and mayors but also, unusually, the education superintendents of provinces and major cities.
This has proved a mixed blessing. Despite famed enthusiasm for education, turnout at the first ad hoc elections was poor. It improved in 2010 when the education vote was made part of the main local elections held every four years - most recently on June 4.
Corruption is another problem. In the capital, Seoul, both the conservative who won the first education election and the liberal who succeeded him wound up in jail. Kong Jeong-taek took kickbacks for promoting officials, while Kwak No-hyun bribed a rival not to run against him.
Before his disgrace Kwak scored a wider victory. His policy of free school lunches for all so angered Seoul's then conservative mayor, Oh Se-hoon, that Oh called a referendum on it in 2011. That proved inquorate and Oh resigned. The center-left won the ensuing by-election and have ruled the capital ever since - even though 2012's by-election for Kwak's job was won by a conservative, Moon Yonglin.
Overall South Korea hitherto mostly voted conservative on education. In 2010 right-wingers took 10 of the 16 superintendent posts, while the left got only six. But June 4's local elections produced a shock. Though Park's ruling conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party won most of the 3,952 local seats and posts, as well as eight of the now 17 big cities and provinces - the new one is Sejong City, which I've also written about for Asia Times Online - on education voters swung the other way. Thirteen of the 17 new schools' supremos are progressives, who will clash with the education ministry. Eight have KTU connections, so one battle will be over the militant union's fate.
Elites and beatings
What else will they fight over? All the issues cited above remain hot potatoes. Top of the list are selective autonomous private high schools, introduced by Park's predecessor Lee Myung-bak. With fees up to three times higher than other schools, but a better record in getting pupils into top-ranked universities, these are anathema to the left which has vowed to abolish them.
On corporal punishment, the Korean debate appears dated by today's Western norms, if less so in an Asian context. The left abhors it, and has banned it where they hold sway. But the right howls that if teachers can't hit pupils, then pupils will hit teachers and chaos will reign.
Modern history is another battlefield. There is no consensus on evaluating dictators like Park Chung-hee - or North Korea. Surprisingly, most school textbooks lean left: they are tougher on Park than the ghastly North. Last year a "new right" text was widely boycotted for daring to find any positives in Japan's pre-1945 occupation of Korea, still a highly sensitive subject.
Why have South Koreans, otherwise conservative, suddenly swung left on education? In fact they haven't. This election result reflects two specific factors. One is the Sewol effect. Voters punished the authorities for letting lax safety and regulatory lapses kill so many children.
Also, South Korea, like the UK, has a first-past-the-post system. With no official party labels, many conservatives competed for education posts and thus split the vote. Progressives, more disciplined for once, mostly united behind a single candidate in each area - who thereby won.
Seoul, the capital, also saw a third factor: social media, highly influential in the world's most wired society. The incumbent Moon Yong-lin, a former education minister, was challenged by a fellow-conservative, Koh Seung-duk. A lawyer and former MP, Koh is famous in Korea for his rare feat of passing three tough exams: for the bar, and for the civil and diplomatic services.
Koh was ahead in opinion polls, until his own daughter from his first marriage publicly accused him on Facebook of taking no part in her or her brother's education. That sank him. Cho Hi-yeon, a liberal sociologist who was trailing in third place - and whose own, more filial sons posted winsome online pleas to "please vote for our daddy" - emerged as the surprise victor.
Does education in Seoul face a revolution? Cho swiftly stressed his moderation. No, he had never said abolish all private schools. At least, not the specialist ones for science and foreign languages - which his own sons attend.
But overall, as the newly elected radicals huddled to plot their strategy, there is no doubt South Korea's education wars are about to heat up. With the life-experience and futures of millions of young people at stake, one would hope their elders could discuss and resolve the issues in a less heated and non-partisan manner. Alas, that is not often the Korean way.
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance writer, broadcaster and consultant on contemporary South and North Korean issues. He has been a regular visitor to South Korea ever since 1982.