South Korea is arguably one of the most education-minded places in the world. From an early age children are set on a rigorous course and by the time they become adults, the more degrees they get the better. One South Korean university professor said: “Korea doesn’t have a lot of valuable natural resources — the people and their fever for education are the jewels of this country.” In recent years, a declining birth rate has meant that schools have fewer students. There is an emphasis on science and technology.

Korean society historically has prized learning and the well educated, yet education was not widely available to all until after the Korean War. As late as 1945, less than 20 percent of Koreans had received formal education of any kind and most South Koreans were illiterate. Today, South Korean 15-year-olds rank No. 2 in the world in reading, science and math.

The modern education system is based on a 1968 charter that identifies education as an important aspect of citizenship and defines the government’s role in providing all Korean children with access to education and outlines the government's mission of educating every Korean child for citizenship and participation in modern life. Educational policy is set by the Ministry of Education, which determines curriculum, commissions and approves textbooks, and enforces uniform standards for all levels of schooling throughout the country. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000; Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

South Korea has compulsory education through the ninth grade. Over 93 percent of high school students graduate compared to 77 percent in the U.S. According to the OECD 70 percent of all high-school student graduate attend a four-year university and more than that attend one of 350 public and private postsecondary institutions, the most prestigious of which are Seoul National, Yonsei, Koryo, and Ewha universities.

Many observers regard students as the “national conscience” of South Korea, especially given their important role in democratic reform movements since 1960. The literacy rate is 98 percent. [Source: OECD, **]

South Korea take a hierarchal, top down approach to education. The Ministry of Education makes most policy decisions, and sets guidelines for textbooks, curriculum, standards, testing, and finances in private as well as public schools. There is an emphasis on uniformity in Korean schools. The curriculum is the same for all students and even music teachers are told precisely which songs they have to teach in each grade. There is generally no failing or advancing a grade, nor are there slow or fast groups within a given class. If students fall behind they must attend cram school classes to catch up.

Se-Woong Koo wrote in the New York Times: “The world may look to South Korea as a model for education — its students rank among the best on international education tests — but the system’s dark side casts a long shadow. Dominated by Tiger Moms, cram schools and highly authoritarian teachers, South Korean education produces ranks of overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire program amounts to child abuse. It should be reformed and restructured without delay.” [Source: Se-Woong Koo, New York Times, August 1, 2014; Koo is a former fellow and lecturer in Korean studies at Yale, and editor in chief of Korea Exposé,]

Education Achievements in South Korea

Statistics demonstrate the success of South Korea's national education programs. In 1945 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 22 percent; by 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percent, and by the late 1980s various sources estimated it at around 93 percent. South Korean students have performed exceedingly well in international competitions in mathematics and science. Although only primary school (grades one through six) was compulsory, percentages of age-groups of children and young people enrolled in primary, secondary, and tertiary level schools were equivalent to those found in industrialized countries, including Japan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

According to the Asia Society: Over past decades, “Korea has shown what can be done to improve education. It has extended class size and schooling hours to meet a surging demand for better education, and students from all socio-economic levels do well on examinations, including the sophisticated problem-solving skills on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Primary and secondary enrollment rates have been near universal since about 1990, and currently 86 percent of young Koreans enroll in higher education programs. There was an unprecedented increase in primary and secondary education from around 1975 to 1990 when the country also grew at a rapid rate. A commensurate growth in tertiary education took place thereafter and continues to date. This expansion can be explained by a number of convergent factors: cultural and historical reasons, economic growth, value placed on education, and government policies that promote educational achievement. [Source: Asia Society]

According to the OECD: “Korea is the top-performing OECD country in reading literacy, maths and sciences with the average student scoring 519, above the OECD average of 486. The best-performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. well-educated and well-trained population is essential for a country's social and economic well-being. Education plays a key role in providing individuals with the knowledge, skills and competences needed to participate effectively in society and in the economy. Koreans can expect to go through 17.3 years of education between the ages of 5 and 39, just above the OECD average of 17.2 years. In Korea, 87.6 percent of adults aged 25-64 have completed upper secondary education, higher than the OECD average of 78 percent. [Source: OECD Better Life Index. OECD stands for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its 38 members for the most part are world’s richest and most developed countries]

