Lately, there have been a few trending education articles in the U.S that have mentioned the South Korean education system, comparing it favorably to that of the American K-12 ed system. These references to Korean education, and other Asian education exemplars, Hong Kong, Shanghai, etc, follow the usual U.S. media narrative of marvel, favorable comparison and limited perspective. There are certainly many aspects of the Han River Miracle which can be attributed to praiseworthy aspects of the Korean education system. And I would always acknowledge the value in observing and taking note of the strengths and innovations of foreign education systems. However, in my opinion and with few exceptions, U.S. educators, policy makers and journalists tend to selectively cite the Korean education system, ignorant to a few key realities here. As a Native English Teacher currently teaching in a public elementary school in the Jeollanamdo Province of South Korea, I’d like to make a few observations in response to a couple recent headline-making ed articles in the US.
OECD Instructional Hours
First, in a widely-read guest post on Valerie Strauss’ blog in The Washington Post, Ellie Herman makes a compelling argument on the extreme challenges that result in high rates of teacher burnout in inner-city, high-poverty American schools. I want to first say that I do not for one minute doubt the veracity of her burnout story, as I have seen it happen first-hand with my classroom teacher colleagues in a Title I public school in Seattle that I worked at before coming to Korea. I know that teachers in these challenging, high-poverty schools in the U.S. operate in “executive function overload” for most, if not all, of the school year. Part of the problem certainly is disproportionate amount of instructional time versus planning time in the US. Herman also writes about the other major problem, that teacher “planning time” is either so structured and prescribed by district mandates, Common Core trainings, staff meetings, or Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) that it cannot seriously be considered planning time. Or, teachers have many parents to contact, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting to attend to discuss the special needs of one student, a School Improvement Team (SIT) meeting to attend to discuss the behavior of one student, nevermind a leadership team or union meeting to help further an innovative school or professional initiative. For me, there is no question that in most Title I schools in the U.S. there is little to no time during a long work day to actually plan relevant, differentiated lessons. That kind of lesson planning requires time to reflect, time to create materials and time with a brain that is not in a constant state of emergency.
That being said, there is one statistic cited in Herman’s piece that I had to question and feeds into the rosy and incomplete picture of the Korean education system that many Americans most likely have. Herman writes that according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the research and policy organization of the developed world, “the average secondary school teacher in the U.S. puts in 1,051 instructional hours per year” while the average Korean teacher puts in 609 hours. Admittedly, I am not sure where that Korean instructional hours number comes from exactly, how it was calculated or what report Herman found it in. This is what I do know, the average Korean homeroom teacher on the elementary level spends at least four hours a day in front of students according to my own Korean colleagues in my school. That means that in a single school year, which lasts 220 days here versus 180 days in the US, the average homeroom teacher would teach 880 hours. From what I know the same estimation would be true for secondary teachers here in Korea, and this is a conservative estimate for both. Even if you estimate an average of four instructional hours a day over a 180 day school year, Korean teachers would still teach 720 instructional hours per year on average.
As you can see, my rudimentary calculations confuse the OECD findings for me. I speculate that the Korea number and the U.S. number are skewed, Korea to the lower end and the U.S. to the higher end. In Korea they hire many contract teachers, a category of teacher we do not have in the American public schools system. These contract teachers may teach a specific subject like art, music or English and have a defined amount of weekly instructional hours that may average out to 3 hours or less per day. In contrast, in the U.S. we do have some 0.5 FTE teachers, but usually we bring their status up to 1.0 by combining part-time positions, or the teacher has full-time instructional hours cobbled together at multiple schools. Thus, these contract teachers may skew the number downward for Korea, while the hiring and funding systems of the U.S. produce more teachers with full-time instructional hour schedules.
OECD Homework Hours
Another OECD education statistic which confused me this last week came from a Vox.com article on the amount of time students spend on homework in developed countries. Again, I am unsure of the methods that the OECD used to collect this homework data, nor I am sure of what specific OECD education report Vox is referencing. In any case, the article displays the following graph which shows that Korea is second only to Finland in how few hours students spend on homework per week.
This statistic absolutely shocked me as a teacher currently working in Korea. Unless the Korean education system has significantly ramped up the amount of homework given to students since 2012, and did so without regard for the already outstanding PISA results of their students, then I am baffled as to how this number was tabulated. I have no hard data on the amount of homework my elementary students or secondary students in general in Korea undertake each week, but within the country the workload of Korean students is notoriously and proudly high. Parents and educators are not ashamed to say that students should spend long, hard hours studying. For example, most of the students at my school attend the famous or infamous hagwons or after-school academies where they sometimes get even more rigorous instruction in STEM subjects, English as a Second Language, or the arts as they do in their regular homeroom. More to the point, students receive homework from their hagwon on top of the homework they get from school. I would assume that most of my elementary students do more than OECD number of three hours per week in homework just from their regular school studies. And from what they tell me, and what I see after school, they are doing much more than that when you include their hagwon workload. I’m talking about 3rd and 4th graders here!
Korean Education Realities
In the past few weeks there have been two realities that have been revealed to me about the Korean education system, which I somehow suspect will never make it into a Washington Post international education policy article. These facts of the Korean education system are completely unrelated to each other, but they both add some complexity to the discourse about the merits and shortcomings of the Korean and American systems.
The first is an allegedly atrocious act by a Korean hagwon teacher here in Yeosu, my town of residence. The police have taken into custody a teacher who allegedly beat a 6th grade student with a Kendo stick causing her to fall, hit her head and die. The police are investigating, but there are reports that the girl stole something from the unregistered, illegal hagwon and at the request of her parents she was corporally punished by the hagwon teacher, leading to her death. Corporal punishment was essentially outlawed in schools in 2012, but there is a significant legacy here and it is not without it’s proponents in the current teacher ranks in Korea.
Second, in my teacher certification program we were asked to identify the primary objectives of the district in which we work so that we could align our unit and lesson planning to meet both the district objectives and the educational standards. I worked with my wonderful Korean co-teacher to translate the Jeollanamdo Office of Education objectives into English. The one that stood out was this, “Reduce the workload of teachers.” I think most teachers in the U.S. would consider this an unfathomable objective to propose in a district strategic planning meeting, even if they thought it to be a good and reasonable idea that would net better outcomes for students.
I mention these two things because they add some nuance to the perception of the Korean education system. Like most things, the system here is not black and white, it is not all academic gains and happy students, nor is it all rigorous teaching based on extensive planning time. There are significant systemic problems here too. These problems are functions of the local culture and context, just as many of the strengths of the Korean education system result from the specific socioeconomic and cultural situation of the country. I think Ellie Herman makes a strong case for more unstructured planning time for U.S. teachers and I also think there is significant research that says that, depending on the developmental stage of a student, a certain amount of homework can start to do more harm than good. Considering our unique makeup in America, Korea and Finland will not always show us the way educationally speaking, and these statistical comparisons can act as red herrings. If the logic and the research are there, lets rely more heavily on those arguments. If we are going to use international comparisons to boost our policy point, lets be more rigorous in our acknowledgement of the nuance unique to each educational system.