Recent Trends and Developments in Education in the Republic of Korea
by John C. Weidman
Education is one of the hottest topics in Korea at the moment and frequently makes headline news in the mass media. Most Koreans believe that human capital developed through education is their most valuable resource. Over the years, the Ministry of Education has endeavored to implement various policies aimed at expanding the country’s system of higher education and increasing access for students regardless of economic background. Although many of these policies have been very effective in other countries, they have met with only partial success at home. There have been so many reform measures and laws introduced within the last 50 years or so that educational policies in Korea are generally referred to as “forever changing policies.” The university entrance examination system, for example, has been changed nearly 20 times since 1945.
This article focuses on some recent trends and developments in Korean education in order to provide readers a brief overview of the current situation. For a more comprehensive analysis readers should refer to our book Higher Education in Korea: Tradition and Adaptation.
2. The Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development (MOE)
The Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development
(MOE) was established in January 2001 by restructuring and expanding the scope of the former Ministry of Education. The minister of education was upgraded to the rank of deputy prime minister and is now responsible for formulating and coordinating policies on education and human-resource development in South Korea.
The new ministry was developed specifically to meet the challenges of the emerging information- and knowledge-based economy by better preparing students to participate in the global community of entrepreneurs, technicians and researchers. It is still too early however, to determine whether or not the MOE will succeed in its mission.
3. Elementary and Secondary Education
The MOE has implemented a variety of reform measures in recent years, including the 7th National Curriculum Standards and Performance Assessment. In an effort to appease the well-to-do families that send their children to foreign countries for education, the MOE recently promulgated an independent private high school policy aimed at keeping more students at home. In addition, the ministry implemented an “alternative school” policy for students with special needs, and was instrumental in facilitating the passage of laws designed to promote both educational development in remote areas and educational programs for gifted students.
Beginning in 1998, several new evaluation techniques were devised in the name of the overarching concept of performance assessment. Unlike the former written tests, a variety of performance-based evaluation methods are now used to develop the student’s abilities to understand and think in comprehensive and creative ways. These include written exams, oral tests, discussions, demonstrations, lab experiments, interviews, clinical observations, self-evaluations, peer evaluations, written reports, research papers and portfolios.
Not surprisingly, the new assessment techniques have brought significant changes to elementary and secondary education. In particular, they have significantly increased the burden on teachers to successfully evaluate their students. To ameliorate this burden, the MOE is planning to decrease the number of students per classroom to less than 35. The ministry also plans to hire 23,600 additional teachers by 2003. This initiative is called the “7.20 Educational Condition Improvement Project.”
Another big change in education concerns independent private high schools. Until recently affluent parents whose children did not score high enough to enter an elite school at home sent their children to private secondary schools in foreign countries. To curb the outflow of these students the MOE established new regulations for the establishment of independent private high schools, granting them unprecedented autonomy in deciding tuition rates, admission policies and curricula.
The current policy on student discipline has also been reevaluated. In 1995 the implementation of a new education law forbade the use of physical punishment in schools, largely due to protests from parents. As a result, many teachers found that without the right to physically discipline their students they could no longer effectively control their classrooms. Beginning in March of this year, however, the MOE decided to re-allow the use of corporal punishment, despite the ongoing protests from parents. This time the ministry has formulated a detailed set of rules on procedure and methods governing the use of such punishment.
4. Higher Education
Higher education reform in Korea is geared mainly towards stimulating competition, assuring accountability, globalization and encouraging online university offerings. Perhaps the number one priority of the higher education sector in Korea today is to educate and train highly qualified people who will become leaders in an increasingly globalized information economy. To help achieve this objective, the MOE is offering universities financial support to conduct program and institutional self-evaluations.
Other reform initiatives include: no longer automatically granting tenure to newly hired professors, but requiring a probationary period instead; adopting a merit-based pay system for instructors; and strengthening program and institutional evaluation. Not surprisingly, the changes in tenure and salary restrictions are facing strong resistance from faculty. The majority of Koreans, however, appear to support the changes.