Education Spending in South Korea

Education expenditures: 5.3 percent of GDP (2015); Compared with other countries in the world Korea ranks: 48. In comparison the United States spends 6.2 percent of GDP on education. In Norway the figure is 7.6 percent of GDP. In Pakistan it is 2.8 percent of GDP. In Japan it is 3.5 percent of GDP. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP: 4.2 percent (2016)
World Bank]

Government expenditure on education has been generous. In 1975 it was W220 billion (for value of the won), the equivalent of 2.2 percent of the gross national product (GNP), or 13.9 percent of total government expenditure. By 1986 education expenditure had reached won 3.76 trillion, or 4.5 percent of the GNP, and 27.3 percent of government budget allocations. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 ]

In 2003, public expenditures on education were estimated to 4.2 percent of GDP, or 15.5 percent of total government expenditures. Public expenditure on education was 3.7 percent in the late 1990s. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007; Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Education ranks first in the government budget and draws substantial nongovernmental funds. Education in Korea is funded largely by the central government from tax revenues, but also by local government and private or school foundations. A supplemental education tax instituted in 1982 and made permanent in 1991 became an important financial resource for the central government budget, as it represented 26.2 percent of MOE budget in 1999. From 1996 to 1998, educational policy secured an allotment of 5 percent of the GNP for education; in 1999 it measured 4.3 percent. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The central government budget funds offices of elementary and secondary school education, operating funds for the national universities, some support for private universities, and money for education-related administrative and research organizations. Elementary and middle school education is compulsory. Elementary school is free, but as of 2001, only 19.5 percent of middle school students — those in farming and fishing areas — received their education gratis. Middle schools in urban areas, high schools, and higher educational institutions charge tuition to supplement government funding. Funds also come from private sources, mostly from parents but also from private organizations. By 2004 compulsory education will become completely free (MOE). Of elementary and secondary school education, 85 percent is funded by the central government; 15 percent by parents and local government. About 80 percent of junior colleges and universities are private. Private school financing heavily depends on tuition from parents and other organizations, both private and public.

Education Statistics for South Korea

Education expenditures: 5.3 percent of GDP (2015); Compared with other countries in the world South Korea ranks 48th. Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): total population: 98 percent (2019); male: 99.2 percent; female: 96.6 percent. School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education): total: 17 year; male: 17 years; female: 16 years (2013). School life expectancy (SLE) is the total number of years of schooling (primary to tertiary) that a child can expect to receive. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Gross enrollment: Primary school in 2005: 101.1 percent; in 2018. Ssecondary school in 2005: 97.1 percent; 98.5 percent in 2018; higher education in 2005; in 2011.

Out of school children, primary age: male: 12,706; female: 12,519; total: 25,225.
Gender parity index from gross enrollment ratio, primary: 1
Adult literacy rate: male: 98 percent; female: 98 percent; total: 98 percent (2008).
Expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP: 4.2 percent
World Bank]

Koreans can expect to go through 17.3 years of education between the ages of 5 and 39, just above the OECD average of 17.2 years. In Korea, 87.6 percent of adults aged 25-64 have completed upper secondary education, higher than the OECD average of 78 percent. [Source: OECD Better Life Index. OECD stands for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its 38 members for the most part are world’s richest and most developed countries]

Educational attainment (adults aged 25-64 have completed upper secondary education): 87.6 percent; Rank: 13th out of 40 OECD countries. Trend +1.0 percent average annual increase since 2013 Gender Inequality: 1.10 men to women; Rank: 29th out of 40 OECD countries. ++

Student skills: 519 score; Rank: 5th out of 40 OECD countries. Gender Inequality: 1.00 men to women; Rank: 20th out of 40 OECD countries. ++

Years in education (years of expected education for people between the ages of 5 and 39): 17.3 years; Rank: 25th out of 40 OECD countries. Gender Inequality: 1.10 men to women; Rank: 25th out of 40 OECD countries. ++

In 2001, about 80 percent of five-year-olds were enrolled in some type of preschool program. Primary school enrollment in 2003 was estimated at about 100 percent of age-eligible students. The same year, secondary school enrollment was about 87 percent of age-eligible students. It is estimated that about 97 percent of all students complete their primary education. The student-to-teacher ratio for primary school was at about 31:1 in 2003. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Literacy in South Korea

