Performance and the Shadow Side of the Korean Education System

South Korea (hereafter Korea) is a miracle country that established the public education system during the shortest time in the history of world education. Since becoming independent and free from Japan in 1945, implementing a full-fledged expansion policy in public education combined with intense educational enthusiasm of Koreans could reach the full school-enrollment of which rate is 90% for the elementary school level in 1957, for middle in 1979, and for high in 1985. Even for higher education, the enrollment rate is about 80%, reaching the highest level in the world.

Korea has also reached excellence in academic achievements. Since starting the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Korean students have recorded high academic achievements in reading, mathematics, and all science fields, attesting to the outstanding levels. Also, Korea is garnering global attention with its relatively low dropout rate compared to many other countries where the rate is high due to low educational enthusiasm. 

Indeed, the shadow side of the outstanding performance is darkening. The high level of educational achievement that stems from the “mechanism of selection and exclusion due to the endless competition” takes this side effect. For thousands of years, Koreans could ladder their social status up via education. The up-desire could continue by pursuing a higher step of education in the modern educational system even after Korea’s independence. Especially, as universities are hierarchically ranked, the endless competition to enter top-ranked universities could dominate the purpose of Korea’s education. 

As a result, education changed from a process discovering and developing their potential abilities as well as experiencing the joy of learning to a process competing for each other where students strive to get higher scores and enter the top-ranked schools. As the competition gets worse and worse, the shadow education outside the public school system could become more prevalent, forcing students to study at private institutes in addition to public education. Students should double study at each place; learning turned not to be enjoyable anymore, becoming painful. Parents suffered from the financial burden due to the shadow education. At the same time, schools departed the pedagogical ideal and were distorted to be a fair institute, merely managing the entrance of a higher step of education.

Efforts to Reform the Korean Education System

To improve the situation where education was a source of pain rather than joy, Korean governments attempted in various ways to reform the education system, changing the university entrance examination system of Korea and modifying the school curriculum. However, without changing the hierarchical structure in the higher education and the social system in which graduates from high-ranked universities monophonically advanced to the upper level of the Korean society, simply reforming the entrance examination and curriculum could not produce the expected outcome. Under the circumstance, to overcome the issues in the Korean education system and reduce the pain suffered by students, a movement to restore the pedagogical ideal was initiated outside the official public education system. From the mid-1990s, parents, teachers, and citizens who have the mind consistent with the movement began to establish alternative schools. They have settled down various educational settings to bind life and learning, harmonize intelligence, sensitivity, and virtue, foster the power of learning by themselves, and also, cultivate democratic citizenship as a community member.

As alternative schools demonstrated the performance notably and cumulatively, the official public education system was affected. Initially, schools located in the non-urban areas which were about to close due to the decline of the population were introduced to the alternative education system as part of ‘movement to maintain small schools.’ Then, Hyukshin schools were first founded under the supervision of the Gyeonggi Province Office of Education in the year of 2009 and in Seoul from 2014. Hyukshin schools, in particular, brought new possibilities to significantly change the uniformed school system, which include autonomous school curriculum, democratic communication, creative classes with student involvement and cooperation, etc.

Attempt to Korean Transition Year Program

About the year of 2010, the officials in the education sector of Korea noticed the Transition Year programs operated in Europe, which encourage students to design their future and reflect their lives for a year between middle and high schools. A transition year program, without an entire reform of the education system, looked to help reduce the burden on students suffering from the excessive competition and act as a catalyst deriving changes in the Korean education system. 

Accordingly, the free semester system was introduced to the first grade of middle schools in 2013, partly influenced by the Island’s transition year program and implemented to the entire middle schools across the country in 2016. In the free semester term, classes are run based on student participation, such as practical training and discussions, helping students discover their talents and dreams and free them from the stress of examinations. Students can engage in a wide range of experiential activities, such as career exploration activities, for the term. It can be characterized by flexibility in the school curriculum. The free semester system was welcome, as it could allow students to explore and experience career paths and become free from competition, even just for a single term in middle schools. However, a limitation was that the system was not timely fitted for the first-year students in middle schools because they could not fully utilize the free semester system. Instead, the first-year students in high schools who are in the transition period of youth growth and seriously start thinking their career paths are appropriate for the system. At the time, a full transitional school system that allows sufficient time to look back on oneself, explore the world, and design the future was naturally demanded. Odyssey School began with this background. 

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