May 4, 2016
Seoul-Searching: A U.S. Teacher’s Quest For the Secret of Korean Student Success
By Clara Hemphill
As a biology teacher at a high-poverty high school in Los Angeles, Taylor Wichmanowski was impressed that his Korean-speaking students—including those newly arrived in the United States—seemed to do so much better academically than most of their classmates.
He knew that South Korea not only had the world’s highest student scores on international tests; it also had the lowest proportion of low-performing kids anywhere. Even poor Korean children did well.
He wondered: Is there a secret formula—one that can that be imported to the United States? With the encouragement of his Korean-born wife, he secured a Fulbright fellowship to visit South Korean schools, interview teachers, and bring home any lessons he might learn.
In recent months, he has visited 15 middle and high schools in Seoul and other South Korean cities and towns. (He is pictured, above, with a South Korean teacher he visited in her classroom.) Instead of some secret formula, he found a whole culture dedicated to (and obsessed by) education. It’s a country with a 1,000-year history of meritocratic civil service exams, a place where flights are halted so high school seniors can take the all-important college entrance exam without being distracted by airplane noise.
Some of what Wichmanowski learned confirmed the notorious dark side of Korean education, with sleep-deprived children studying each night at private “cram” schools until 10 p.m., under pressure so great that some consider suicide. South Korean teens are the unhappiest in the world, according to international rankings.
But he also discovered a country that values its teachers in a way their American colleagues can only dream of. In Korea, highly selective teacher education programs attract the nation’s best college students, who must pass a rigorous exam before they are hired. Although they are not unionized, teachers are guaranteed a job from their first day of employment. South Korean teachers earn more relative to other college-educated professionals in their nation than do teachers anywhere else on Earth. And there’s a professional climate that encourages staff to spend hours preparing their lessons, to work with one another, and continually to hone their craft.
“At home, there were a lot of [school] days when I would not talk to another adult,” Wichmanowski said in an interview towards the end of his year-long fellowship. He recalled his work at the Los Angeles School of the Arts where he taught five classes of 30 students each day; during his one free period he would grade papers or complete administrative work alone in his classroom.
In Korea, he discovered, teachers are, by contrast, responsible for only three or four classes during school days that are comparable in length to those in L.A. That leaves Korean teachers three or four periods each day during which they prepare classes and meet with colleagues. Each teacher also has a desk in a shared staff room, encouraging them to work together.
Periodically, Korean teachers designated as “masters” offer demonstration classes, with 30 students participating and 30 teachers observing. At the end of such classes, the students leave and, over refreshments, the teachers chat about what they had learned.
“There is interaction among the teachers and sharing of ideas,” he said. “If someone has a good idea, you’re going to learn about it. There’s a cross-pollination.”
According to a report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (a group of more than 30 market-economy democracies around the world), South Korea offers teachers multiple incentives to work in disadvantaged schools, including higher salaries, smaller classes, less required instructional classroom time per teacher, and additional professional credits toward promotion.
None of this is to underestimate the importance of children’s hard work in their own achievement—and there’s evidence that Korean children study more than anyone else on the planet. But a system that values education also values teachers—and that’s also part of the secret of why Korean kids do so well.
Clara Hemphill is the founder and director of Inside Schools, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs that for more than 10 years has been a respected independent source of information on New York City public schools. She is currently in South Korea with her husband, who is on a teaching Fulbright fellowship there.
Photo by: Yeonjoo Ko