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.