The National Assembly on Thursday passed a bill that aims to prevent Korean students from taking school courses beyond their regular academic schedule.
But there is skepticism as to whether it can serve its purpose of taming hyper-competitive educational practices.
The bill will go into effect as early as September, just in time for the start of the second semester of the 2014 school year.
Rep. Kang Eun-hee of the Saenuri Party, who proposed the bill with Rep. Lee Sang-min of the Democratic Party, said Korean students are often forced to study subjects for subsequent semesters in advance at school or private institutes, known as hagwon. The widespread practice, even involving elementary school students, is meant to boost their chances for admission to elite schools.
The excessive competition leads to more difficult entrance exams by higher level education institutes, which in turn pushes students to study more courses in advance. Rep. Kang said the practice is a main factor driving up the already heated private education system in Korea, spawning a profitable market valued at 19.4 trillion won ($17.9 billion) per year.
The new bill is designed to address the issue that draws the keenest attention from students and parents ― entrance exams for elite schools. Under the bill, Korean high schools and universities will be required to give entrance exam questions based on regular school curriculums. In recent years, many schools challenged applicants with overly difficult questions that often went beyond regular school courses.
It will also ban elementary, middle and high schools from offering courses to their students ahead of the regular semester schedules.
Schools that violate the new policy will face disciplinary action. They include cutting government funds, reducing the number of students and even suspending the recruitment of new student.
The Education Ministry will set up committees to supervise the schools.
Local civic group A World Without Worries About Private Education issued a statement on Tuesday welcoming the bill. The group, which has campaigned against advanced learning since April 2012, touted the bill as an effective way to suppress “needless advanced learning” for most students.
Many in the education circles, however, question whether the bill can rein in the overheated competition among students that sends private education costs soaring.
The main issue is that the bill does not regulate advanced learning at private education institutes. It merely attempts to prevent such institutes from advertising advanced courses.
“Most of the advanced learning happens via private institutes or tutoring. A lot of high schools just follow the regular curriculum,” a high school teacher based in Seoul told The Korea Herald, requesting anonymity.
According to a 2013 survey by A World Without Worries About Private Education, only 11.3 percent of teachers at elementary, middle and high schools said they taught advanced courses to their students.
The teachers who do teach courses in advance said students, especially high school students, need to finish their curriculum early to prepare for the annual college entrance exam.
“In the cases of math, English and Korean, students don’t really learn anything new (during the third year). They go through the entire high school curriculum in the first two years,” said a teacher of social studies, who identified herself only as Min.
Min said the pressure students feel from having to take the college entrance exam is almost unbearable, unless they have finished the entire curriculum beforehand.
She said even for her subject, considered a minor part of the college entrance exam, students finish the curriculum in the first semester of the third year to secure more time to study for the crucial entrance exam.
Proponents of the bill said that since it requires educational institutes to only test applicants on material in their regular curriculum, parents will be less motivated to pay large sums of money to get their kids to complete courses in advance at hagwon.
Min, however, said that the current high school education does not sufficiently prepare students for subjects like writing exams, seldom taught in regular school courses, which focus mostly on multiple-choice questions. This means the need for private education still exists despite the new bill, she said.
An Jang-jin, an official from A World Without Worries About Private Education, said although the bill alone would not solve all the problems related to advanced learning, it could be a start.
“The government needs to follow up the bill with subsequent policies, such as revamping college entrance systems and improving the overall quality of education,” An said.
“But that does not mean the bill is not important. The current education system forces students to take courses ahead of schedule, with some high school students taking college entrance exams based on college-level knowledge,” he said. “This practice has been accepted so far but the new bill is expected to tackle the issue.”
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)