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International Journal of Educational Research 35 (2001) 609618

Chapter 6

Why do South Korean students study hard? Reections on Paiks study

Yunhan Hwang
Gwangju National University of Education, 1-1 Poonghyang-dong, Buk-gu, Gwangju 500-703, South Korea

Abstract In this chapter, Professor Hwang reects on the ndings of the study. He re-examines the cost of education in South Korea and the United States, the importance of time spent studying outside of school, and the importance of mathematics in the South Korean culture. He then moves to a discussion of other reasons that South Korean middle school students outperform their US counterparts on mathematics achievement tests, emphasizing long-standing sociocultural traditions. r 2002 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd.

Why do we care about educational productivity? When the national economy does well, few people seem to care about educational productivity and its signicance. However, as we have experienced in the 1980s in the US and in the 1990s in South Korea, when the economy weakens, educational productivity concerns arise. We begin to think seriously again about the productive relationship between input and outcomes (Brimelow, 1987). Education not only benets students, but it is also a key factor in advancing a nations social, political, and economic prosperity. In an age of rapidly expanding knowledge and worldwide economic competition, policy makers concerns go beyond diplomas and degrees. They are concerned with how much students have actually learned and to the degree which their knowledge, skills, and attitudes have prepared them for occupations, civic participation, and constructive leisure pursuits (Walberg, 1992).

1. Exploring and dening educational productivity Paik explores this national concern by comparing educational productivity of South Korean and American middle school students. After initially reading her title I
E-mail address: (Y. Hwang). 0883-0355/02/$ - see front matter r 2002 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. PII: S 0 8 8 3 - 0 3 5 5 ( 0 2 ) 0 0 0 1 4 - 9


Y. Hwang / Int. J. Educ. Res. 35 (2001) 609618

was curious as to how she might compare educational productivity between two different societies. Since education is a complicated enterprise involving all kinds of philosophical, sociological, psychological, and cultural factors, this comparison presents several challenging variables. Paik, however narrows her study to mathematics test scores and does a superb job comparing educational productivity in South Korea and the US by framing variables within Walbergs Nine-factor Productivity Model. I was also amazed by the comprehensive literature review provided on Korean education which anticipated many of the results and conclusions. I was also curious as to how Paik would dene the term, educational productivity. Traditionally, educational productivity has been associated with Hallaks (1967) study, Efciency in Education or Monks (1992) report, Educational Productivity Research. Educational productivity has also been dened from various philosophical, sociological, psychological, and political perspectives. Paik, however, realistically narrows it down to a measurable conceptachievement test scoresbased on TIMSS data, dening it along the lines of a psychological productivity model. In this regard, one might say that the question at hand is, Why are mathematics scores of South Korean students higher than US students? Hence, my comments on Paiks study will be supplementary to her vast literature review, which may enhance more of the readers understanding of South Korean educational productivity after the educational reform of 1995 (PCER, 1995).

2. Is South Korean educational productivity effective and efcient? Although, some may view South Korean educational productivity to be effective, the South Korean government criticized its own educational system and introduced an educational reform package called 531 Education Reform in 1995. This massive reform package consisted of 45 new mandates to change educational tradition. Among them, open education systems were introduced, the age limit for teachers were adjusted down to age 62, college entrance examination systems were changed, and the curriculum was revised. These revisions are still controversial issues and receive much criticism from South Korean educators. 2.1. Which country spends more money on education? Based on national data, Paik reports that educational costs in South Korea are generally lower than in the US, but South Korean educational productivity proves to be both effective and efcient. Paik substantiates this by reporting that South Korea only devotes 4.5% of the GNP to education compared to 7.5% in the US. In addition, the US spends about $6000 (US) per student, whereas Korea spends $2000 (US) per student. However, this economic comparison may mislead readers in two respects. The rst is in terms of the actual spending costs per student. The second is the way the money is allocated when comparing public and private costs. Simple mathematical calculations show that South Korea spends less money per student.