In addition, initiatives are currently underway to establish an online university, encourage the development of internationally competitive graduate programs, and support the basic sciences. One alarming trend that is on the rise is a noticeable decline in the number of students who choose to specialize in natural sciences and engineering. In an attempt to reverse this trend the Korean government is establishing an incentive program to encourage enrollments in these fields.
In 1999, the Ministry of Education launched a higher education reform project called Brain Korea 21, with the goal of training world-class research scholars needed for the 21st century. The project is geared towards reorganizing the overall higher education system in order to successfully meet the challenges of the new century, and will require an investment of $US 1.2 billion over the next seven years.
According to the MOE home page, the major objectives of the project are to:
Foster world-class research universities, which will serve as the infrastructure to produce ideas and technology that are creative and original.
Strengthen the competitiveness of local universities.
Introduce professional graduate schools for training in critical fields.
Create an environment in which universities compete with each other based not on name value, but on the quality of research outcomes and student performance.
Also in 1999, the Korean government commenced a seven-year project aimed at nurturing regional universities that meet the demands and needs of local economies. The overall goal of the project is to develop specialized programs in each regional university that will be highly competitive both nationally and internationally, so that these universities can attract more students. It is hoped this project reduces the overwhelming student demand on Seoul-area colleges.
Funding for each task area is provided through a rigorous evaluation of universities and colleges. Applicants for the funds must form either a research team within a university or a consortium among universities. Universities are selected based on proven ability to provide world-class research opportunities and education, and demonstrated willingness to reform. Through this project, the government anticipates the development of three-to-four internationally renowned high-tech research universities. However, a recent mid-term evaluation on this project indicated it has not been as successful as expected so far. Specifically, critics argued that the process for choosing the programs to be funded was unfair. It was noted, for instance, that almost 50 percent of the project funds were allocated to a single elite institution, Seoul National University.
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5. Teacher and Teacher-Training Reforms
One of the biggest changes affecting teachers in recent years has been the government’s decision to grant legal rights to the Korean Teachers’ Union. Until 1999, it was illegal for teachers to join the union, and nearly 2,000 teachers lost their jobs because of their unwillingness to give up their union membership. In 1999, the government of Kim Dae Jung legalized the Teachers Union and allowed the dismissed teachers to return to their jobs. The new law brought about major changes in schools as union members began to actively participate in policymaking and management decisions. Although this has led to disagreements at times, schools are now being managed in an increasingly democratic manner.
To enhance the quality of teaching in South Korea, the MOE lowered the retirement age of teachers, required systematic evaluation of teacher education programs and institutions, and established a merit-based promotion and reward system. The mandatory teacher retirement age was changed from 65 to 62 in the fall of 1998. As a result, an estimated 16,000 teachers left the profession and were replaced. However, the implementation of this reform measure also resulted in unwanted side effects such as the lowering of teacher morale and an unanticipated shortage of elementary school teachers.
One of the unexpected benefits stemming from the implementation the new reform measures has been a noticeable increase in the quality of students graduating from the elementary teacher training programs. While graduates of other programs often have difficulty in finding jobs, the students coming out of elementary teacher training programs are hired on the spot.
The social prestige and salary of teachers at all levels in Korea are relatively high compared to other countries. Consequently, teacher-training programs attract the top 5 percent of students. Because research has shown that the quality of education is highly dependent on the quality of teachers, this situation promises a bright future for the country.
Not all recently adopted teacher-training policies have been successful however. A 1998 policy designed to improve teacher-training through a comprehensive evaluation of teacher- training colleges and graduate faculties of education was not as effective as anticipated. A merit-based promotion and reward system in which competent teachers would be given preferential treatment in promotion was implemented in 2000, but this policy is now undergoing fundamental changes because of resistance from teachers. In general, policies initiated by the central government without the agreement and cooperation of the pertinent organizations or groups have had limited success.