U.S. universities and companies often look abroad for students and workers to fill positions because not enough Americans have the necessary skills or training. To help meet the demand, President Obama has announced a goalto train 1 million more graduates over the next decade in engineering and related fields.
At a White House science fair in February, he told the young contestants, “You’re not just trying to win a prize today, you are getting America in shape to win the future. You are making sure we have the best, smartest, most skilled workers in the world, so that the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root right here.”
South Korea far outpaces the United States in the percentage of young adults with college degrees—63 versus 41 percent—and its K-12 students routinely outperform U.S. children on international assessments. While South Korean leaders have begun to fret that their young people—raised among skyscrapers and affluence—are pursuing higher-paying jobs outside technical fields, the workforce remains highly tech-savvy: One in four South Korean college students majors in engineering, compared to one in 20 in the U.S.
The reason for the glut of engineers can be summed up easily: South Korea’s education system was designed to produce them.
As Lee explained, “My path has been set since elementary school.”
South Korea’s school system—unlike the American system—is centralized and regulated according to economic demands. The national ministry of education and the ministry of science and technology are one and the same, and the president’s vision for economic development can have immediate reverberations in schools.
For decades, South Korea’s strategy for success has been to outsmart its more powerful neighbors. In a country with few natural resources, the next technological breakthrough is sometimes referred to in Korean as the next “meal.”
To transform a poor country of mostly illiterate farmers into a high-tech powerhouse, they had to start at the beginning -- with compulsory elementary education and a standardized curriculum.
Lee, who grew up in Seoul, learned the same math and history lessons year to year as students his age in smaller cities or villages throughout South Korea.
A consistent and strong foundation for every child paved the way for South Korea’s college enrollment to explode a few decades later. Between 1980 and 2008, the number of college students increased from 647,500 to 3.6 million. More than 80 percent of high-school graduates go on to higher education, one of the highest rates in the world.
The United States is moving toward a more consistent curriculum, with widely adopted academic standards that aim to make American students more internationally competitive. But a tradition of tracking students by ability and localized decision-making about learning standards has led to uneven results. Not everyone who graduates from high school is ready for college-level work, let alone the advanced math and science course work required for engineering. The proportion of students in Maryland’s public university system who have to take at least one remedial course ranges from 20 to 50 percent, depending on the campus.