Worlds of Education

#WDR2018 Reality Check #18: “Behind the Scores; Myths on Korean education” by Hyunsu Hwang

published 13 March 2018 updated 12 February 2019
written by:

The “Forward” of the 2018 World Development Report (WDR) by the World Bank Group’s president, Jim Yong Kim, shocked me. It starts: “Education and learning raise aspirations, set values, and ultimately enrich lives. The country where I was born, the Republic of Korea, is a good example of how education can play these important roles (p.xi).” I agree with the first sentence. But I am really doubtful about the second one. I am not sure when Jim Yong Kim left Korea and what kind of experience he had in school, but there seems to be a huge gap between his description of Korean education and that of most Koreans.

Is Korean education a good model? I was taught for 16 years here, from primary to university, and I have been teaching here for more than 20 years. In all this time, I never met anyone, teacher or student, who said that the Korean education system had high quality and efficiency. Most parents say that it was really stressful for them, and now it is even more stressful because they spend a lot of money on their children’s private education. To be honest, most people are not satisfied with education here. That is why reading the WDR’s praise for Korean education made me uncomfortable. The real situation is totally different to what is depicted by the World Bank.

Education in Korea has often been praised internationally. It is often regarded as a successful model for benchmarking in other countries. As Jim Yong Kim mentioned in his forward, some people even say that education has been a main driver of Korean rapid economic growth. However, I have never read any objective research paper on a close correlation between Korean education and its economic development. This so-called economic development may well result from other factors - such as people’s will to overcome poverty and the state-driven economic development.

The international praise for Korean education is mainly due to Korea’s test results in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Students in Korea are ranked very highly, along with their counterparts in Finland. However, Korean education is totally different from Finnish education. If education is ultimately about “enriching lives”, then Korean education is not education. The PISA test scores don’t reflect education quality - it is necessary to look behind the scores.

The most distinctive characteristic of education in Korea is the cut-throat competition. The race to the top universities now starts at kindergarten. Primary and secondary schools are like a battle field to get better test scores. But just high marks are not enough. The important thing is that “my” grade should be better than others’ and I should beat my classmates’ score. Competition in school is very fierce.

At the peak of our test-centered education, there is the high-stakes national test called Su-neung, which is an examination for university admission. Students take it for 8 hours on one day. Airplanes can’t fly over the Korean peninsula when students take the English listening test on the third period of the test. This shows how important the test is; the result decides students’ entire lives. The test is a major event not just for students, but also for family members - the test score determines not only which university students can attend but what profession a person will pursue and possibly even who they will marry. Korean universities have a hierarchical system. Even though former governments have made an attempt to relieve competition by introducing a more diverse university entrance system, Su-neung is still vital to understanding public education in Korea. As Diane Ravitch mentioned in this blog series, too much emphasis on test scores “distorts the educational process in undesirable ways”, encouraging “cheating, teaching to the test and reduction of time allocated to non-tested subjects”. This is exactly what happens in Korean schools.

In Korea, there are huge numbers of private tutors. Private tutoring centers are called “ hagwon.” and are crucial to understanding the Korean education system. Alvin Toffler, one of the world’s most famous futurists, mentioned them when he came to South Korea:

“The most incomprehensible thing about Korea is that their education is going backward. Korean students spend 15 hours at school and hagwon to learn knowledge that won’t be necessary in the future or for jobs that don’t even exist. They are wasting precious time.”

Regardless of the intention of his comment, I would like to focus on this part: “Korean students spend 15 hours at school”. Is it true? Primary school students’ daily schedules can be different from high school students’, but the average high school student spends 13 hours to 15 hours at school, usually until 10 pm. Lunch and dinner is served at school. The school hours can be divided into 3 parts: regular classes from 8:30am to 4pm, extra after-school classes from 4pm to 6pm, and night self-study time from 7pm to 10pm. Some high school students go to hagwon or meet a private tutor at home to study more after 10pm. They usually go to bed at 1 or 2am. In school, many students fall asleep during classes because of lack of sleep at home.

South Korea is notorious for having the highest suicide rate and lowest fertility rate among OECD countries. In 2015, the OECD reported that South Korea has had the highest suicide rate for the eleventh year in a row among developed countries (OECD, 2015, p.57). Suicide is also the leading cause of death among students. The main reasons for student suicide are stress and heavy pressure from tests and scores; suicidal high school students in Korea reported the most significant stressor in their lives were difficulties with their career choice, low academic achievement, the high amount of academic work, and the lack of rest (Lee et al. 2010). In addition, receiving results on the university entrance exam was reported as a major trigger of suicide attempts.

As for the low birthrate in Korea, it has been one of the big issues among Korean society. It is getting worse and worse. Various indicators related to fertility shows that the problem is reaching a catastrophic level. Why don’t Korean couples give birth? Most Koreans think that one of the main reasons for the low fertility rate is education. We know very well how hard it is to raise kids in this society. Korean parents devote themselves to their children’s education and parents spend a big portion of their total monthly income on their kids’ private education expenditure [1]. So, there are lots of young couples who don’t want to have a baby.

