Hagwons, Olympics, the Wall Street Journal and more


Shanghai had zero medals in the last Olympics!
OMG Shanghai is not even a country!

Richard Simmons (above) has an estimated net-worth of 15 million dollars. He was (probably…er…possibly)  once known as a rock-star personal trainer, which is a combination of words unfamiliar in places other than the fitness capital of the world, The United States. Unlike some personal trainers he is paid according to the demand for his skills. Simmons’ homeland, the United States of Freedom had more medals than any other country in both the 2010 Winter Olympics (with 36-the nearest competitor was 30) and the 2012 Summer Olympics (104 medals-nearest competitor with 88). Surely we can extrapolate a lot of things from these facts. If South Korea wants to achieve more glory in the Olympics there must be some lessons from the US for this proud nation to follow. It is probably a good idea to simply ignore things like history, culture, suicide statistics, economics and population size.

If you are wondering what the hell I am on about you might want to check out this article in the Wall Street Journal about Korea and education
(Suggested reading task: Read through the article and make 3 predictions on what I will mention in the below rant)
(Unsuggested reading task: Look up all the difficult words and then memorize the article and perform it for your friends and family)

This article caught my eye and gave me a chance to think some thoughts. Someone wondered if I’d be reviewing it or ranting about it anytime soon.
I take requests. So here come some thoughts.

It seems like the WSJ has been paying Korea a lot more attention lately. I think this is interesting and surprising. It should come as no surprise that the WSJ lurves capitalism.  I was, however, a bit surprised at the big leaps that were made in terms of the system and how things go here in the ROK. First of all, I am not sure that we can take much meaning from the fact that an entrepreneur makes a boatload of money from selling education related material.  Lots of American writers/speakers make bank selling diet, exercise, and self-help books and videos. I don’t see Mr. Kim as being too different from this. In fact, I see him as being more like Tony Robbins (below)  than, say, a public school Spanish teacher in the US. I also think Mr. Kim is less related to the hogwon system than the author implies. I mean, this is one guy selling videos and books to students as opposed to teachers having face to face lessons with students. It is a nice eye-catching example but I am not sure we can make too many connections from it.

motivational speaker

Motivational speakers in the US make much more than their Korean counterparts.
This man is worth 480 million dollars.
The US must be doing something right.

Aside from the points parodied above the thing that most attracted my attention in the article was how it seemed to be praising a system, the hogwon system, which I think is largely broken.  I think the author gives fair dues to the remarkable achievements Korea has made in the last 50 years and we cannot discount the zeal for education which is in part manifested in the hogwon system. Fair enough.  Some stats mentioned:

  •  South Korean 15-year-olds rank No. 2 in the world in reading, behind Shanghai
    (Again, Shanghai is not actually a country.) What does this ranking even mean? They are best at reading in Korean?
    Is this possibly related to the fact that the writing system, hangul, is relatively easy to read?
  • The country now has a 93% high-school graduation rate, compared with 77% in the U.S.
    Are we really going to attribute this to the hogwon system? Or society in general? Or any number of other factors?

Also mentioned is how private tutors now outnumber schoolteachers. With no offense intended to those working in the private education system I am not certain this is a good thing.  To be fair, the author doesn’t offer this fact up as a completely positive thing. She does say the hogwon system “promotes striving and innovation among students and teachers alike, and it has helped South Korea become an academic superpower,” I am not certain that it really promotes striving and innovation. I think sometimes it promotes following the pack and the status quo and adhering to the  whims and desires of mothers who are not necessarily experts in the subject or education.  At the same time, I can understand the mothers’ desires as consumers to get what they are looking for. I just don’t think there is a lot of room or incentive for innovation in this system. Mr Kim surely has incentives (4 million of them) but I might posit that he is known as a great lecturer and is not necessarily driven by innovation or a desire to help students master the subject. The Korean system is called a meritocracy in the article but if that is the case why does Mr. Kim need PR people? And what do we mean by merit in this case? The questions keep coming. What makes a good teacher? What does it all mean? I am also wondering if it might be useful to think of hogwons as a result of the education system in Korea instead of one of causes.

Before I get too confused and  twisted around here the point I want to make is that just because it is a free-market doesn’t mean that the choices made are the best choices for students’ learning. The author writes, “Private tutors are also more likely to experiment with new technology and nontraditional forms of teaching.” I am not so certain about this. I have anecdotal stories about hogwons and Extensive Reading (and a variety of other ideas) not being accepted in the market and how teachers are pushed to perform extremely teacher-centered classes and focus heavily on rote-memorization. Towards the end of the article the author did ask the important question if students at hogwons are actually learning more and mentioned that it is tough to tell. I guess I am hazy on the (assumed?) connection between popularity and good for students’ learning.

[Caveat time: At this point I should mention I am coming mostly from a perspective of English education in Korea. The author seems to jump around a bit from subject to subject but I am talking mostly about English here. I should also mention I have no idea what Mr. Kim does in his online lectures. Perhaps I would be pleasantly surprised.]