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However, if we include the cost of private education (e.g., private lessons, afterschool private institutions), the gure is quite different. According to a study conducted in 1998 by the Korean Education Development Institute (KEDI), about half (49%) of the total education costs come from the family (PEC, 1998). This means that South Korea actually devotes 9% of the GNP to education compared to 7.5% in the US. An average of 16.5% of a South Korean familys income is used to provide their middle school child with private schooling. For example, a family consisting of two parents and two children spends one-third of their total income on private costs for education. OECD statistics from 2001 also report more spending in private education in South Korea. While the US spent 6.4% (4.8% in public and 1.6% in private institutions) of the GDP on education, Korea spent 7.0% (4.1% in public and 3.0% in private institutions) of the GDP (OECD, 2001a, p. 169). Expenditures on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP are 3.74 for the US and 3.95 for Korea (OECD, 2001b, p. 79). Although statistics show that the total per student costs of US public schools are higher, it is important to note that many unreported educational costs do come out-of-pocket from South Korean parents. In addition, allocated expenses at the local level between the two countries are not as apparent except perhaps for class size. For example, South Korean class sizes are typically much larger than the average American class size and may contribute to increased savings. However, most South Korean schools have been recently equipped with new technologies that may inate total spending costs. This technological advancement does not seem as apparent in most US schools, especially in urban districts. Thus, spending costs associated with education in the two countries may be quite similar when taking into consideration educational costs at the local level, especially within the classroom, as well as parental contributions to nance education. 2.2. Who spends more hours studying mathematics? Studies conducted by the Korean National Statistics Ofce (KNSO) (1999) and Hofferth and Sandberg (2000a) report how middle school students spend an average day in South Korea and the US, respectively. During an average week, an average American and Korean middle school student (12 years old or younger) spend their time as shown in Table 1. Table 1 shows that South Korean students study more hours during and after school. Specically, they study four times more at home than their US counterparts. If we also consider that most after-school study, which occurs at private institutions is spent reviewing mathematics and English, we might also say that South Korean students study far more unreported hours than indicated. On average, South Korean students spend at least twice as much time studying mathematics than US students. If we were to run a hierarchical loglinear analysis of the data, time spent studying may possibly be the most critical factor contributing to improved math performance.


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Table 1 Comparison of students allocated time (hours:minutes) Variables Sleeping Eating Personal care Household work In school Studying after school US students 67:39 7:25 7:57 6:09 33:37 3:40 South Korean students 57:17 9:27 6:18 1:38 36:31 15:52

Although statistics show that South Korean students spend more hours studying mathematics than US students do, concepts of time may still be questionable. Although many students do attend private institutions after school, there are no data currently available to indicate what portion of the almost 15.52 hours devoted to studying by South Korean students are spent on mathematics. Moreover, more time spent studying mathematics may sound ideal, but the South Korean government criticized its own educational system based on the inordinate amounts of money and time spent towards private lessons and/or after-school institutions.

3. Relative importance of mathematics in the Korean society The 7th Revised Curriculum published in 1997 introduced basic courses that cover 10 years, from primary school to the rst year of high school as well as elective courses for the nal 2 yr of high school (MOE, 1997). The basic curriculum consists of required subject matter and extracurricular activities. There are ten required courses: Korean language, moral education, social studies, mathematics, science, practical arts (Technology, Home Economics), physical education, music, ne arts, and foreign language (English). Among these subjects, Korean language, mathematics, and English are considered key courses. Most examinations leading toward college admissions and employment qualications require these three courses, but Korean language and English are not weighed as heavily as mathematics. For example, soo-nung (the Korean ACT) consists of ve major subjects and a selected category: Korean language (120), First Foreign Language (80), mathematics (80), and social science and natural science (120) and second foreign language (40) (numbers in parentheses are distributed scores) (KICE, 2001). The percentage that represents mathematics (80) is about 18% of the total score (440). Many prestigious universities also require their own entrance exam called main exam, which consists of Korean language, English, and mathematics with an emphasis in the latter. Therefore, students always strive to master mathematics. Mathematics is emphasized not only in school, but also in society. Mathematics has always played a key role in ranking applicants not only for college admissions,

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but employment. For example, most companies require mathematics exams. Low performance on mathematics exams may even cause an applicant to lose an opportunity with a prestigious company.

