Last month, President Park Geun-hye called for fundamental changes of what she called “excessive English education” in Korea. She voiced caution against a social trend that forces students to study the subject regardless of their interest.
On the heels of Park’s comments, the government said it would reduce the level of difficulty of the English test in this year’s college entrance exam. The National Assembly recently passed a bill aiming to prevent Korean students from taking school courses beyond their regular academic schedule.
The series of measures is as an attempt to control the “crazy” state of education in Korea, said Lee Bohm, who refers to himself as an education critic.
“It’s when I meet the parents when I feel that (English education) is really crazy,” said the 44-year-old, a former education policy adviser for former Seoul education chief Kwak No-hyun.
“It would be fine to send a child to hagwon (private institutes) if he or she had linguistic talents and liked English. But even when it is quite obvious the kid has no talent and cannot stand English, he or she gets sent to hagwon anyway.”
English has always been important in postwar Korean society. In a country that is dependent on trade ― it is the eighth-biggest trading economy in the world ― most large corporations require employees to speak some English. But among students, the subject’s significance lies mainly in the need for a good English score to enter top schools and universities.
According to Lee, English fever took off during the early 2000s, when prestigious colleges and high schools started picking students with exceptional English skills. The prominence of English ultimately drove up the amount of money spent on English private education to 6.5 trillion won ($6 biIlion), the highest of all subjects.
Lee, who was at the time one of the top hagwon teachers in the country, felt the impact immediately, especially in the affluent Gangnam area.
Despite parents’ strong passion for getting their children to learn English, Lee said Korea’s English education system for elementary, middle and high school students was structurally flawed.
“In Korea, the key thing is to rank the students,” he said. “For example, it would be very hard for a teacher to use an English newspaper in class, because commenting on and writing actual articles is hard to assign scores to.”
Students do not go to school to learn English, but to get good grades, Lee said.
“It does not matter whether the lesson actually helps students enhance their English skills. The priority is to rank them, which sums up just about everything that is wrong with the English education in this country,” he said.
According to Lee, the education system makes it nearly impossible for teachers to come up with their own unique lessons.
Most Korean schools notify the teachers of what class they will be teaching just days before the new school year begins. The process of selecting a textbook is completed just weeks before the school year. As a result, teachers are left with little time to prepare for the new curriculum.
“It is a lazy education (system), one that induces teachers to become lazy,” Lee said. This happens because school teachers are treated just like other public officials, and are assigned to posts at a time convenient for the government.
“While I was working at the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, I was shocked to find out that none of the officials there realized how wrong this was,” he said. “They are damaging the value of education in pursuit of mere convenience.”
With barely any time to prepare for lessons, and with the curriculum set in stone, the teachers are left with little to no autonomy over their lessons. As a result, they seek the easy way out: the same lessons, the same tests and the same end result of labeling students with test scores with little regard for what they have learned.
“A few years back, there was a debate about recovering teachers’ authority, which I found pathetic,” he said. “What authority? How can any teacher have authority when he can’t even dictate what he teaches?”
The government’s free-learning semesters, which had teachers come up with creative lessons instead of following the curriculum, is ideal in principle, Lee said. But even for no-test semesters, teachers are notified of their assignments just days before they start.
According to Lee, this is where the public education has been ruined. The lack of creative lessons resulted in school becoming a place where you simply memorize information for tests. The schools, however, are no match for hagwon, which do nothing but prepare students for tests.
In order to control the wayward English fever, Lee said school’s evaluations should reflect the actual academic accomplishment of individual students. In order to do so, a systematic reform must first take place.
“Government policies will not solve the problem right away. But I think it will at least calm the English fever to some extent.”
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com