Saturday, June 7, 2008

How Much Achievement is Too Much?

This article on South Koreans studying abroad appears in the Sunday NY Times and I'd have to say it's a must-read. Not because it's perfect but b/c it touches on so many fascinating themes and ideas.

In short, a growing number of South Korean families are splitting up so that their children can attend school in an English-speaking country (apparently the U.S. once dominated this market, but now people with less money are moving to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia as well). Fathers stay behind in S. Korea while mothers live with the children -- usually starting in elementary school. The latest tally is that over 40,000 children are in such an arrangement.

The article claims that three main factors drive this trend: (1) Parents, especially mothers, are deeply concerned about their children's education; (2) Parents want their kids to learn English; (3) Parents want their kids out of South Korea's pressure-filled schools.

Here are a number of things that I find absolutely fascinating about this article:

1.) South Korea is a superstar in international testing -- if they're not number one on a particular test you can bet they're in the top 5. And yet, parents are so desperate to get their kids out of the educational system that they'll move thousands of miles.

2.) Parents are so concerned with their children's education that they're willing to live thousands of miles apart from their spouse for a decade or two -- with most spouses only seeing each other maybe a couple times per year.

3.) The response of the South Korean government to this phenomenon is not to try and reduce pressure on children but, rather, to hire 10,000 more English teachers (which I think either means that the govt. is out of touch or that the author of the article is mistaken about the motivation of these movers).

In my opinion, I think this is the most interesting paragraph of the article:

South Korean students routinely score at the top in international academic tests. But unhappiness over education’s financial and psychological costs is so widespread that it is often cited as a reason for the country’s low birthrate, which, at 1.26 in 2007, was one of the world’s lowest.

Now, before I get carried away, there's no way that this one article has done all of the legwork necessary to definitively define trends and establish causality. That said, even if we take this is a bit of information rather than gospel it still raises a lot of interesting questions.

The largest is probably the one raised in the above paragraph. South Korea supposedly has a model education system. And yet, people are going to great lengths to avoid it. Which begs the question: what is a perfect education system? Is it necessarily the one with the highest test scores? I think most of us agree that higher test scores are usually better, but there has to be a point at which the opportunity cost of higher test scores is too high. In other words, everybody must have a point at which the additional effort that will boost test scores isn't worth it. Maybe you'd rather your kid played soccer than attended cram classes. Maybe you'd rather your kid attended your neighborhood school rather than the better one across town. I think you get the idea.

I can't imagine living thousands of miles away from my spouse for a decade or more so that my child(ren) could attend a certain school, and I could see inferring from this article that some Korean parents are hyper-concerned about education -- that they've, in essence, gone crazy. But here's the thing: the parents who seem to most merit judgment that they've gone off the deep end are the ones who are apparently claiming that South Korea's system is too pressured.

If the article is correct in describing the level of desperation of parents to avoid the Korean education system (I'm not sure which is more extreme -- moving far away or simply not having kids), then we should all be careful what we wish for when demanding more rigorous schools and higher achievement in our country.


Rachel said...

I read the NYT article, and some how its seems to me there must be something more going on than just schooling...

Is the Korean system so regimented that the only way to escape it is to leave the country? Are there no independent/private schools with a more relaxed philosophy? Does the Korean government really have no interest in addressing the problem?

Anonymous said...

We must know how students think. Policy must be based upon this. See the new book on "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better".

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, but I would use caution when making conclusions about another country you do not know much about.

I think you are correct in saying that Korea's education system is high achieving, which causes much pressure. But it isn't correct to call the Korean parents who move to other countries "crazy". Why are they crazy? Because you wouldn't decide to do that for your own children?

Would you call parents who split up where one moves to another country for work, crazy?

Other than that mis-step, I think your points about how pressurized we want our education system to be, are interesting and worth discussing. IMO, if we ever achieve equity in opportunities and achievement for students, that will inevitably cause more competition (because more students will be qualified for higher education, better jobs, etc etc etc)... so we won't ever get rid of "pressure" and "competition".

Korea is an example of a country which has had rapid economic and social growth in a relatively short period of time, and a country where the ethic of getting an education is strong... what they are experiencing is a situation where the country cannot handle all of the high quality students competing for a few university spots and jobs... so families naturally are looking for other opportunities.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I meant that I could understand if somebody thought that doing this made them "crazy" -- not that I think they are. Personally, I can't imagine doing what they're doing -- but not everybody has to live like me.