Korea’s education system often draws praise from world leaders, U.S. President Barack Obama being one of them. On several occasions, Obama lauded the role of Korean teachers as “nation builders” and the “longer hours” that Korean students spend in school.
But the U.S. leader ignores the long hours many Korean students spend in after-school private classes, which are mainly geared toward the college entrance exam. The long study hours are one of the key factors that make the Korean education system one of the most rigorous in the world.
The long hours at school and hagwon ― which provide private classes to students late into the evening and on weekends ― deprive students of sleep. There is no doubt that our students need more rest.
So the education chief of Gyeonggi Province, Lee Jae-jeong, is pushing to delay the school start time. Lee insists that starting school later will give students health benefits and reduce study burden.
In Korea, the start time varies from school to school, but usually it is between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Lee, who took the provincial superintendent’s seat on a liberal platform, asked schools in Gyeonggi to follow his suggestion to delay it to 9 a.m. starting Monday.
Gyeonggi Education Office said that out of a total of 2,250 elementary and secondary schools in the province, 1,932 or 86 percent, adopted the new start time. It expects 69 more schools to follow suit, which would raise the participation rate to 88.9 percent.
Students generally welcome the change to allow them more time in the morning. Officials say an opinion poll conducted by the education office found that 7 out of 10 students supported the new start time.
But many parents and teachers are opposed. In particular, working parents who used to send their children off to school before they leave for work say it will be difficult to adapt to the new schedule. The Gyeonggi Education Office’s website is flooded with postings from such working parents and other opponents.
Teachers are not happy either. The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations is leading a campaign against the new school start time, saying that 8 out of 10 teachers oppose it. The KFTA also accuses Lee of infringing on the authority of principals to set the start time at their schools.
Some schools are ignoring the superintendent’s suggestion. A middle school in Hwaseong said it would keep the current 8:10 a.m. start time because a majority of its students and parents oppose beginning classes later.
The biggest problem is that Lee has rushed the change. It was in mid-July when Lee first suggested the new school start time. Many schools are still unprepared for consequences of the change, including how to take care of students who come in earlier than the new start time and adjustment of class times.
Our young students certainly need more time to sleep. But starting school at a later time is not the only solution to the problem, and moreover, a hurried change can cause unexpected problems.
It would have been better for Lee to push for the change after listening to more teachers, students and parents and implementing pilot programs. It would be better still if Lee’s initiative prompts discussions about improving the quality both of students’ lives and Korean education as a whole.