President Lee Myung-bak yesterday called for more efforts to improve education as disputes are rising over elite high schools and university admission.
He also said he felt sorry to hear U.S. President Barack Obama praise Korea's educational system after their meeting last month.
"I felt sorry ... I am very dissatisfied (with our education)," Lee said during a policy report from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
"There have been many changes but the changes have yet to be stabilized, causing much concern for the people."
The paper makes a very loose connection between the presidents: one is "dissatisfied" with South Korea's education sytsem, the other praised it. But as I wrote twice---on March 11th and March 22nd---after the first time Obama spoke kindly of Korean education, don't make too much of it. The local papers certainly went crazy over his comments in March, but if you take a look at them you'll see he only mentions Korea twice:
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.
If you really think about that excerpt, you get the idea that he's not so much selecting South Korea for praise as he is saying "if a country most of you think is war-torn and backwards can produce smart kids, hell, so can we." However local media ran with headlines like "Obama Lauds Korea's Education of Children" and "Obama Cites Korea for Educational Excellence." One columnist read a lot into those two short mentions:
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.
Indeed it looked like some in the media---a media that is quite hard on Korea's education system---put words in Obama's mouth simply to discredit them for the sake of argument.
That's a Chosun Ilbo cartoon from March 12th, in which the Korean kids are telling Obama children not to believe their father's hype. Well, though he talked about spending more time in school, I don't think he even came close to suggesting American students spend twelve hours in a classroom, see their families not but on weekends, and live their young lives only for standardized tests. These suggestions would be quite foreign, actually, and probably wouldn't even occur to most Americans. There are postive aspects of Korean education, things that ought to be above politics and bad journalism.
From tonight's Herald article again:
When Obama asked about the strength of Korean education, Lee said parents' strong aspirations had made it possible for Korean children to receive good education. As a result the nation was able to develop its economy and pull out of poverty, he told Obama.
Lee also told the U.S. leaders that all Koreans want to learn English and thousands of young Americans teach the language here.
Since the conversation, Obama has mentioned Korean parents' strong educational zeal on three official occasions.
Here's what CNN.com said about it:
A conversation last week with South Korea's president apparently showed President Obama the stark difference between how Asian nations and the United States value education.
Obama said Monday that the U.S. needs to restore the nation's leadership in educating children in math and science to meet future challenges, and he announced a new Educate to Innovate Campaign.
He told how President Lee Myung-bak explained that demanding parents are South Korea's biggest education problem.
"Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education," Obama recalled the conversation, sounding almost whimsical in describing Lee's biggest education problem as parents wanting excellent schools for their children.
In the U.S., a major challenge is to revive the interest, opportunities and abilities of students in math and science, Obama said.
Nothing in the president's comments in March or November indicate that he's remotely close to adopting some of the nastier things that go along with "zeal"---expensive cram schools, broken families, intense pressure to succeed---and unless you read his comments in March cynically, everything he's said so far about South Korean education has been positive and should be a source of pride.