4. Relative strength of community resources Educational environment (home, classroom, peers, and television factors) is one of the most critical factors of educational productivity in the Walbergs Productivity Model (Walberg, 1984). One factor that Paik briey mentioned in her conclusion was the importance of community resources. There are some foreign scholars who may think that because of the destruction from the Korean War, South Korea may not have many educational resources. However, this is not true. South Korea has outstanding resources for students to learn mathematics and science. The long history of Korean culture and tradition have emphasized scientic and mathematical expression in daily life. For example, the Korean language, invented in 1446, is considered one of the most scientic languages, yet it is easy to learn. The rst moveable type was invented by a Korean in 1234 AD, approximately 200 years before Gutenburg. Chumsungdae, the oldest astronomical observatory in the East, was built in the 7th century. Sokkuram, one of the seven mysteries in the world was built in 951 and one of seven UNESCO institutions of world heritage, exists in Korea. Numerous ancient mysterious structures including palaces and temples were built using mathematical and scientic knowledge. In fact, knowledge of Korean history has been heavily emphasized in all school levels and is included on most state and employment exams. Mathematics and science competitions are also tremendous resources. Participating in regional and national mathematics or science contests are strongly encouraged by the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development (MEHRD). Mathematics competitions are usually held by the Korean Mathematical Society (KMS), Korean Mathematics Competition (KMC), and major universities. Students who win are usually awarded credit in their college entrance exam. The implications of winning have substantial effects. For example, accreditations have been submitted to Seoul National University, the most prestigious university in South Korea. Consequently, private educational institutions provide special academic classes to prepare for these contests. In addition, certain mathematics and science classes that fall under extracurricular activities are usually lled in elementary and secondary schools.

5. Another perspective Until now, I have added more background information to Paiks contribution towards understanding high levels of mathematics achievement of South Korean students. South Korean students study more hours in mathematics. Mathematics is


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emphasized not only in school, but throughout the community from resources of tradition and mathematics competitions. Comparisons of educational productivity between South Korean and US students may be difcult, especially when comparing variables of time and money, unless productivity variables are controlled. Although, Paik statistically controls for her variables within her analysis other perspectives are inevitable when comparing two educational systems. Following Walberg (1984), Paik approaches productivity from a comprehensive psychological perspective, a sociological perspective might add another dimension. Theories of sociology contribute to our understanding of educational phenomena, especially to what I describe as education fever. Education fever is dened by the intensity of South Korean parents in trying to educate their children for admission into the best schools. They expend energy, time, and money at almost any cost. Most South Korean parents have this education fever, which will be explained in greater detail in the following sections. 5.1. Gimper The term gimper has a special meaning in the Christian community and has recently been popularized by the book, The Prayer of Jabez (Wilkinson, 2001). A gimper is someone who always does a little more than whats required or expected. In the furniture business, for example, gimping is putting the nishing touches on the upholstery, patiently applying the ornamental extras that are a mark of quality and value(p. 910). Jabez was a gimper for God. Things started badly for Jabez as indicated by the meaning of his name, God gave me pain. Historically, people believed that ones future was decided by his or her name, and one could change the future by changing their name. However in the case of Jabez, he was not concerned by the meaning of his name and simply prayed an unusual prayer. In short, this prayer changed his life and things ended extraordinarily well. The point to be made here is that one can overcome his or her unfortunate life by applying extra effort, that is, by being a gimper. It is widely known in Korean society that if one puts more effort into studying and passes the state exam, his or her life will be changed, much as Jabez life was changed. If you pass the state exam, your future is guaranteed to change. In South Korea, many gimpers with high achievement come from poor families. Many prestigious universities have graduated these gimpers, who are now active in afuent social circles. 5.2. History and importance of the state examination system Korea has relied heavily on the state examination system since 788 AD to qualify individuals into government positions. Passing state exams with high scores have been considered a mark of social mobility and honor for the student and their family. High marks on an admissions examination changes ones socioeconomic status dramatically, in which every student has an equal opportunity due to the meritocratic system.

