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[VOICE] Is Seoul’s student rights ordinance proper?

As the Education Ministry seeks to nullify it ...
Is Seoul’s student rights ordinance proper?

In an election year, little can be considered above ideological conflict. Education is no exception.

An ordinance on student rights, passed by Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education late last month, is the latest source of controversy within an education system recently rocked by extreme bullying and student suicides.

Liberal superintendent Kwak No-hyun, returning to work after being fined for bribery during his 2010 election campaign, proclaimed the passage of the Ordinance for Students’ Human Rights as a “historic event.” The Ministry of Education Science and Technology, teachers’ groups and many conservatives see it differently. Arguing that the ordinance will lead to confusion within schools and strip teachers of authority, the Education Ministry has taken the case to the Supreme Court to have it overturned.

“I can say that we sympathize with the spirit of the ordinance, that we understand student rights already exist in the Constitution and law. (But) the Ministry of Education is afraid the ordinance might hinder or restrict school autonomy in Seoul. Because it stresses only students’ rights, not students’ responsibilities. We think they should put a more balanced rights and responsibilities (approach in place),” an Education Ministry official who did not wish to be named told Voice.

The ordinance, which bans corporal punishment and discrimination against homosexual and pregnant students, and allows students to protest on school grounds and choose their own hairstyle and dress, follows similarly controversial decrees in Gyeonggi Province and Gwangju Metropolitan City, also in the name of students’ human rights.

Jung Un-soo, International coordinator of the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association, campaigned for an ordinance on student rights in the early 1990s. But he said the ordinance passed by SMOE has little to do with the cause he fought for.

“ … This policy is clearly something driven by a political agenda regarding the organizational gains involved in the election of provincial superintendents, and with no regards to the actual human rights of students,” Jung said.

Jung said the KFTA is firmly against the “deceptive” ordinance on judicial and pragmatic grounds as well as out of concern for students.
Civic activists protest the student rights ordinance in Seoul. (Yonhap News)
Civic activists protest the student rights ordinance in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

“If someone in the school discriminates against students or violates their human rights, they can be punished by law. So to insist that this ordinance is necessary to protect human rights of students is a total lie. Moreover, we are giving each school the right to enact and amend its regulations according to the ‘Enforcement Decree of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’ so schools can restrict the freedom of some students in cases to protect the human rights of other students. But this ordinance is limiting the rights of individual schools ― and its students ― to decide their rights and responsibilities on their own.”

Jung further objects to the way the measure was passed. He has particularly harsh words for the Seoul head of education, convicted of bribing an electoral rival to drop out of the race for the post.

“Superintendent Kwak has been convicted for bribery with the highest fine allowed in the law. This sentence makes the election invalid. The reason Kwak is not out of his post is that there was an appeal to the higher court. But someone who was already convicted for bribery in the first trial, and who was clearly involved in the corruption of an election, can’t be a chief of education. What shall children learn from him? They will learn that you can be a superintendent through bribery if you have 200 million won. That’s what the students are saying nowadays in schools.

“What Kwak has to do now is not to enforce his election pledges, or political deals in other words. What he has to do is to step down from his post, and say sorry for the corruption of the election and the harm he has caused in the schools. That is what an educator should do. He is now just revealing that he is no kind of educator but just a political fraud.”

But Chang Suh-yeon, of Gong-Gam Korean Public Interest Lawyers’ Group, said that Kwak’s conviction is a separate issue from the ordinance.

“The bribery is not directly related to the ordinance. It was the opinion of 97,000 Seoul citizens (who signed a petition) who wanted the ordinance enacted, so it was through a legal procedure that it was possible,” Chang said.
Chang said that student rights have been ignored for too long in schools across the nation, resulting in an abnormally high suicide rate among students. The issue of school violence and its possible effects became a topic of national conversation after details of a Daegu student’s suicide note became public in December.

“I can’t understand how people could be against something as self-evident as ‘all students have the right to be free from violence,’” Chang said. “In 1991, Korea joined the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and according to article 6 of the Constitution, the U.N. convention should have the same weight as national law. The U.N. committee on children has demanded that all corporal punishment be banned by law and they advised the Korean government this on several occasions. In this and day age it doesn’t make any sense that a teacher should use corporal punishment as discipline.”

For Chang, it is also important to allow students express their individuality.

“All human beings have the right to express themselves but due to the militarized culture resulting from Japanese colonialism, students have been forced to abide by a strict dress and hairstyle code. Is school the army? (In any case) with the current ordinance, uniform, unlike hair, can be regulated by individual schools,” she said.

But others such as Jung fear that class discipline will break down without rules and adequate methods of punishment.

“The provisions regarding school dress is one of the typical provisions showing the problem of this ordinance. On the surface it is to protect the freedom of students. But the actual result of banning all school uniforms is causing discrimination based on economic status. These days there are even ‘classes’ in classrooms divided by the price of the overcoats of students. So this is violating their right of equality. And it is contradictory to the provisions regarding discrimination,” said Jung.

“The more serious problem is that the ordinance is saying ‘Students are free from all violence,’ and this sounds good. But the reality is that students are more suffering from violence because the ordinance is tying the hands of teachers who want to help students in school violence situations by forbidding all kind of physical intervention and immediate discipline ― even non-physical guidance also.”

The battle for the future of the capital’s education shows few signs of abating. But for now the fate of the ordinance lies with the Supreme Court, which could make a ruling before the end of the month.

“I don’t think the case will be successful because the ordinance does not go against any law,” said Chang. “The ordinance was proposed by the Seoul citizens and passed by the Seoul government, and the Education Ministry going against it is damaging to the local government.”

By John Power (

Readers' VOICE

On overeducation...

