Some Thoughts on Education: Part 2

:

In Part 1 of this series of blog posts, I began my discussion of my experiences with educational privatization as an instructor at a Korean hagwon.  You can link to that post here.

In a best case scenario, the Korean hagwon system does what American public schools are already charged with doing.  They give extra help to students who need it or provide enrichment for advanced learners.  Some specialized afterschool programs allow children to further develop musical or kinesthetic aptitudes.  (One of our students, for example, attends a jump rope academy.)  Essentially, Korea removed substantive differentiation from its public schools, making it available to students and families after school through the hagwon system.  For a substantial fee.

In Part 1 of this series of blog posts, I began my discussion of my experiences with educational privatization as an instructor at a Korean hagwon.  You can link to that post here.

In a best case scenario, the Korean hagwon system does what American public schools are already charged with doing.  They give extra help to students who need it or provide enrichment for advanced learners.  Some specialized afterschool programs allow children to further develop musical or kinesthetic aptitudes.  (One of our students, for example, attends a jump rope academy.)  Essentially, Korea removed substantive differentiation from its public schools, making it available to students and families after school through the hagwon system.  For a substantial fee.

There is big money to be made in privatized education in Korea, especially in English instruction.  Especially if a native speaker teacher is involved.  Our students’ families pay somewhere around 200 US dollars per month so that their child can study English for 90 minutes a day Monday through Friday.  And this is before purchasing books.   But privatizing education in Korea costs families so much more than that.

First of all, the average Korean child doesn’t really have a childhood.  They start school later than American kids do (around age 7), but they begin almost immediately to feel pressure to study hard to get into a good university.  They are subjected to batteries of timed multiple choice examinations, both at public school and at academy.  The public school tests (which happen three or four times a year) often last five hours or more and test every subject.  I have students as young as nine or ten years old who do not get home from school and academy classes until 9:00 pm.  Some of my elementary school children go to bed after midnight; almost all of my middle schoolers do.

The public school systems also suffer because of the  hagwons.  Many of my friends who teach in public schools report that they can’t or don’t assign homework because students won’t do it.  Their parents have instilled in students that it’s more important to complete work for their hagwon.  My students themselves tell me that they often fall asleep during their public school classes, especially their English classes, because they aren’t engaged and don’t value public education (maybe because they don’t pay for it).  Also, they’re up all night studying and going to classes, which renders them exhausted during the day.

And the quality of product the hagwon system provides is dubious at best.  Since my school is a business first, and not a school, we have two goals—to maximize enrollment and to keep costs down.  This means I don’t readily have access to basic school supplies like tape and post-its, stuff I had at even the poorest public school.  It means we have to keep the children happy so that their parents keep paying school tuition.  Nothing is more dangerous than your job depending on satisfying an eight year old who has to come to your class after already putting in a full day at school and an hour at math academy.  ‘Cause you’re not going to win.

My teaching day becomes a balance between actually teaching and making sure I have a sea of shining happy learners whose parents will willingly pay next month’s tuition, thereby securing my paycheck.  I’ve spent eleven years in education, and here’s what I know about real learning.  It’s not always easy, pleasant, or FUN.  Sometimes learning involved failure.  It should always involve struggle.  Often, it means dusting yourself off and trying over and over again until you get it right.  Not the typical elementary schooler’s recipe for fun.

Teaching in a business means that parents exert enormous amounts of control over your curriculum, even when they’re not complaining.  For example, our parents don’t like spending a lot of extra money on books, which means we use the ones we have for longer than we’re supposed to.  Stretching a three month speaking textbook to six is not in my students’ best interest educationally, but it’s cheap.  It also means we use textbooks written by our school, which are usually created by Korean teachers who are already overworked and overwhelmed and who aren’t native English speakers.  These books are often littered with errors and inadequate teaching what we need to cover.

They exert even more control when they call to complain because Ji-won’s time with his native speaker teacher isn’t special enough, or they complain about the fact that Min-su had free time at the end of class today because he finished the woefully inadequate speaking book and all the supplemental worksheets you created ten minutes before everyone else did.   They control your working hours when they decide that they will send Jin-ju to another hagwon if yours doesn’t start offering the class she needs at 3 o’clock, never mind the fact that your school has a finite number of teachers and all of them are already teaching that period.  And we have to kowtow to them, to a certain extent, because we are run for profit and have to keep our parents happy.

Teaching in a business also means that social promotion is even worse than in American public schools.  When parents pay for kids to go to school, they expect to see results.  So, hagwons often inflate grades and promote students once they have spent a certain amount of time in a level, even if they aren’t necessarily ready to move on.  While most American public school teachers have seen a kid move on who wasn’t ready, here the problem is exacerbated to ridiculous proportions.  Some of the native English teachers here are not allowed to give students any negative feedback on their report cards, even if they refuse to work.  The result is rehearsed, cookie-cutter teacher comments that are ultimately meaningless and piles and piles of student work that never really gets graded.  The comments that we native speaker teachers write are particularly useless; not only are they fake, they are also in a language most of our parents can’t read.  But, parents like to see those pretty English words on progress reports, so I am required to write five sentences per child each time they go out.

Let’s not even start in on what paying for education has done to children whose families can’t afford it or how it affects kids now that the Korean economy is starting to slow.  One of my most eager students is currently taking AN ENTIRE YEAR off studying at the hagwon because his parents are using his tuition money to pay for additional academies for his older sister, who has to take the college entrance exam this year.  AN ENTIRE YEAR off.  Of a foreign language.

Teaching in a business also doesn’t particularly concern itself with teacher satisfaction.  Some of my Korean colleagues work seven days a week with no vacation time.  One of them was married for seven months before the school finally approved her to go on her honeymoon.  In the nine months we’ve been here, at least five Korean teachers have left our hagwon to go somewhere else, out of a teaching staff of about fifteen.  This kind of turnover is all too common in schools across the country. Since hagwons are concerned with profit, they primarily employee young teachers who will work for lower salaries, and they work them like wage slaves until they burn out.  Teaching conditions in America are already pretty bleak; I don’t see any way privatization will improve them.

In a nutshell, here are my observations about what privatized education has done in Korea.  It reduces public school to an underfunded, slighted stepsister whom no one takes seriously.  It turns children into walking won (the currency unit here in Korea) because business owners are more interested in profit potential than academic potential.  It also robs children of their creativity and ability to express original thought, because the hagwon system relies on batteries of standardized testing as a way to show tangible progress to parents.  It puts inferior tools in the hands of teachers.  And at the end of the day, the kids’ English ability isn’t really noticeably different from our second level of instruction through to our fifth or sixth.   I hear these sentiments (and a variety of other frustrations unique to life as a foreign teacher) repeated over and over again by my colleagues.

In America, I think we envision a move to privatization as something that will transform our schools into those gorgeous, ivy-covered buildings in Dead Poet’s Society.  And that just might happen, for our most elite students whose parents can afford big bucks for tuition.  Elite hagwons and private schools exist here, and they offer superb educational opportunities for students.  However, the average child, the one who is at this moment being served by the American public school system, won’t be strolling those ivy-covered halls.  He or she will be sitting in an Americanized version of a school just like mine.  A school owned by someone who isn’t a teacher, a school that, at the end of the day, defines progress as profit.  Is that what we want for our students’ academic future?

Look for Part 3 soon, wherein I posit some suggestions for fixing America’s educational ills that don’t involve auctioning our children and teachers off to the lowest bidder.

Filed under: Uncategorized



Leave a Comment