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The state examination is considered to be most difcult; one should prepare for it from birth. By tradition, pencils and cotton threads are displayed at a babys rst birthday, which is the grandest celebration. Family members encourage the baby to grab a pencil, which means the baby will study hard and pass the state exam. When the baby begins to talk, family members teach the baby to count right away. When the child starts to walk, his mother starts to search for future private institutions/lessons. When the child starts to attend school, mothers often say Be a good listener to your teacher each morning followed by Did you study hard? after school. 5.3. Overloaded by schooling plus private tutoring Most children can read and write Korean before or at the beginning of primary school. If children can memorize and recite the multiplication table before entering primary school, it is an honor for them and their family. Studying hard is encouraged throughout the school years. Many children go to private educational institutions called ha-gwuan or private tutors after school (Hwang, 1995). Some children go to two or more institutions everyday. These institutions teach children the same subject matter taught in school, but 24 weeks in advance. However, it is not always true that children who learn in advance perform better at school. Parents also have pressure to keep up with other parents in the community and are afraid of being labeled when their children fall behind or if they are not enrolled in hagwuan. Education fever accelerates as children are sent to study abroad no matter what the costs. According to a report by the MEHRD, 10,640 children left Korea to study abroad between March 2000, and February 2001 (Cho, 2001). Although this represents only 0.26% of the total number of elementary school children, the rate is doubling every year. Most elementary schools offer after-school programs. However, these school programs are focused primarily on developing students talents rather than academic learning. Private institutions, on the other hand, prepare children in academic subject matters. Parents prefer private institutions because they believe they provide supplementary academic learning. They also recognize that, in the long run, these institutions prepare their children for national exams. Summer and winter vacations are most often used for additional study by many children. 5.4. Preparing for special academic high schools When students enter middle school, they are encouraged to take two lunch boxes to school because they either stay at school to study late or they attend a private institution after school. Most parents ask their child not to do chores, but to study. There are some parents who take care of all their childrens errands and chores. As the Korean proverb goes, The best farming is your children studying. The highest academic goal for most middle school students is to pass the entrance exam of special academic high schools (i.e. science, foreign language, or art high schools). These schools are considered to be feeder schools for prestigious


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universities. Passing the entrance exam of these schools is very competitive. As a result, students stay after school to study, meet with tutors, or attend private educational institutions. Some private institutions teach all subject matter, however, the majority of them are focused on three key subjects: Korean language, English, and mathematics. Students learn content twice. They learn in advance at the private institutions and then at school. 5.5. Preparing for acceptance into prestigious universities When South Korean students enter high school, they spent more time studying than they did in middle school. School starts about an hour earlier than middle school and stays open longer. Goals are clearer at this level because students already know which university they want to attend. These reasons are thoroughly presented in Paiks study, which reminds me of my life back in high school. Although, my experience may be a bit extreme, one can still probably nd the same kind of student life in South Korea today. When I was in high school, I lived in a school dorm called Learning House, which was designed to educate students whose prior achievements were outstanding. The school principal strongly emphasized academic ability and selected a special academic class each year according to the entrance exam. The students, who were selected for this class not only received various scholarships, but were allowed to live in the dorm with other high achievers. Daily dorm life was similar to military life. We woke up at 5:00 a.m., cleaned our room, washed our faces, jogged around the playground ve times, and then studied 2 h before breakfast. We had about 30 min of free time between breakfast and when school started. School usually started at 8:00 a.m. and ended around 5:00 p.m. We ate dinner soon after school ended and then prepared for evening study, which often lasted until 11:00 p.m. Besides a supervising teacher who lived in the dorm with us, there were no teachers in the morning study hours. Teachers came to the dorm to teach mostly Korean language, English, and mathematics in the evening study hours. Individual tutoring was provided most of the time; however, group instruction was sometimes given. After evening study, we often had late dinner, which allowed us to sleep well. We usually went to bed after midnight. There were not many students among us who went home on Saturday afternoon when school was over. Sunday was the only day we could have some sort of private life. However, we did not spend Sunday leisurely besides attending church. Most of the day, we usually enjoyed writing kaamji. Kaamji is a form of writing using the tiniest letters of red, blue, and black ink on a blank sheet of paper. We usually started by writing what we were studying with a red pen. Once the paper was lled with red letters, we wrote with a blue pen, and nally with a black pen. Everybody knew that the more kaamji one had written, one had a better chance at a higher academic ranking in the exam. As proof, we would also show the supervising teacher what we had studied each day. I found some of the students who had accumulated more kaamji than others at that time are now lawyers, professors, and medical doctors. I even recall students who put banners on the top of their desk with

