SEOUL — At the headquarters of one of the world’s highest-performing education systems, officials are policing after-hours study haunts with names like Kid’s College and Math Camp. They field tips from a watchdog Web site that reports tutors who charge too much or work past a 10 p.m. curfew, and forward them to investigators who comb streets in neon-lit neighborhoods where students still in school uniforms remain at their desks deep into the night.
The crackdown on South Korea’s “cram schools” is part of President Lee Myung-bak’s effort to wrest control back from a frenzied private tutoring industry that enrolls three-quarters of Korean students, the highest rate in the world. He hopes to restore confidence in the country’s education system and reduce the financial and emotional burden on families.
One of South Korea’s strengths is the willingness of its parents to invest in their children’s education, said Lee Ju Ho, minister of education. “But that energy has been spent on raising test scores, not nurturing creativity or any other aspect of human nature,” he said in an interview.
By the numbers, the South Korean system is the envy of the world: The nation regularly places among the top five countries on international math and reading tests, the high school dropout rate is less than 4 percent, and the college completion rate among young adults — at 56 percent — is among the highest in the world.
But many South Koreans say praise for those achievements often overlooks where the gains come from and at what cost. South Koreans poured $19 billion into private tutoring in 2009, more than half the sum spent on public education. That paid for a range of lessons, including English tutoring, accelerated math classes and endless college exam preparation.
The academic intensity that fueled the country’s economic rise is now blamed for a high suicide rate and a plummeting birth rate, as prospective parents weigh the costs of educating children. Extreme competition has also inspired a student exodus to foreign schools and universities that drains talent and divides families.
The nation’s ubiquitous private academies, known as hagwons, include richly decorated franchises, mom-and-pop establishments with six chairs, celebrity-taught online lessons and illegal after-midnight tutoring centers.
“Shadow” education is common throughout East Asia and increasing elsewhere, a response, in part, to the growing use of tests to compare students, schools and countries, said Mark Bray, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies private tutoring. In the United States, the industry is worth between $5 billion and $7 billion, according to EduVentures, a research firm.
But South Korea leads the world in private tutoring. “In Korea, you can’t afford to opt out,” Bray said. The average Korean family spent nearly 20 percent of its income on private tutoring, according to a 2007 report by the Hyundai Research Institute, a think tank.
Kim Hee-Jeong lives in Mok-dong, an affluent Seoul neighborhood, and spends about $1,000 a month for 20 hours a week of private lessons for her third-grade son in English, math and science, not including his football, in-line skating, piano, violin and Chinese classes. Kim worries that he will burn out from being “much too busy from a young age.” But he is far ahead of his public school lessons, she said, and classes are too big for personal attention.
The government has tried repeatedly, with little success, to regulate private tutoring, including an outright ban in the 1980s which was gradually overturned. Cram-school spending dipped slightly in 2010; the Education Ministry is crediting its new policies.
The cornerstone of the reforms is an ambitious, long-term shift away from a test-dominated college admission system. The Education Ministry has begun funding admissions officers at top universities and training them in a U.S.-style process that also considers talents, creativity and independent learning.
There are also some high-profile local efforts underway, including a 10 p.m. cram-school curfew in Seoul. To help enforce the regulations, the Education Ministry set up a watchdog center, offering cash rewards to tipsters.
Go In-Gyung, chairman of Pagoda, which prepares college students and professionals for English tests, says the government “is making everyone settle for lower quality.”
Hoping to boost confidence in public education, the government introduced a controversial teacher evaluation system as well as standardized tests meant to stir competition among schools. It is also offering more after-school tutoring at public schools and on TV.
Last year the Education Ministry decided that 70 percent of questions on the national college entrance exam would be based on lessons carried on the government-funded Educational Broadcasting System, providing a strong incentive for students to tune in.
One of EBS’s on-air personalities is Brian Rhee, whose sister, Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor, became the face of U.S. education reform.
The 39-year-old Korean American moved to his parents’ home town more than a decade ago to learn Korean and pursue an acting career. Along the way, he found steady work as an English teacher.
In 2008, he opened his own cram school and encouraged parents to think beyond the next test, to skills their children will need for a globalized world. And while many academies assign three-page vocabulary lists, he gave students a half-dozen words to practice. “I wanted to take some of the pressure off these kids,” he said. But parents doubted his approach and he closed the doors last spring.
Yang Geong Cheol, a factory manager and a father of two in Gumi, an industrial city south of Seoul, paid for his older daughter’s late-night cram-school classes for six years, but she didn’t get into elite colleges. “It was a waste of money,” he said.
His younger daughter studies mostly on her own and would like to see the new college admissions system make it easier to compete with students who hire top tutors.
“My hope is that one day public education will be enough,” he said.
Special correspondents Seo Yoon Jung and Kim Min Sang contributed to this report.