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): total population: 98 percent (2019); male: 99.2 percent; female: 96.6 percent. This compares to 45.8 percent for females and 69.5 percent for males in Pakistan; and 99 percent for male and females in Russia, the United States, Japan and much of Europe. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

In 1945 the adult literacy rate in South Korean was estimated at 22 percent. In 1960, it was around 72 percent. By 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percent, and by the late 1980s various sources estimated it at around 93 percent. Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post: “South Korea stands out as a rare example of how a drive toward literacy can transform a nation. A generation ago, South Korea was an Asian backwater, an underdeveloped country with a 1953 GDP per capita of US$67 after the brutal occupation by the Japanese and the aftermath of the Korean War. But a campaign to build schools and improve teaching standards coupled with a deeply ingrained culture that prizes education fueled South Korea's industrial revolution.” Now South Korea is the world's 10th largest economy, with a US$31,846 per capita GDP (2019) and a 98 percent literacy rate. Its workers are among the most highly skilled in the world, churning out high-tech cell phones, LCD flat-screen TVs and popular vehicles. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, November 18, 2004]

On the PIAAC Test of Proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving, South Korea ranks 15th out of 35 countries,
Adult Literacy: 273, ranked 15th tied with England. Japan is No. 1. The U.S. is 19th.
Adult Numeracy: 263. Japan has a score of 288; the U.S., 253.

Adult Problem Solving: 30. Here Sweden and New Zealand have the highest scores with 44.
Young Adult Literacy: 293

Young Adult Numeracy: 281 [Source: Compare Your Country

Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is international survey is conducted in over 40 mostly OEDC countries. It measures the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper. The evidence from the Survey has helped countries better understand how education and training systems can nurture these skills. The Survey is administered every 10 years and has had two cycles so far. In the First Cycle, there were three rounds of data collection, between 2011-2018. In 2018, the Second Cycle of the Survey has begun, with results for this cycle to be published in 2024. [Source: OECD]

South Korea’s Performance on Global Academic Tests

According to the OECD: “Korea is the top-performing OECD country in reading literacy, maths and sciences with the average student scoring 519, above the OECD average of 486. The OECD conducts the PISA tests. See Below. [Source: OECD Better Life Index. OECD stands for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its 38 members for the most part are world’s richest and most developed countries]

South Korea was No. 2 in the OECD’s PISA tests in 2002 in average reading, math and science literacy of 15-year-olds with a score of 587 compared to 498 in the United States and 543 in Japan. A) Reading literacy score of 15-year-olds: 524 compared to 505 in the United States. B) Math literacy score of 15-year-olds : 547 compared to 492 in the United States. C) Science literacy score of 15-year-olds : 522 compared to 499 in the United States. [Source: OECD Program of International Student Assessment, 2002]

In 2001 South Korea ranked second in math and fifth in science among 8th grade students in 38 countries in a survey by the International Study Center. In a 1997 study, South Korean third graders ranked No. 1 in the world in both math and science. South Korean fourth graders were No. 1 in science and No. 2 in math behind Singapore. [Source: International Study Center, Boston College, 2001]

Ranking of education systems and worker productivity in Asia by Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy: 1) South Korea; 2) Singapore; 3) Japan; 4) Taiwan; 5) India; 6) China; 7) Malaysia; 8) Hong Kong; 9) the Philippines; 10) Thailand; 11) Vietnam; 12) Indonesia

The Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation, a South Korean government-funded research institute in charge of administering the PISA. Its president Kim Seong Yul boasted of its results, citing an OECD statement that South Korea offered a striking example because its achievement rate went beyond that of a privileged elite.

South Korea's achievement test system has primary, middle and high school students take regular examinations. When a certain percentage of students falls beneath basic academic levels in a school, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry infuses additional funds to the school for it to take special measures such as hiring temporary teaching staff.

