I didn’t realize the extent of South Korea’s private education system until I got here (and honestly, I probably still don’t grasp the enormity of it).
I work for a private education company that’s based in Seoul. These academies, or “hagwons” as they are also known, fill the gaps in South Korea’s public education system. They also utterly fill up the daily schedules of the children who participate in them.
I wouldn’t say this is a typical day, but I’ve had several students describe some days like this:
Wake up around 7 or 7:30 AM. Eat, get ready for school.
Get to school between 8 and 8:30 AM. Stay until around 3 PM.
If you have time, go home, change clothes, and get a snack (maybe). Go to your first academy lesson. When that one is over three hours later, go to your second academy lesson.
These classes should be done around 10 PM. Go home and eat. Maybe play for 30 minutes. Do your school homework and any academy homework you may have been assigned. Go to bed around 1 or 2 AM. And yes, there are academies on the weekends, too.
As you can imagine, the students who have spent time living in America always light up when I ask them if they enjoyed it. “Yes!” they say. Why? “No academies!”
South Korea has been pushing hard to recruit English-speaking foreigners for the past several years as the country has begun placing a premium on English education. But it’s not just English education. My students also attend academies for music, math, science, Chinese, and various other subjects.
Now, President Lee Myung-bak’s administration is turning its attention toward the issue. Here’s the link to The Korea Times article.
According to the report, the president is viewing the rise of private academies as a failure of South Korea’s public education system to provide appropriate education.
It’s going to take more than simply improving the public school system. He’s also going to have to wage a culture war. I was told that South Korean parents will sacrifice other things in order to provide their children with a superior education — and today, that means academies.
And there’s one more thing to consider. Here, middle school students struggle to get into top high schools (the school system isn’t based on the city or county structure we have back home in the U.S.). High school students struggle to get into the top universities. The schools you attend have a lasting impact on your job prospects and career.
With so much pressure to perform academically, many Korean parents see academies as giving their children the necessary edge to have a quality life. Convincing parents otherwise, I believe, will be President Lee’s biggest challenge.