Fred Hiatt
Editorial page editor October 24, 2011

Americans who deem South Korea’s education system a model (President Obama, among others) might be surprised at one message leaders here are delivering to their youth: Drop out, please.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Well, that may be a slight exaggeration. But South Korea’s government has decided that too many people are going to college. It is working to restore the luster of a high school diploma as a stopping point for some and to establish a vocational track for others.

And that has to be sobering for anyone who has assumed that education will be the antidote to the downward-mobility pressures of globalization.

Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, frequently cite Korea in contrast to America’s shortcomings — the diligence of its students, the commitment of its parents, its success in equipping successive generations to compete.

Pretty much everyone agrees that this East Asian nation’s progress, in just half a century, from abject poverty to developed-world prosperity owes much to its schools and its devotion to schooling. South Korean 15-year-olds rank first in reading and math, and third (behind Finland and Japan) in science, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. teens rank 14th, 25th and 17th in the three categories.

Yet Koreans are deeply unhappy with their system — to the point that many blame their world-lowest birth rate (1.1 child per woman) on their schools. They complain about an emphasis on memorization, a stifling of creativity, a failure to teach usable English and a weakness in developing leadership skills.

Finding state schools inadequate, parents spend millions on tutoring. Children study in after-school academies, known as hagwon, until 11 p.m. and beyond. The expense — Seoul families spend 16 percent of their income on private schooling — is one reason many parents say they can afford only one child.

The shadow system makes Koreans worry about their children’s health but also, in a society that values equality of opportunity, about unfairness. In response, the government has limited how much hagwon can charge and how many hours they can meet (in theory, not past 10 p.m.).

Because violations are routine, the law allows citizens to report lawbreakers and collect part of the fines for themselves. So now, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, there are hagwon to teach people how to catch the miscreants.

Much of the pressure arises because Koreans believe their children must go to college to guarantee themselves a middle-class future. As a result, Korea has one of the highest college-going rates of any nation — a category in which, as Obama has complained, the United States has slipped to 12th. More than 60 percent of Koreans ages 25 to 34 have higher educations, compared with about 40 percent in the United States, and the gap is growing.

But Korean officials are alarmed that many graduates are not finding jobs — more than 40 percent in the past year, even though the Korean economy was doing pretty well. That is why President Lee Myung-bak is promoting alternatives.

Last month the president urged employers to hire more high school grads and promised, as an example, to hire three into the presidential Blue House this year and three more next year. “Professional footballers just need to be good at kicking balls,” Lee said. “They don’t need to graduate from Seoul National University.”

The government also is investing in vocational schools designed to put young people on a career track without going to college. “Reckless entrance into college,” Lee has said, is “bringing huge losses to households and the country alike.”

Obama isn’t wrong to stress the urgency of improving U.S. education. America’s scandal, unlike Korea’s, is the number of poor and minority children consigned to dropout-factory school systems that hollow the promise of class mobility. If Koreans have put too much emphasis on tests, American schools, allowing so many kids to grow up illiterate, for too long put too little.

But the Korean experience does suggest that no nation will find an easy answer to the stresses of the global economy, especially as so much of the work of knowledge occupations — lawyer, editor, radiologist — proves as outsourceable as building cars or staffing call centers. An educated population will still fare better than an uneducated one. But if you think everything will be okay if we can just be a bit more like, say, Korea — well, ask a few Koreans what they think about that.

fredhiatt@washpost.com