OECD Report Says High Participation in Private Tutoring in Korea is Pernicious

A major factor in the success of East Asian schools in international tests is the long hours students devote to homework and after school tutoring. A chapter in a new report from the OECD shows that Korea has amongst the highest participation in after-school tutoring in the world. It says that participation is much higher amongst students from affluent families and is exacerbating social inequality. Private tutoring is also narrowing education experience and harming the rounded development of students and their well-being.

Korea ranks equal first with Japan in the share of students engaged in after-school tutoring in mathematics of the 65 countries participating in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The latest PISA study shows that 77 per cent of 15 year-old students in Korea and Japan participate in tutoring after school compared to only 19 per cent in Australia. In Shanghai, the proportion is 71 per cent and in Singapore 70 per cent.

Korea has the highest percentage of students participating in after school tutoring in national language learning and equal second highest in science and other subjects. The Korean percentages are more than double the OECD average in every subject.

Korea also has the highest percentage of students attending after-school mathematics tutoring lessons for four or more hours a week (30 per cent). Some students are engaged in private tutoring for 25 hours per week and tutoring also occurs during school holidays.

The OECD report shows that private tutoring is big business in Korea. In 2010, expenditure on tutoring was estimated at $US 17.3 billion in Korea. It represented 1.8 per cent of GDP and had more than doubled since 1997. Korea has nearly 100,000 private tutoring organisations, called hagwons.

The report says that families of students with higher academic performance tend to participate more frequently, and invest more money, in tutoring than those with lower academic performance. In Korea, participation in private tutoring by students in the top 30 per cent of their class is over 80 per cent compared to less than 50 per cent in the bottom 20 per cent. Outlays per student for the upper group are more than double those for the lower group.

Participation in tutoring is highly correlated with socio-economic background. Almost all students from affluent backgrounds are engaged in tutoring compared to half of those from the poorest backgrounds. Eighty per cent of students from families earning three to four million Korean won a month are engaged in private tutoring compared to only 36 per cent of students from families with a monthly income of less than one million won. For households with income over six million won per month, enrolment rates are nearly 90 per cent.

The extent of tutoring in Korea is related to the stratification of the education system. Strong performance in key examinations can facilitate entrance into high quality secondary schools and prestigious universities, which are likely to translate into better employment opportunities and higher standards of living.

Parents perceive that not attending a hagwon places children at a competitive disadvantage. Students attend hagwons to gain a head start and, since participation is widespread, to keep up with their peers in their chances to enter the most prestigious universities. Competition in the entrance examination is fierce.

Korean universities serve as a sorting mechanism for entry into elite professions. Much emphasis is placed on where a person studied rather than on their abilities. Nearly 90 per cent of senior officials in Korea, 83 per cent of members of parliament and 82 per cent of senior executives graduated from one of Korea’s top 20 universities (from a total of 190).

The report is damning on the effects of private tutoring in Korea:

…the prevalent aspects of high levels and intensity of supplementary education stand out as especially pernicious: supplementary education exacerbates socio-economic inequalities and deteriorates students’ well-being. [p.92]

One effect is that it places disadvantaged students on an even more unequal footing in university entrance examinations, thereby exacerbating social inequalities and perpetuating them across generations.

It also narrows the education experience and skills of students. Since entrance examinations test knowledge rather than analysis or understanding, tutoring is biased towards testable content and instruction focuses on providing the right responses. It provides students with skills to do well in exams rather than engaging them in a genuine pursuit of knowledge and understanding. In Korea, nearly half of students attend hagwons that focus mainly on rote learning and preparation for examinations.

The report says that long hours of tutoring can also affect the well-being of students. It can dominate students’ lives and restrict their leisure activities in ways that are detrimental to well-rounded development. At the end of secondary education, when students generally intensify their participation in supplementary education, they tend to abandon sports, music and arts, and limit their interpersonal relationships

Beyond more immediate physiological risks due to exhaustion or safety risks associated with the late hours spent outside the home, the potential psychological costs to students and to society at large are referred by some as an “examination hell” that students must pass through on their way to higher education. Excessive pressure can cause social and health issues and, at the extreme, can contribute to suicide. There is evidence of higher rates of clinical depression among Korean adolescents (as compared to their American peers) that are related to tutoring. In Japan, suicide rates are a major concern as it is the second main cause of death among 15-24 year-olds and achievement-oriented pressure is often cited as a plausible cause.

The report notes that limited research is available on supplementary education, particularly in regard to its impact on educational achievement. Surveys and case studies point to the positive impact of supplementary education on educational achievement in some contexts. However, no methodologically sound experiment has been conducted on a large scale yet to establish a clear link.

The Korean government has gone through a succession of different reforms since the 1960s that have focused on reducing family motivation in seeking private tutoring and its negative impact on equity. These included the abolition of lower secondary school entrance examinations and putting a curfew on the operating hours of hagwons. However, these efforts have not been very successful.

The report canvasses a range of policies that could reduce the harm done by private tutoring. These include reducing the importance of examinations, revising the school curricula to reduce the emphasis on rote learning and increased regulation of private tutoring firms. Teacher qualifications, pedagogy, class size, and curriculum content in hagwons tend to be loosely or not regulated. Such changes have been strongly resisted by the tutoring industry.

Another policy option being tried is public programs to provide greater support for disadvantaged students by after-hours or weekend instruction in public schools at a subsidised rate. This has had some success. In Korea, low-cost after-school lessons are offered at virtually all primary and secondary schools in order to enable students to enrich and supplement knowledge of subjects. The number of students participating in such programmes (both free and paid) rose from 43 per cent when they were introduced in 2006 to 65 per cent in 2011,with higher rates for low-income families and those in rural areas, who have less access to hagwons.

The report is another reminder to Australian education policy makers that trying to emulate East Asian success in international tests could have detrimental effects on our students and society.

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