South Korea’s Performance on TIMSS and PISA Tests

South Korea result on the PISA Test for students age 15 (2018): Math: 526, 7th out of 79 countries behind China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang), Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan. In comparison the U.S. was ranked 38th with a score of 478.
Science: 519, 8th out of 79 countries behind China, Singapore, Macau, Vietnam, Estonia, Japan and Finland. In comparison the U.S. was ranked 19th with a score of 502.
Reading: 514, 9th out of 78 countries behind China, Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Estonia, Canada, Finland and Ireland, In comparison the U.S. was ranked 14h with a score of 505 and Japan was ranked 16th with a score of 504. [Source: PISA, OECD, Wikipedia ]

South Korea ranked second in reading, fourth in mathematics and sixth in science out of 65 countries in the PISA test in 2009. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of both OECD and non OECD countries. It was first performed in 2000 and has been every three years since then. Each student takes a two-hour computer based test. The aim of TIMSS is to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading, providing comparable data to assist countries in improving their education policies and outcomes. It mostly measures problem solving and cognition.

TIMSS test (2015): Grade Four Math: 608, ranked third out of 47 countries behind Singapore and Hong Kong but ahead of Taiwan and Japan.
Grade Four Science: 589, ranked second out of 47 countries behind Singapore but ahead of Japan, Russia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Finland, Kazakhstan, Poland and the United States.
Grade Eight Math: 606, ranked second out of 47 countries behind Singapore but ahead of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan
Grade Eight Science: 556, ranked fourth second out of 47 countries behind Singapore, Japan and Taiwan but ahead of Slovenia, Hong Kong, Russia, England, Kazakhstan, Ireland and the United States. [Source: TIMSS , Wikipedia ]

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is a series of international assessments by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) of the mathematics and science knowledge of students around the world. In country, a minimum of 4,000 to 5,000 students is evaluated using contextual data taking into consideration the conditions in which participating students learn mathematics and science. TIMSS was established by the IEA to compare students' educational achievement and learn from the experiences of others in designing effective education policy. This assessment was first conducted in 1995, and has been administered every four years since then.The (IEA) is a Netherlands based independent, international cooperative of national research institutions and governmental research agencies.

A) TIMSS Rankings for eighth graders in science in a 1995. 1) Singapore; 2) Czech Republic; 3) Japan; 4) South Korea; 5) Bulgaria; 6) Netherlands; 7) Slovenia; 8) Austria; 9) Hungary; 10) England; 17) United States. B) TIMSS Rankings for eighth graders in Mathematics in a 1995. 1) Singapore; 2) South Korea; 3) Japan; 4) Hong Kong; 5) Belgium (Flemish); 6) Czech Republic; 7) Slovakia; 8) Switzerland; 9) Netherlands; 10) Slovenia; 28) United States.

Emphasis on Education in South Korea

Education in South Korea is taken very seriously and highly emphasized at all levels. . School children under great pressure from the family and friends to succeed academically. Parents go to great lengths to provide the best education for their children. In the past this was especially true but now is true for sons and daughters. Not only Koreans but most Asians have traditionally revered scholars, valued learning, and have seen education as a way of gaining success and bringing esteem to one's family. One star Vietnamese student in Los Angeles told Smithsonian magazine, my parents "are really proud of me. So I have to keep improving, even if there is no room for improvement. I also feel their pressure. Just study, they say. I can't wash the dishes, mow the lawn or take a summer job. Their entire goal is to see me succeed."

Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: “It’s hard to exaggerate the premium South Korea places on education. This is a society in which you have to get into the right kindergarten, so that you can get into the right elementary school, then into the right middle school and high school, and finally into the right college. Which, of course, gets you the right job and scores you the right spouse. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, December 30, 2014]

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The most important characteristic of Koreans is their zeal for education (Ch'oe et al. 380). This fervor for learning, often labeled the "education syndrome," is not a new trend but comes from the Korean people's traditional respect for knowledge and belief in continuous human development. Probably the most important characteristic of Korean culture is its tenet that only the most learned should rule the country and society. Educational attainment has long been accepted as a fair measure of a person's worth, and scholars are still called upon to fill some of the highest government positions. It is also seen as an effective, essential instrument for nurturing national strength. The South Korean government thus takes a strong interest in the country's education, and the Ministry of Education (MOE) is one of the most important executive branches. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post: “But critics have charged that the emphasis on education in South Korea has gone too far, with many parents pushing their children to attend extra hours of night school that last until 9 or 10 p.m. every weeknight. To escape the pressure, some South Korean families have begun moving abroad — to Canada, the United States and Europe in search of less competitive educational systems. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, November 18, 2004]

