30 September 2009

Private vs. Public Education in Korea (Year 3, Day 36)

There are still things to learn even after over two years being here and even about the educational system that I've been working in for both of those two years. I have merely scratched the surface of this dig...

Apparently, the differences between public and private education in this country are even slimmer than I realized at first.

During today's Advanced Adult Free-Talking discussion, we were discussing the Korean education system. This is comfortable for all of us, usually, because it's familiar for them and it's at least interesting for me. Talking about the weather and what we all did this weekend (the same thing as the weekend before) doesn't exactly do it for me. Today's topic started out being the certification process for teachers in Korea and the U.S.

At some point there was a lull in the conversation, and I casually asked, So, how much does it cost to go to private school here? "About 300,000 won ($253) per quarter in H.S. About 50,000 won ($42)." Wow. That's really cheap! "Yes, it's about the same as it costs to go to public school." Excuse me?

Apparently, you have to pay to go to public school. Taxes don't completely cover the cost of educational materials. I'm familiar with that. When I went to high school in Winona, we had to pay a school activities fee to participate in extracurricular activities and had to raise money for special events like school plays and band trips. Paying a little extra to fill out my public education was something my family was more than willing to help out with.

But, the logical corollary to the prices in Korea is that private schools are actually mostly publicly funded.

Well, there must still be something special about them, even if they are publicly funded. There must be some distinction. Maybe they're allowed to accept only certain kinds of students?

Not so! In fact, all schools (yes, even the private ones) in major cities are compiled into a computer database, students choose which three schools they would prefer to attend, and an algorithm decides which schools match up with which students.

Well, then surely students with higher test scores or closer geographic locations must receive preferential treatment in the assigning of these schools! This is Korea after all and testing is king.

Not so! In fact, the assigning is completely random (yes, even for the private schools). The only way to boost your chances of attending one school over another is to place it higher on your preference sheet.

So, let's say that one school is particularly famous in a city. It has good teachers, good facilities, and a high success rate when it comes to scoring well on the national college entrance exam. Naturally, many students will select it as their top preference. However, since too many students will have selected this school, most will be assigned to their second or third choice. This may mean that you will have a school that is an hour and a half commute by public transportation from your home or, yes, even attend a private school.

The school has no option but to accept the student. The student, once assigned, has no option but to attend the school. Even if the school is private.

This boggles my mind. Private schools are publicly funded, and they must accept whatever students the local government assigns to it. I asked, Then what precisely distinguishes a private school from a public one?

There are a few things, actually. Wheres public schools are founded by the national government, private schools are founded by private citizens who form a sort of school board. But considering that most of them fall under government funding eventually anyway, this seems to be a minor point.

More helpful in differentiating the two is the fact that whereas public school teachers are assigned by the regional government (neither the teachers nor the schools have much of a say in who is placed where), a private school's board makes the hiring decisions for faculty and staff at its school. In addition, while public school teachers must rotate schools every 5 years, teachers at private school may stay as long as the school will have them. This allows the school to cultivate a prestigious and effective faculty.

Probably the most significant difference is the religion question. Let me be clear, whereas in the States, when we say private education we think of religious schools, in Korea, this is not always the case. A private school may not be in any way based on religious principles. However, quite a few are, and they are allowed to have religious services and supplement the standard curriculum with religious courses. Public education, as might be expected, remains a-religious.

Now, there are exceptions to all of this. Some schools are fully private and can thus design their own curricula and accept whomever they like without government interference. The same holds true for international schools. These schools are usually very difficult to get into and fairly prestigious. The students must take some sort of equivalence test to be reintegrated back into the public Korean education system, but this is usually no problem since the quality of education at these schools is usually far superior than at government funded public or private schools.

In addition, some areas do not adhere to this policy of placing students in whatever school a computer randomly places them in. In smaller cities and rural areas especially, schools still have the right to reject a student if the school does not have the capacity to take them in. This holds true for both private and public schools. (It is also noteworthy that students in especially poorer rural areas pay lower fees to attend school, and sometimes no fees at all, while students in urbanized areas will pay higher fees in accordance with the wealth of their area.)

It is larger cities that, as a general rule, choose to implement the random assignation policy. Still, since around 80.8% of the population is considered urban, this policy affects the large majority of Korean students. Especially large cities like Seoul divide the city into educational districts, but still implement random assignation within those districts. This has led to a problem of families buying small one-room student apartments in more wealthy districts like Gangnam in order to send their children to public schools in those areas.

Still, what is troublesome with a randomized placement system is that a secular, Christian, or Buddhist student could be forced to attend a school that they would feel uncomfortable or even resentful about attending. A Christian student may have to attend the public school across town even when his number one choice, a private Christian school, is right next door, while a Buddhist student ends up at that Christian school even though he may be made to participate in activities and classes that do not reflect his beliefs. Who would even conceive of such a system?

Apparently, it was designed to eliminate the sort of relocation patterns that Seoul experiences and general corruption in private schools.

In the first case, when a particular neighborhood in a city is richer than another, parents may sell everything they own to purchase an apartment in that neighborhood so that their son or daughter can attend the better funded school. When the school you attend is decided completely randomly, it doesn't matter where you live. This also serves to make sure that the rich don't receive all the benefits of their geographic location just because they are rich. (On the other hand, since it is completely random instead of achievement based, it does seem to discourage, or at least it doesn't encourage, academic excellence.)

As for corruption in private schools, since those schools needed to find ways to finance themselves, they involved themselves in what my co-teacher described as "illegal activities". I'm not exactly sure what these might be, but I imagine it involved accepting suspiciously large donations from parents whose children were then accepted at the school. Funding the schools publicly and forcing them to accept certain students served to alleviate this apparent injustice. My co-teacher did say that some private schools in the past would fire a teacher when they reached a certain age (older teachers are paid more) or fire a female teacher for getting pregnant. Apparently, with government funding comes certain rights for teachers.

When you plug one leak, you create another. Now, instead of overcrowding and corruption we have students making crosstown commutes and going to schools they'd prefer not to.

To be honest, this is just all a little strange to me and thus interesting. I don't actually know how satisfied or unsatisfied Koreans are with this system. Given the society's tendency towards corruption, I'd imagine they think of it much as I think of American democracy. It's not the best, but it's the best we can do.

Many thanks to Mr. Kim Dong-geun and Dr. Kim Dong-sang at Kyungbuk Science High School (경북과학고등학교) for the information in this article.

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