Under the Korean military regimes, schools were just centers of propaganda, where the dictatorial military government required educators to enforce its ideologies. Teachers were not permitted to speak about these regimes, and most teachers complied with the governments’ dictates. However, on May 28th 1989, teachers gathered to launch the first nationwide teachers’ union, rejecting their role as puppets controlled by the dictatorship. They established the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union (KTU). The military government immediately made the KTU illegal. Hundreds of members were arrested and imprisoned by the regime, and more than 1,500 were dismissed because they joined the union and they spoke up for teachers, students, and parents. In 1999, after 10 years of struggle, the KTU was recognized as a legal union. The KTU has made an effort to bring a quality education for all with Education International.

In the meanwhile, the former Park Geun-hye government decertified KTU on 24 October 2013 because it did not amend its constitution to ban dismissed and unemployed workers from its membership. This was a violation of international labor standards. The ILO had repeatedly criticized these exclusions, reiterating that, "It urged the Government to repeal the provisions prohibiting dismissed and unemployed workers from keeping their union membership and making non-union members ineligible to stand for trade union office.” The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) hascalled on the government to “ensure the re-certification of the KTU without delay” with a much stronger tone. But the government still refuses to accept the ILO’s decision. The former President Park Geun-hye was impeached and fired by the Constitutional court because of serious corruption. She is in prison now. It has now been revealed that the decertification of the KTU was a case of political maneuvering performed by the impeached President and her allies in the administration.

The KTU has made big efforts for quality education for all the students in Korea. It has been fighting against competition-oriented education, merit payment, standardized testing, and other neoliberal education agendas. Before it was established in 1989, school was a place for bribes. It was very natural for parents to give an amount of money to teachers because they wanted the teacher to give some advantage to their kids. It was also natural for teachers to take the bribe from parents. The KTU firmly rejected this injustice in schools. The KTU is the most powerful union in Korea. In the nation-wide election for superintendents of 16 provinces in 2014, former KTU chapter heads or KTU-friendly academics were elected in 13 provinces among the total of 16 provinces. These results show that the KTU’s progressive policies (such as free school meals, collaborative, student centered learning, and the “innovative school movement) are supported by the public  A very conservative newspaper commented on this result, “This is a victory of the KTU.”


South Korean education has been regarded as a good education model for other countries to follow. However, this is based on widespread myths about Korean education.

I want to unveil the truth about education in Korea. Students are not happy in school because of the competition-oriented education. Teaching in class is based on memorization and rote learning. Because of a lack of rest, many students sleep in the classroom in break time and even in class time. Because of excessive stress, school bullying and violence is very common in school. A few months ago, a middle school girl student killed herself leaving a note saying: “I hate school”.

Parents and teachers are unhappy with the education system. Parents spend a large proportion of their income on their kids’ private education costs. Teachers can’t focus only on teaching. As soon as they arrive at school, there is a huge amount of administrative chores waiting for them. Student discipline is very important in school and in classroom. Students’ behavior is sometimes beyond their tolerance. Teaching is sometimes very difficult because of exhausted students and some students’ indifference in class. Some “smart” students study different subjects such as English, Math, and other major subjects during “minor” subject classes which are not tested in the university entrance exam.

Our teacher union which has protested against the competition-oriented education policies, is decertified because it allowed a handful of dismissed teachers to keep its union membership. 60,000 teachers lost their union representation. Teachers’ professional and political freedom is extremely restricted.

These are the reasons we should take a closer look at Korean education. This is the reality behind the test scores.


Lee, Seung-yeon, Jun Sung Hong, and Dorothy L. Espelage. 2010. An ecological understanding of youth suicide in South Korea. School Psychology International 31 (5): 531-46.

OECD (2015), Health at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/health_glance-2015-en

#WDR2018 Reality Check is a blog series organized by Education International.  The series brings together the voices of education experts and activists – researchers, teachers, unionists and civil society actors - from across the world in response to the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The series will form the basis of a publication in advance of the WB Spring Meetings 2018. If you would like to contribute to the series, please get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer.ulrick@ei-ie.org. All views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of Education International.

Check out the previous post in the series by Salim Vally: #WDR2018 Reality Check #17: The World Bank’s Reports and its Practices – Organised Hypocrisy?

[1] Government statistics show that: “Students spending 500 thousand wonand over per month on private education accounted for 15.1 percent, up 0.8 precent from 2014.” 500 thousand won is roughly around 500USD. In reality, most parents spend more than that for private education. It usually accounts for more than one fifth of parents’ monthly income. http://kostat.go.kr/portal/eng/pressReleases/11/1/index.board?bmode=read&bSeq=&aSeq=352520&pageNo=2&rowNum=10&navCount=10&currPg=&sTarget=title&sTxt

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.