Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said repeatedly that the United States isn’t as serious about educating its young people as the South Koreans. It’s just one of the many things he has said in comparing the U.S. public education system with that of other countries. But is South Korea really the country we should be emulating when it comes to schools? Kathy Schultz, a professor and dean of the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland,  is the author of  “Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices.” Young Whan Choi and Kathy Schultz answer that question in the following post. Young Whan Choi has taught in public schools in New York City, Providence, RI, and Oakland, CA, and has consulted on work-based learning and advisory models with schools in the United States and South Korea.  He has led the development of a national online Ethnic Studies curriculum.   Currently, as the Civic Engagement Coordinator in Oakland Unified School District, he is directing an initiative to ensure that all high schools students graduate with the knowledge, skills, and habits to be active members of their community.

By Young Whan Choi and Kathy Schultz

South Korea’s economic success over the past 60 years has been lauded as the “Miracle of the Han River” and earned South Korea a place as one of the four “Asian Tiger” economies.  As part of its race to the top — from poor, undeveloped country to having the world’s 15th largest GDP — South Korea implemented a highly structured, test-driven educational system whose students score at the highest levels on the international PISA tests.

As education reformers in the United States eagerly seek to replicate the successes of South Korean system, they would do well to take a closer look. The most important lesson to learn from South Korea’s educational success may be the efforts of students to resist this system rather than its high-stakes testing environment. There is perhaps no better example of this resistance than Haja Production School located in the heart of Seoul. This school was founded 15 years ago to provide an alternative educational space, where youth who dropped out of competitive mainstream schooling learn art and media production skills and develop a critical analysis of their society. Haja now consists of a middle school, a high school and a post-secondary program that supports youth in sustainable employment through social enterprises in art and culture.

This spring 20 students in a comparative international education class at Mills College in Oakland, California video-conferenced with 40 students and teachers from Haja. The U.S. students were intrigued by the audacity of the Haja students who consciously chose to leave school because of the test focus that overshadowed all other forms of learning. These students had eschewed traditional schooling to forge their own pathways. Students who attend Haja either continue their education without a high school diploma or sit for an examination similar to the GED in order to earn their diploma.  As one Mills student reflected, the “students’ ability to defy standards and create a space of their own is incredibly courageous and inspiring.”

In response to a question about why they chose to leave their traditional schools, one Haja student explained, our schools are “highly competitive… [we wonder] is this learning really for ourselves or just for going to a university? Even at a university, I don’t think many of us choose to study what we really want to study, we chose what will lead to a stable life afterwards. I came to Haja because I wanted an education [where I could learn] what I wanted to learn.” This notion of school as a place where students pursue their interests and acquire knowledge and skills that prepare them for their lives beyond the university stands in stark contrast to the norm in South Korea.

While their peers in traditional school are studying 12 hours a day in preparation for the national college entrance exam, students at Haja are “think[ing] together about the many issues we face in society.”  For students who aspire to be doctors and lawyers, the traditional track may seem like the only avenue to a secure future. But one Haja student was not worried about that lost opportunity; instead, he wanted to be a farmer.  Students at Haja, located in the middle of the world’s second largest metropolis, “focus a lot on ecological life.”  He explained that “the background of his decision was [the nuclear disaster at] Fukushima.” Now, he and others from Haja are “thinking about how we can farm in the city” and developing skills like carpentry and cooking that are integral to a sustainable lifestyle.  Since the Fukushima disaster, the school has focused on some of society’s profound challenges like climate change and increasing social isolation. This new focus, led by both the students and teachers, is a response to their understanding of the current state of the world and their belief in the need to attend to their collective futures.

Even the South Korean government, when faced with the growing youth suicide epidemic in which one in four youth have considered suicide, has contemplated reforms and imposed a 10pm curfew on the after school tutoring, or “cram schools,” that 75 percent of South Korean youth attend.  Professor JuHo Lee, a former education minister, argues that South Korea needs to embark on a new path:

Test scores may be important in the age of industrialization, but not anymore. So we look into the ways to reform our education system, not based on test scores, but based on creativity and social and emotional capacities.

The educational system in the United States has been moving towards the same culture of high-stakes testing that characterizes South Korea, where students’ interests and passions are subsumed by narrowly-defined definitions of success and students’ critical thinking is sacrificed to the gods of standardization.

The students’ stories from Haja were a powerful reminder of what education could be.  The sole mission of schools should not be the preparation for standardized tests; such a focus is likely to be counterproductive in our rapidly changing world where creativity and innovation are essential.  In the United States, as in South Korea, it is time to envision schooling in a way that prepares youth not only for college but also for diverse careers and community life.