Education and Confucianism in Korea

Confucianism has shaped ideas about education in Korea. The glue holding the traditional nobility together was education, meaning socialization into Confucian norms and virtues that began in early childhood with the reading of the Confucian classics. The model figure was the so-called true gentleman, the virtuous and learned scholar-official who was equally adept at poetry and statecraft. In Korea education started very early because Korean students had to master the extraordinarily difficult classical Chinese language — tens of thousands of written ideographs and their many meanings typically learned through rote memorization. Throughout the Chosun Dynasty, all official records and formal education and most written discourse were in classical Chinese. With Chinese language and philosophy came a profound cultural penetration of Korea, such that most Chosun arts and literature came to use Chinese models. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Donald S. Macdonald of Georgetown University wrote: “The enormous importance attached to education in Korea is a principal reason for the nation's rapid development. This attitude, however, is only partly motivated by current realities: it springs from the Confucian tradition, in which entry into government service was by superior merit obtained through years of study of the Confucian classics, proven by examination. Government position and scholarship were intimately related: the social ideal was the scholar-official, and scholarship in effect served the state. At a time when government positions were the only way to rise in the world, education thus was key to fame and fortune. “

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “In Confucian societies such as China and Korea, education was a prime qualification for leadership. This education was acquired at great effort and expense in village schools and in district schools under the stern discipline of learned teachers. In China, and also for almost a thousand years in Korea, the government staged examinations for students to test their mastery of the ideals they had studied in the Confucian classics. For most of the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910) there were lower examinations in the Confucian classics and in Chinese literary arts, the latter leading to a coveted chinsa ("presented scholar") degree. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Role of South Korean Education in Society and Development

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Korea's overall development has largely resulted from the growth of a well educated population. Even in the very early phase of economic development in the 1960s, Korea's educational level was far above those of other developing countries with equivalent incomes, such as Hungary and Italy.Even in the 1960s, the nation's illiteracy rate was only 27.9 percent and primary school enrollment measured 59 percent. Moreover, over the past 45 years, enrollments at secondary and tertiary schools have exploded, providing a sufficient pool of modestly paid but well educated workers needed for economic growth. Human resources are acknowledged as the key factor in both economic and social development. The key to Korea's rapid development was the rapid expansion of the educational system, coupled with relatively high educational attainment (UNDP). [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Originally intended by the elite for its own edification, education was at first provided to prospective leaders from aristocratic families to ensure high quality of leadership. The graduate would gain not only wisdom but also a sense of morality in governance. It served as a check against incompetent or cruel government. Education perpetuated the elite's exclusivity through self-improvement, thereby justifying their special status even more.

“Modern education, born at a time of a great influx of Western democratic ideals, has become accessible to everyone. Ironically, democratic education has now become a mechanism of creating and legitimizing new classes, albeit offering a chance of upward mobility even for people of the humblest origin. In recent times, as literacy has neared 100 percent, the focus has shifted from "basic literacy" to "life skill literacy" or "functional literacy" education.

“Increasingly Korean leaders, performers, visual artists, and scholars — a significant number of whom have earned doctoral or terminal degrees in foreign countries — are active on the world stage. As Korea becomes more and more visible internationally, its scholarship and culture will gain the world's attention as much as its products. In this age, when knowledge and material goods are exchanged around the globe, education takes on added significance for South Korea.

Private Education in South Korea

Private education is a multi-billion dollar industry in South Korea . In 1995, lessons provided by tutors and private schools accounted for 6.03 of the GDP of Korea (US$20 billion), one and a half times the national education budget. Of the money spent on private education, 32.5 percent was spent on elementary school students followed by 26.6 percent for middle school students, 24.9 percent for high school students, and 15.9 percent for pre-school students. At that time the average Korean family with two children spent 10 percent of its income on education. The majority of the money was spent on hagwan classes and tutoring. In contrast, American parents spend only 3 percent of their income on education for their children.

