On incentives and education

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One story from the Joongang Daily brought a laugh – and a tear. Hat tip to the idiots’ collective for writing a good post as well:

The Education Ministry said yesterday that applicants to foreign language high schools who say they received private education or tutoring will be disadvantaged.

The move is the ministry’s latest effort to address concerns that changes in the foreign language high schools admission process will further overheat the private education market.Let’s point out the obvious flaw of logic in the first paragraph: “applicants…who say they received private education or tutoring…”.

One story from the Joongang Daily brought a laugh – and a tear. Hat tip to the idiots’ collective for writing a good post as well:

The Education Ministry said yesterday that applicants to foreign language high schools who say they received private education or tutoring will be disadvantaged.

The move is the ministry’s latest effort to address concerns that changes in the foreign language high schools admission process will further overheat the private education market.Let’s point out the obvious flaw of logic in the first paragraph: “applicants…who say they received private education or tutoring…”. In other words, tell the truth and be disadvantaged; lie by omission and gain an advantage, gambling that you won’t get caught. If caught and rejected, apologize and say you ‘didn’t understand the new rules’. Complain to some higher-up that you weren’t given a fair shake. Throw enough crap at the wall and see what sticks. See A Geek in Korea for a great example of how it’s being tried at the university level.


The idea behind this move is to curb the so-called “private education fever” that grips the country – while true that hagwon fees are rising, I submit that they rise in direct correlation to how much perceived pressure there is for a parent to send their child to them. This perception, of course, assumes that the public school system is inadequate for success, and as such kids must be sent to one or more hagwon. Last month we heard about the first middle schooler to get a perfect score on the TOEFL iBT – and she supposedly never attended a hagwon.

The ministry said earlier that foreign language high schools will introduce an admission process that emphasizes “self-led study” for 2011.

“Self-led study”? That starts with a desire to learn; for most Korean students, the only motivation and incentive a child has to study is to either A: please a parent who will thwack them if they get a sub-standard score, B: go along with a parent’s dream of getting into a SKY school (Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University – similar to the Ivy Leagues in the U.S.), or C: be that rare child that hasn’t gotten the motivation to learn beaten out of him or drained by boring lessons. Far more likely will be the child whose parent takes it on themselves to ‘self-lead’ studies.

An ability to learn without private lessons will become a key factor when applying to the schools. Admissions officers will measure self-study by examining applicants’ study plans, reading recommendation letters from middle school principals and reviewing English scores for applicants’ second and third years at middle school. They will also conduct interviews. English listening tests, written exams and interviews asking about applicants’ knowledge of specific subjects will be banned.

I fully agree that being able to learn from the best available resources on one’s own is the best way to learn. You are responsible for your own success – not your parents, your siblings, your upbringing, your social class, your race, your gender, your country – YOU. However you label success, it’s up to you. When given equal opportunity at the best learning materials using best available methods, the cream rises to the top.

The problem, however, is the implementation. This cat-and-mouse game of ‘change the standards to try to make a more level playing field’ only serves to see how fast an industry can shift gears. For example, they will review “English scores for applicants’ second and third years at middle school” – which serves to amp up the pressure on tests in those two formative years.

The ministry said yesterday that applicants who report their scores for foreign language aptitude tests, such as TOEFL, will lose points.

Another problem easily solved by the quick-thinking company or parent – if you feel the need to take the TOEFL, don’t report it to this school! This application or form, however it’s designed, is unlikely to have the same auditing / checking capabilities as, say, the American IRS.

Finally, the hagwon industry itself can easily readjust itself. A given school can promote itself as being ‘below the radar’ or ‘discreet’ in that it won’t report things to the powers-that-ask. They’ll be an otherwise credible business that offers many legitimate classes. They simply wouldn’t acknowledge or keep records of some students involvement. Short of a full-scale crackdown, a government agency would have a hard time proving something when the student, parent, and school denies it.

Creative Commons License © Chris Backe – 2009

This post was originally published on my blog, Chris in South Korea. If you are reading this on another website and there is no linkback or credit given, you are reading an UNAUTHORIZED FEED.



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