Cartoon from the Chosun Ilbo, March 12th in which two Korean kids are telling the two Obama children to not believe what their father said about Korean education.
I've been getting quite a few hits from people looking for information about President Obama's remarks on Korean education, so I thought I'd try and write it up more fully than trying to blog between classes last week allowed. President Obama didn't "laud" Korea's education of children. He has no plans to put a cram school on every corner and a "discipline stick" in every teacher's hand. The high monetary and social costs of private education aren't coming your way. Your kids won't be in class until 11 pm each night, and they won't be in school six days a week 27 months out of the year. Actually, rather than straining myself to make a bigger introduction, why not just reprint what he did say. Here are his two mentions of Korea, excerpted from the transcript of the speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Congress available from the New York Times:
Now, even as we foster innovation in where our children are learning, let's also foster innovation in when our children are learning. We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children -- listen to this -- our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea -- every year. That's no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy. That's why I'm calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time -– whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it. (Applause.)
Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas. (Laughter.) Not with Malia and Sasha -- (laughter) -- not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.
The local media in South Korea focused on these two mentions, twice in seven sentences, with headlines like "Obama Lauds Korea's Education of Children" and "Obama Cites Korea for Educational Excellence." American outlets, on the other hand, looked at the bigger picture. "Obama backs teacher merit pay, charter schools," writes the AP. What overseas readers will need to understand is what happened in the Korean media here isn't that uncommon; fixating on the Korean side of the story at the expense of the bigger picture, rubbing themselves at getting attention in the "international" section for something other than Kim Jong-il or violent protests.
The second mention doesn't really look like a compliment at all, but more like somebody roughly saying "some place you don't know or care about is doing this, so of course we can, too!" Not to say Barack Obama doesn't care about South Korea---hell, the man knows a little Korean (not her)---but the first example reads more like a generic one-off comment than a thoughtful, exhaustive assessment of the Korean public school system.
Korea does have a lot to teach the US about schooling, most importantly its attitude toward education, which in America's case is embarrassing. But just be careful not to read too much into Obama's comments. Choi Yong-hearn, the Korea Times columnist ridiculed on this site a few times for his obsession with the Liancourt Rocks, Sea of Japan, and bad poetry, has done a bit of that recently.
The Korean school system has all kinds of problems. Many Korean people are ashamed of their schools. Many students feel that their schools are ``hell'' even today.
However, President Obama admires South Korea's schools and their products, educated manpower. He praised the Korean students who are competitive among students in advanced nations.
Korean students' performance is known to be superb, especially in the fields of mathematics and science. American teachers are amazed at Korean students' math and science scores. Obama's recent statement is just a reflection of the American people's admiration of Korean schools.
Amazing amplification of his comments there. And Choi, like the Chosun Ilbo cartoon atop this post and the original Korea Times piece that seemed to have spawned this whole distortion among people who haven't read Obama's full remarks, has pointed out some of the flaws of the Korean education system, mistakenly thinking Obama has endorsed it.
It's beyond the scope of this blog to give a full write-up on Korean education; I'll leave that to the many textbooks and articles already written by those paid to do it. I will just address the part about Koreans spending a month longer in school than their American counterparts. I think people are a little afraid of hearing this because the idea of a three-month long summer vacation is as American as apple pie. But just looking at Korea we can see it's practical, doable, and probably a good idea.
Students here go to school 220 days out of the year, compared to 180 in the US. Their school day is relatively the same length, though high school students are sometimes in school from dawn to late at night, sometimes even sleeping in dormitories. There is a half-day on Saturday twice a month, which is comprised in part of a "club activity": select activities include quilting, film, English club, and TOEFL prep. Students lives revolve around tests, and when these tests are finished they have down time. In December, after the final tests wrap-up the students have two or three weeks of little more than movies, cleaning, and most importantly, winter festival preparation.
As President Obama said, year-round school sounds scary to students and parents, but following Korea's example we can see it's not that bad at all. Students have roughly two months off in the winter and about five weeks off in the summer. To make up for those Saturdays, American schools might have to shave off a week or two here and there, though having a month-and-a-half off in the summer and a month off for Christm, er, "winter holiday" maybe isn't such a bad idea. And, well, considering how poorly American students are peforming, and how complacent we've become, I don't think we're really in a position to whine about taking away vacation.
In spite of the flaws of Korean education, which the Korean media likes to point out thinking its clever, we have a lot we can learn from South Korea, most importantly its passion for education. We can bicker about how efficient all this extra schooling actually is, but the attitude people have to school and schoolwork makes me embarrassed for my own education culture. I long for the day when Americans recognize that their position as a global power isn't guaranteed, and is contingent on learning how the world works and how they can succeed in it. And in the short-term I long for the day when Korean columnists knock off this crap about Obama and Korean education.