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statements, such as My aim is to enter Seoul University, and Four-Pass FiveFail. (If you sleep 4 h a day, then you will pass the exam. But if you sleep 5 h a day, you will fail.) Endeavor, Endurance, Diligence, were also popular banners. The dorm life became a part of my life, which I enjoyed very much. Although there were some students who violated the daily routine, not many were punished by the supervising teacher. If they were, nobody complained of receiving corporal punishment from the teacher as it was common those days. Summer and winter vacations were no different as we attended school. Teachers often came into the dorm and gave us private lessons everyday: 7 days a week, 30 or 31 days a month, 12 months a year for 2 yr in high school (the program was launched when I was in sophomore in high school). I had lived the same routine day in and day out until I took the fateful college entrance exam. During those three high school years, I tried to memorize as many books as possible. I memorized not only major textbooks of mathematics, English, and Korean language, but also their reference books recommended by teachers. I memorized every question and answer in two math reference books, which were about 400 pages each. I memorized an English grammar book, Korean history textbook, Korean language textbook, and much more. Why did I study so hard? The answer is simple. I studied hard to pass the entrance exam of Seoul National University (SNU). Why was my goal SNU? I believed that my socioeconomic status as a son of a coal briquette deliveryman could be promoted by entering the most prestigious university. I believed that passing the SNU entrance exam would guarantee my job, nances, house, family, and future. This was why so many students who lived in poverty went to the library to study at 4:00 a.m. with three lunch boxes. This was why there were so many private houses or buildings, which provided students with study rooms and meals. This was why students were willing to sacrice their time, energy, and money as an investment into their future. My story is an extreme one and took place about twentysome years ago. However, many South Koreans still believe that if one passes an entrance exam of a prestigious university, his or her future is one that is guaranteed. There still exists the popular ranking of universities and most students in academic high schools spend their adolescence preparing for entrance into a high-ranked university.

6. Conclusion Although statistics show that South Korea spends less money than the US, South Korean families spend formidable money on their childrens education. South Korea is a competitive-oriented society based on historical exams that continue to inuence education today. Parents, pressured by education fever, try to help their children become gimpers. Competitions to pass entrance exams of special academic high schools and prestigious universities force students to attend private educational institutions and lessons. Students learn and review the same subject matter at private institutions and at school. Review of the three most important subject matters: Korean language, English, and mathematics is the central focus at private


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institutions. Mathematics and science are not only daily expressions in life, but are emphasized by the MEHRD and universities. In 1995 the South Korean government launched a reform package. Since that time many new educational policies have been implemented. Although the South Korean government has tried hard to change the competitive nature of the South Korean system, traditional values, socioeconomic pressures, and academic competitions are instilled within a meritocratic system and culture. South Korean students do work hard, and can succeed, however at a cost. Educational productivity continues and is supported by individuals who are willing to invest their time, energy, and money despite its pressures.

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Yunhan Hwang is Professor of Education at Gwangju National University of Education in Korea. As the past director of the Center for Elementary Education and Center for International Studies, he has been actively involved in educational reform, in which he conducts national workshops. He has written extensively on the topic of constructivist teaching and learning and is particularly interested in constructivist curriculum development in conjunction with multiple intelligence. He has numerous publications and has received several service awards and honors.