As an American working as a public school teacher in Korea, I am a daily witness of the day-to-day educational journey of Korean youth. While I have also been all the way through the American educational system, from pre-school to university, I have worked teaching English in Madrid, Spain, and spent a semester at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Having experienced an array of approaches and attitudes toward education, one thing undoubtedly stood out to me in Korean schools: The intense competition and pressure to succeed in education.

Upon teaching an elementary school class that focused on daily schedules and related phrases, such as, “I go home at 10 everyday,” I was astonished to find how divergent the daily lives of these schoolchildren were compared to my own at their age. I remember less memorization and more imagination, more art and music classes, soccer in the park, riding bikes, and running out on cue of the last school bell with a full afternoon’s worth of sun ahead of me. But most of my students will spend their afterschool hours under fluorescent lights and over hagwon papers. They will not have the time I had to explore new hobbies, pass time aimlessly, or travel.

In short, most of their learning will take place inside the classroom. We often forget how much learning takes place in unsanctioned everyday spaces: taking a walk through one’s city slums, playing the final set of a tennis match or expressing your love for someone. These all touch on important life skills, and different types of intelligence, most of which are learned during the time in between classes. That is not to say that we should focus more on catering to these topics in school, but that the time used outside of class that fosters these crucial elements of our humanity is vital.

Many students attend private academies after public school hours and on the weekends at the will of their parents, or simply because it has become the norm for children at earlier ages. Similarly, attending university has become increasingly standard, something that most Korean students pursue. I had a similar feeling about attending university in the U.S. I didn’t know what kind of career I wanted, but there was a sort of communal assumption that attending a university was what you were supposed to do ― it’s what everyone did ― if they wanted to make anything of themselves. It’s not uncommon for students to lack a clear sense of direction, so university serves as a default choice, an acceptable answer for relatives over holiday dinners. In Korean culture, I believe, more than in other cultures, formal education is seen as the key ingredient for a successful and happy life.

Of course, criteria for success and happiness vary. To me it seems that formal education in Korea has become more of a means to a joyful life, rather than something enjoyed as an end in itself. It has an air of duty, and appears that students aren’t taught to follow their interests and desires so much as the designated path to “success.” One such reason is the strict adherence to a national syllabus whose heavily weighted tests serve as the sole proprietor of university admissions. Such standardized tests are present in many other educational systems, including that of the United States. The ability of these tests to measure intelligence and ability, as well as predict future success is another divided issue altogether.

Howard Gardner formulated a theory of intelligences, which illustrated the vast number of ways humans learn and interact with the world. He listed them as naturalist, musical, logical-mathematical, existential, interpersonal, intra-personal, bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic and spatial. Though aspects of his theory are highly debated, I think it is clear that 1) Many valuable skills crucial to success are not measured through standardized tests, and 2) the ways many societies have come to define and value intelligence are quite narrow. The very fact that we have standardized tests measuring our intelligence carries with it the assumption that the very things tested are the things valued in the world of employment, and thus, society as a whole.

The Korean education system wholly caters to these test requirements. Moreover, the standardized tests have more authority than in other countries, especially in university admission. Consequently, material that is tested becomes the material students pay attention to. This leaves little incentive to, say, check out a book of interest from the library when that time could be used studying for a test.

In contrast, in the nation of Finland, the average citizen checks out 17 books a year from the library. It has one of the most successful education systems in the world, and university level education is freely provided to its citizens. Unique to Finland, standardized testing is non-existent before the age of 16. Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a professor at the University of Helsinki, which I attended in 2009, highlighted something interesting about Finland’s approach to education: “The first six years of education are not about academic success,” he said. “We don’t measure children at all. It’s about being ready to learn and finding your passion.”

Ultimately, I think it’s not a matter of being overeducated, but rather one of investing too much into a single sphere of education ― namely formal. This leaves gaps in skills obtained largely outside these institutions, such as those needed for social interaction. Participation in sports cultivates work ethic, cooperation, and competitive spirit. Involvement in the arts throughout one’s life is important, if only for the aesthetic joy they bring to our lives. Having time to partake in several of these activities is essential for creating well-rounded and adaptable job candidates and citizens. We must prepare our students for, not only the multifaceted environment of the professional world, but life beyond it.

― Joshua Matthew Nezam, Busan

Korean parents fetishize university attendance, pushing children into academics when they have natural aptitudes for trades or sports or some other path. Clearly, a strong higher education system is useful for a country, but do truck drivers and fishery workers and auto-mechanics need college degrees to do their job?

Moreover, outside the top tier of universities, the quality of education is a bit suspect. From students I talk to, it seems there is a great deal of rote memorization, testing for testing’s sake and grade inflation. Professors often return students reports ― not essays, but reports ― with a grade and no mark-up or notes on the page to indicate how the grade was determined, or what should be improved for future assignments. Many classes are just PowerPoint recitations of the textbook. There is little emphasis placed on learning. Students routinely ask me to raise their final grades, not because they think I gave them the wrong score or missed some homework, but because they need an A0 instead of an A-, or an A+ instead of an A0 for a scholarship or to stand out in a job or internship interview.

The problem is, in part, that there is too little social status afforded to anyone who doesn’t work for a chaebol. Entrepreneurs, small business employees, tradesmen and women have little social value, so students at every academic level aim for goals that don’t suit them well.

There is also a weird issue of students choosing majors that are completely uninteresting to them, but which gets them into a higher tier university. I once met a woman who was getting a master’s in French translation. I asked her, “Oh, I guess you really like French?” and she replied “No, I hate it. I only majored in it because it was the only major I could get into at (a top university).”

― Chris Sanders, Seoul