“In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders. I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect right here in the United States of America” This is what was said of the South Korean education system by President Obama, who has praised the system several times. Higher education is viewed as one of the fundamental values of South Korean life, where academic success is often a source of pride for families and within society.
Most students go through six years of primary school, three years of middle school, and three years of high school before they move on to college. A basic school day usually begins at around 8:00 AM. Each class period is held for fifty minutes each with a morning break and a fifty minute lunch period. Teachers typically move from room to room while students stay in one place. Then, the school day is over by 4:00 or 4:30, usually ending with a cleaning of the classroom.
As noted by President Obama, the great respect held for teachers is evident. Discipline cases are generally handled by the student’s homeroom teacher, who then talks with the student and his or her family. In addition to administering discipline, homeroom teachers offer counseling, help students with college applications, and maintain contact with parents. In general, Korean teachers have more responsibility for counseling students and controlling their behavior than do teachers in the US. Korean culture grants teachers the same authority as parents and attributes even greater responsibility for children’s moral and academic development.
The school calendar is divided into semesters. With summer and winter breaks in between, the year is divided into two semesters: March to July and September-February. Attendance requirements call for a minimum of 220 days for all levels of school. The curriculum is prescribed by law, as with the criteria for textbooks and instructional materials.
Perhaps the most drastic difference between students in America and South Korea is what they do after school. While most students in America engage in sports, clubs, or extracurricular activities after school, students in South Korea will return home for a brief dinner break then go right to private tutoring sessions until about 10 PM or midnight. These sessions take place in what are known as “hagwons.” In fact, South Korean parents spend thousands of dollars a year on after-school tuition, not on a private tutor coming to the home once or twice a week, but on private schooling on an industrial scale. There are just under 100,00 hagwons in South Korea and around three-quarters of children attend them.
Much like the SATs, South Korean high school seniors must take a college entrance exam. However, much unlike the SATs, this test, known as the Suneung, is a five part, multiple choice exam that takes nearly eight hours to complete. The importance that Korean society places on it also makes it far more intense.
Education has contributed to the growth of Korea’s democratic government. The comprehensive reform plans by the Ministry of Education in 1995 continue to enjoy much public and professional support. A wide spectrum of the society recognizes the need for lifelong learning as a stepping stone toward social and economic improvement.