The Oregonian: How much should we emulate South Korea's path to student achievement?
Author: Wim Wiewel
Posted: September 4, 2012

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

It has become popular to bemoan the loss of U.S. educational supremacy and point admiringly at the test scores of students from Singapore or South Korea. Because Oregon aims to have 40 percent of students earn at least a bachelor's degree, we envy South Korea, where 80 percent of students get that far. But should we emulate them? 

On a recent visit to South Korea, sponsored by the Korea Foundation, our guide and interpreter confessed that she'd "never want to be a teenager again." She and others told us of the study regimen that fosters Korea's educational success. Children spend many hours each day in school and go to academies or private tutors for more study and test preparation. Elementary and middle schools typically run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and high school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., while after-school "academies" run until 9 or 10 p.m.!

Our guide told us that she came home late every night and then had to do homework and get ready for the next day. She didn't go to bed until 2 or 3 a.m. Several people quoted a Korean saying to the effect that "four hours of sleep gets you to university, but five hours gets you failure." Winter, spring and summer vacations close school for 2 1/2 months a year, but during this time, children are expected to keep studying for the all-important national exams.

There is no doubt that South Korea's huge investment in human resources has paid off. For a country that was largely destroyed during Japanese occupation and the Korean War and lacks natural resources, investing in human capital was the only viable development strategy. Guided for the first few decades by five-year plans and a dictatorship, South Korea's gross domestic product per person grew at a stunning inflation-adjusted rate from $1,110 in 1960 to $16,373 in 2010, according to the World Bank.

Seoul is a thoroughly modern city, with a great public transportation system and a world-class airport. The bullet train whisked us to Portland's sister city, Ulsan, covering 380 miles in 2 1/2 hours.

But what is the cost of this grueling educational system beyond economic growth? Has it hurt creativity and entrepreneurship?

South Koreans worry about this. They often describe themselves as being stressed and unhappy as a nation. Efforts are being made to encourage more critical thinking, questioning and dialogue. And signs of creativity are evident. Recent Korean design in fashion and art mixes ancient traditions with new styles. Dubbed "hallyu" or "wave," Korean movies, music (K-pop) and design are enjoying growing popularity across Asia and elsewhere. 

But South Korea's emphasis on endless hours of schooling and high-stakes tests can devalue creative, independent thinking. Worse, in my view, is the toll this system takes on young people. 

Creativity and individual growth require freedom -- the freedom to pursue one's own interests, to be non-goal oriented, indeed to do nothing at all. If matching South Korea's achievements requires the United States to move toward Korean-style discipline, it doesn't seem worth it. Yes, we need vigorous reforms, and a good place to start is to reduce summer vacation by several weeks. 

South Korea is an admirable nation with wonderful people and an impressive economy. This approach to education may well work for Koreans, but let us find our own way to improve our educational outcomes. 

Wim Wiewel is the president of Portland State University.