Thankfully the author is not too breathless throughout the piece and occasionally looks through a critical lens. She writes, “Viewed up close, this shadow system is both exciting and troubling. It promotes striving and innovation among students and teachers alike, and it has helped South Korea become an academic superpower. But it also creates a bidding war for education, delivering the best services to the richest families, to say nothing of its psychological toll on students. Under this system, students essentially go to school twice—once during the day and then again at night at the tutoring academies. It is a relentless grind.” I have already addressed the innovation aspect but it’s too easy to avoid discussion of the psychological toll on students. I think it is a major factor in anything we might think and say about this system. I also don’t think we can just ignore the perpetuation of the current socio-ecnomic and class systems. Is the current college entrance test just a modern version of the gwageo? Is this what we want in the US (or in Korea?)  I was glad to see some mention of the Korean government’s efforts to reduce the power and influence of hogwons. The government’s efforts to reduce the burden related to private education are detailed in this article. 

Something that caught my eye in the WSJ article was the stats on firing teachers. One hogwon chain says they fire 10% of teachers and place those with low evals on probation. This makes me wonder about the teacher development opportunities afforded to such teachers. It also makes me seriously question the notion that such institutes would be hotbeds of innovation. The author states, “All of this pressure creates real incentives for teachers, at least according to the kids.” Again I am not certain that the threat of being fired really pushes for innovation and helping students learn of it it pushes for “just doing enough to not get fired.” I don’t wish to discount the importance of student evaluations but I would like to take a deep breath and consider the implications on relying upon them so heavily.

I work a lot with public school teachers and this part jumped out at me without surprising me at all.  “Korean teenagers gave their hagwon teachers higher scores across the board than their regular schoolteachers: Hagwon teachers were better prepared, more devoted to teaching and more respectful of students’ opinions, the teenagers said. Interestingly, the hagwon teachers rated best of all when it came to treating all students fairly, regardless of the students’ academic performance.” I’d like to hope this could be a wake-up call for public school teachers and especially public school administrators in Korea rather than a system for the country of my birth to try to emulate.

I am not saying the US system ain’t broke, I am saying that we need to look very carefully at any models. Although I was a bit cheeky above I’d like to say I am happy the author chose to write about Korea and I appreciate her mostly thoughtful take on what is most certainly a complicated issue. Of course, I’d love to see teachers paid more. I am just very leery about making big jumps or thinking that the hogwon system is something that can or should be increased in Korea or transplanted elsewhere without serious consideration. I guess ultimately I am not as sure as the author about the lessons to be learned from this “booming educational bazaar” as the author is.


  1. English Speaker

    These teachers’ lectures are 98% in Korean. As someone who came to the US speaking no English to now fluently speaking English, their method is pure nonsense. English classes should be conducted in English.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks so much for the comments (and the stats)! I feel like perhaps the author of the original piece was blinded by some things. I mentioned something about teacher-centered stuff in the post but what you said really hits home.

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  3. Rob Dickey

    Overall, I thought the article was fair (unbiased) but probably missed a key point.

    What are the teachers teaching, what are the students learning?

    In fact, in the Korean system, students are memorizing so they can regurgitate (the gwageo test you so correctly identified above).

    In general, despite the best efforts of George W. Bush (“No Child Left Behind”) and Obama’s fascination with international test rankings, North American (and British) education is NOT about memorization, but awareness and thinking skills (though whether critical thinking skills are really the aim of most teachers in at least half of all high schools in US is indeed subject of lengthy discussion – some are just trying to get through a week without being assaulted).

    Shadow education focuses on the commercialized elements of learning, things that can be immediately cashed in (higher test score) rather than the socialization and awareness issues that may be relevant in job interviews and job success but aren’t immediately obvious or teachable in the short-term.

    Students want to add 200 points to their TOEIC score in 3 months. With the right “tricks” that might even be possible. Once. (Many say a reasonable growth might be 100 points per year.) But it’s not a long-term cure for the educational blues.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Rob,
      Thanks for the comments. I think you make a very good point here. The shadow system works (well sorta) in Korea because the end result is that students are more prepared for the KSAT.. Simply importing the hogwan system to the US would not necessarily have the the impact the author implies it would,

      I think the article was fair enough but also potentially very misleading with conclusions being drawn by highlighting the case of the one guy making 4 million from book/video sales and the like. I guess what I really wanted to say was that there are a lot better things to copy from education in Korea than the hogwan system.

      Interesting that you should mention president Obama who has frequently mentioned Korea and the Korean system.

      Thanks again for the comments.

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  5. The Waegukin

    I really like the article, but you misspell 학원 as “hogwan” throughout. It should be hagwon. It detracts from your credibility a little bit. Sorry to be nitpicky.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comment..I appreciate it. Funny thing about that is that I thought I was copying the WSJ’s spelling and just tried to keep it consistent. In my first draft I used hakwon and tried to change them all to be the same…and clearly failed. Again thanks for the headsup.

    • mikecorea

      thanks again..I changed them all and as I was doing so I noticed I was really inconsistency with the spelling.
      (glad I got it right in the title at least)

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