South Korea is some of the most successful countries in the world in terms of education results. In 2009, it ranked equal second behind Shanghai in the top reading results on the OECD’s Programme for International Assessments (PISA), equal fourth in mathematics and equal third in science. One factor in this success is its high participation in private after-school tutoring in cram schools.
Cram schools, or hagwons as they are called, are big business in South Korea. About 75 per cent of all South Korean students participate in the private tutoring market. Some 88 per cent of primary school students, 78 per cent of junior high school students, and 63 per cent of senior high school students are engaged in private tutoring.
In 2012, South Korean parents spent more than $US17 billion on after-school private tutoring services, called hagwons. The South Korean education market is so profitable that it attracts investments from firms like Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group and A.I.G.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal highlighted their significance with a feature on one tutor who earns $US4 million a year and who is part of the celebrity culture surrounding private tutors in South Korea and several other East Asian countries. The tutor, Kim Ki-hoon, has rock star status in South Korea. The bulk of his earnings come from the 150,000 students who watch his lectures online each year. The Wall Street Journal article says he is a brand name, with all the overhead that such prominence in the market entails. He employs 30 people to help him manage his teaching empire and runs a publishing company to produce his books.
Private tutors now outnumber school teachers in South Korea. Many are celebrities like Kim Ki-hoon. To find rock-star teachers, hagwon directors scour the Internet, reading parents’ reviews and watching teachers’ lectures. Competing hagwons routinely try to poach one another’s celebrity tutors.
The celebrity status of successful tutors is not confined to South Korea. In Hong Kong, they feature on posters in shopping malls and on the sides of buses in glamorous poses with sophisticated hair-do’s and designer trappings. As in South Korea, some have become millionaires and appear regularly on television shows.
The Wall Street Journal article attributes part of the success of South Korea in improving its education results over the past decades to the growth of hagwons. However, it has also had a downside:
…it also creates a bidding war for education, delivering the best services to the richest families, to say nothing of its psychological toll on students. Under this system, students essentially go to school twice – once during the day and then again at night at the tutoring academies. It is a relentless grind.
This takes an incredible toll on students. Anecdotal stories abound of teachers complaining about students sleeping in day-time classes because of long hours of after-school tutoring. Some students attend up to four hagwons every day after school.
It also has an education toll. Private tutoring tends to reinforce rote learning, takes time away from other subjects, and reduces the available time to develop non-cognitive skills. The Asian Development Bank says that the shadow education world of private tutoring is casting a long shadow on Asian education:
….shadow education risks dominating the lives of young people and their families, maintaining and exacerbating social inequalities, diverting needed household income into an unregulated industry, and creating inefficiencies in education systems.
As a whole, the trend reinforces poor education practice and inequality in education provision in societies. It also has negative implications for education planning and sustainable public and private financing of education.
The quality of hagwons is highly variable, as is the quality of private tutoring elsewhere. Teachers do not need to be certified. Children of the most affluent parents can afford one-on-one tutoring with the most popular celebrity instructors, while others attend inferior hagwons with huge class sizes, often over 100, and less reliable instruction.
This may be a factor in South Korea’s increasing spread of PISA test scores since 2000. South Korea had one of the largest increases in the spread of reading scores of all the countries participating in PISA in 2000 and 2009.
There have been attempts to reduce the influence of hagwons. In the 1980s, the South Korean government issued a blanket prohibition on such private tutoring. However, it proved to be unenforceable. In 2009, the government adopted measures to limit the number of hours students spent in hagwons to reduce childhood stress and increase the level of creative thinking. This has had limited impact and pushed many tutorial classes online.
More recently, the government has decided that the only way to change is to alter the exam culture, reducing the number of university entrance exams and encouraging universities to consider applicants on more than just exam scores.