World-Class Standards: Rhetoric and Reality

Published May 1, 2005

For several years, education policy analysts in the United States have been aware of the fact that students in the Four Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) regularly outperform U.S. students, especially in mathematics and science. This fact underlies the U.S. concern about raising achievement to “world-class” levels, which are generally interpreted to mean the levels attained by students in the Four Tigers and the higher-achieving countries in Western Europe.

Now South Korea is raising the bar again, even before U.S. students reach the levels already attained by South Korean students.

In 2007, all Korean students will be eligible for a voucher to cover the cost of one year of pre-primary education at any educational facility the parents choose. In other words, South Korea has opted for a universal voucher, albeit one limited to one year of pre-primary education.

The legislation had been pending for seven years due to conflict among the interest groups affected by the voucher. The law provides free education for one year before entering primary school at age 6; it will cover underprivileged children in 2005-06, children in rural areas and small cities in 2006-07, and all children in 2007.

Parents Invest in Education

South Korea is probably the most education-oriented country in the world. Seven of 10 students receive private tutoring for an average of 6.8 hours a week, and private expenditures for education account for, on average, 12.7 percent of household expenses. The costs of private tutoring average 277,000won per month, with high school students spending 360,000won; middle school students, 309,000won; primary school students, 267,000won; and kindergarten students, 208,000won.

More than half of the parents (50.3 percent) said they feel burdened by private tutoring expenses, but another 54.1 percent replied they consider education expenses a top priority when managing household finances. Currently, Korean students attend school five-and-a-half days per week, including Saturdays; in 2005-06, they will not be in school on the last Saturday of the month.

In the United States, teacher unions are lobbying for “early childhood education,” American terminology for pre-primary education, and the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a prestigious organization of CEOs and university presidents, already has endorsed the idea. Early childhood education is the high-priority growth area for U.S. teacher unions; if pupils in South Korea show substantial gains as a result of their pre-primary education, the domestic arguments for it will undoubtedly cite that fact as a strong reason to support it here at home.

Effect Will Be Scrutinized

It will be especially interesting to see the impact of pre-primary education on subsequent achievement levels in South Korea. If the vouchers’ main effect is simply to replace private spending for education, then the improvement in student achievement may be minor.

It will also be interesting to see whether a competitive industry emerges at the primary level when the South Korean law takes full effect: Educational entrepreneurs can enter the market, knowing they will not be wiped out by the next legislature. Also, South Korea has the highest percentage of any country of female college graduates who are not employed outside the home, so there will be considerable interest in the law’s impact on female employment.

Undoubtedly, the huge expense of tutoring was a factor underlying the law. To U.S. parents, the amounts spent for tutoring in South Korea seem excessive, but student scores in the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT) determine not only who goes to college, but which colleges students are permitted to attend.

And since education is perceived to be the determinant of future economic success, Korean parents devote huge amounts to it at all grade levels. In 1999, South Korea spent 2.73 percent of its gross domestic product on private education, more than any other country involved in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Students Obsess Over Tests

To get some idea of education’s importance in the Korean psyche, consider some of the developments related to the Korean CSAT:

  • In 2003, CSAT was completed about one month before students took the test. To protect the integrity of the test, the 300 test-makers were kept sequestered in their hotel for 29 days before the last test began at 5:40 p.m.; no communication with the outside world was allowed except for monitored telephone calls to their immediate families.
  • For the 15 days between the printing and test dates, 156 printers were confined in a hotel, under restrictions similar to the test-makers’.

On test day (November 5, 2003):

  • approximately 640,000 students took the test at 876 test centers; 26 percent had taken it at least once before. Almost 31,000 traffic controllers were assigned to the test centers;
  • office hours at all government facilities and some corporations began at 10 a.m. to facilitate the test-takers’ transportation, some of which was provided by National Emergency Rescuers ambulances;
  • all drivers were asked to avoid driving within 200 meters of test sites and to avoid sounding their horns; and
  • plane departures and landings near test sites were reduced to avoid distracting noise. According to a report in the Korea Times, military forces halted training operations.

The test questions and predicted cut-off scores are placed on the Web the evening of the test. About a month later, students’ report cards are sent to schools; the names of those accepted at prestigious universities are displayed on hanging banners.

Standards Talk Largely Bluster

To put it bluntly, both conservatives and liberals in the United States have advocated “world-class standards” without explaining why students in other countries outperform U.S. students. The failure to deal forthrightly with the social costs of “world-class standards” requires that the American people and policymakers be fully informed about these matters. Obviously, many would lose whatever interest they may have in “world-class standards” when they realize the costs and obstacles involved in reaching this objective.

The discussions of how to bring U.S. pupils to achieve at “world-class” levels are simply Beltway babble.

Myron Lieberman ([email protected]) is chairman of the Educational Policy Institute. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, The Educational Morass.