Korea's Competitive Advantage Shrinking: Korea's Education System to Blame? by Tom Coyner

The U.S. in particular has taken notice of Korea’s academic excellence. Korea's education system has been held up as a contrary example to what’s not quite right with America. That is, until recently when the Huffington Post, the New York Times, and other American media began publishing accounts by Koreans of the purgatory that had been previously passed off as merely childhood here.

One may suppose that the long-term future in terms of international competitiveness looks much more promising for South Korea than the U.S. But further examination suggests that may not be so.

The good news for South Korea is over 80% of its young have some kind of college education, with a high school dropout rate being virtually zero. In contrast, the U.S. high school dropout rate is over 25%, with some states exceeding 40%.

While Korea has one of the best-educated populations in the world, there are problems. For example, in the Times Higher Education World University Ranking, Seoul National University places 44th with only three other Asian universities rated higher. The other higher rated schools are primarily American plus a handful of European and other Western schools.

Korean students are almost automatically promoted each year to the next grade by basically showing up. But they must prepare for highly rigorous entrance examinations, particularly when entering a highly regarded university. Yet once admitted, the students are almost guaranteed to graduate.

American students must meet minimum achievement criteria or be held back a year until they can qualify for the next grade. One in four U.S. ninth graders do not graduate from high school on schedule.

Korean students essentially live and die according to their ability to pass standard education and university entrance tests, essentially made up of multiple-choice tests. The process promotes rote learning in which there is only one right answer to a given question. Korea’s Tiger Moms create a purgatory consisting of long hours in cram schools where students strive to master these tests.

To enter American universities, U.S. students must take Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) that are primarily, but not entirely, multiple-choice tests. They also should be taking reasonably challenging coursework during their high school years. And to get into truly competitive universities, beyond having very high SAT scores and straight A high school grades, the applicants must prove substantial additional achievements in athletics, student government, community service, and/or artistic or musical accomplishments. And in some schools, such as Harvard, the entrance personal interview also plays a key role in determining who is or isn’t admitted.

While many American students don’t even graduate from high school, about 58% of the students go on to college. Most go to relatively inexpensive, local public schools. Entrance requirements are not demanding, but as with more prestigious universities, graduation is not guaranteed. Less that a third of college freshmen gain their bachelors degrees and only about 40% complete two years of college.

In Korea there is a common academic standard for excellence that will allow only the best to be admitted into a dozen schools’ better departments. Upon graduation, these blessed few have promising opportunities to be successful, as narrowly defined by Korean society. Success is nominally defined by making much money as a professional or a business executive in a chaebol company, or perhaps as a teacher at a prestigious school, which in turn allows for lucrative side income. Even pastors are not so well regarded unless they lead large and affluent congregations.

Today, most Korean families can send all of their children to college. But classroom seats at the top dozen universities among 370 higher education institutions has not matched this mushrooming supply of students. More and more students are graduating from less well-regarded schools and often without exceptional skills beyond test taking. At the same time, increased competition leads to academic qualifications inflation within the hiring process.

The American model is more complicated. There are high crime and poverty rates among the substantial high school dropout population. At the same time, due to increased competition to enter top universities, America’s elite pushes their children to excel in multiple fields, including academics. The middle majority consists of students that attend relatively mediocre universities. However, within this largest sector of universities, there is a very wide array of students in terms of academic and other abilities. Consequently, there are fewer stigmas with graduating from less than a top university. Furthermore, the American definition of success is much broader and more liberal than Korea's.

Many of these national differences may be traced to the disparities of potential wealth to educational achievement. America is a much wealthier society with a proportionately smaller population. It also has a culture that believes that failure is often regarded as a preliminary step to later success.

America’s education promotes greater creativity and flexibility, but at significant social costs, whereas almost all Koreans get a good but narrowly focused education. As a possible result, Korean companies currently appear to be stumbling in adopting to change in spite of highly intelligent and well educated, but often inflexible leadership.

Many Koreans recognize these shortcomings and call for education reform. But due to narrowly defined standards of success, Tiger Moms force their children into cram schools. And that’s just the beginning. In the end, Korea appears to be competing with less imaginative leadership when creativity is in greater demand globally than ever.

By Tom Coyner.  Senior Adviser to IPG.  Tom has, recently, began a new business.  His new business is his lifetime love - photograph.   Tom may be contacted at: tom@softlandingkorea.com