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: ““As of 1994, private education expenses amounted to 464 billion or 5.75 percent of GNP. If costs for kwa-oe (literally, "extracurricular") — private tutoring and other out of school supplementary education — are added, an additional 2.7 percent of GNP is spent by families with primary and secondary school students (KEDI 1996, 13). As of 2000, more than half (55 percent) the total households said that the kwa-oe was burdensome for their family budgets. The education reform of 1999 was perceived as encouraging even more private lessons. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Expenses for out of school education are the highest at elementary ages (OECD 43). Preschool and postsecondary education is entirely covered by individuals. In 1994, private kindergartens made up 77.8 percent of preschools. The share of private colleges and universities amounted to 81.9 percent in 1995 (OECD 28). Hardly any secondary school student has a paying job and regular college students rarely do. When they do work, it is usually privately at such jobs as tutoring or as office assistants. All precollege costs and also many higher education costs are borne by students' parents or guardians.

Issues in South Korean Education: Elitism, Equality, Money and Talent

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Koreans, both intellectual leaders and ordinary citizens, have shown disparate reactions to the ambitious scope and dizzying speed of recent educational reforms. The current debate centers on the theme of equity versus the need for elite education for national competitiveness, which has created a new ruling class. Some extreme measures were taken to eliminate elite education by abolishing the severely stratified secondary school structure. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“ Students competed fiercely to get into top-ranked schools, whose admission depended uniquely on entrance examinations. Now that education has become egalitarian, some have fretted about the lack of elite education; there have been only limited attempts to address this perception. While the former elite education through select high schools emphasized general liberal arts training, the new elite education seems to be bent on highly specialized skill acquisition, although interdisciplinary work seems to be encouraged to some extent. Many also fear that, outside the few select schools and programs, the general school system will suffer from low morale among both teachers and students, reduced funds, and a general drop in quality in those institutions not chosen for such privileges.

“The eager Korean government has been listening to proposals for education reforms from both domestic and international sources. Some frequently discussed suggestions concern decentralization of higher educational institutions, school autonomy, escape from exam-oriented education, the need for educating the whole person, and promoting creative thinking in education, as well as the need for practical education that includes technological savoir-faire for global competitiveness. All these issues seem, in fact, related, and various attempts at meeting the current challenges seem reasonable.

“Despite a huge improvement in the higher education gender gap, women still tend to concentrate in traditionally female fields. Girls from poor families tend to be forced into vocational schools, which is much less true for boys from the same economic milieu. Political and economic leadership positions are still dominated by men. Express measures to help change the mentality of the society in this regard are needed.

“Koreans bear a tremendous financial burden for their education. However, a significant proportion of that goes to private education (kwaoe ), which is money not being contributed to the overall national educational developmental. One way of overcoming this waste might be to institute school-based initiatives for private education, so that some of the financial investment now going to kwaoe could be put towards improving school facilities, among other uses.

“Current reforms, including educational reform, aim at granting maximum autonomy to local governments and schools. However, the involvement of the central government in setting general standards in education policy, curriculum, and implementation is not necessarily bad. What is highly desirable, though, is that actual educators play a key role as both advisers and participants in planning and as part of an evaluation mechanism.

Women's Education in South Korea

South Korea has one of the best educated female populations in the world. During 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, children were pulled out of school and most of them were girls. In 2000, female enrollment rate was 94 percent in primary school, 102 percent in secondary school and : 52 percent in higher education. Literacy and school attendance rates for males and females are more equal than decades ago but still slightly favor males. .

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): total population: 98 percent (2019); male: 99.2 percent; female: 96.6 percent. School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education): total: 17 year; male: 17 years; female: 16 years (2013). School life expectancy (SLE) is the total number of years of schooling (primary to tertiary) that a child can expect to receive. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”:Modern Korean women have had the same opportunity as men for education, although cultural factors account for their somewhat lower educational attainment. Nevertheless, contemporary Korean women are highly educated and share a thirst for study with their male compatriots. The proportion of women with college and advanced educational backgrounds has steadily increased from 2.4 percent in 1975 to 13.1 percent in 1995. In the case of men, the share of those with college and higher educational backgrounds was 26.6 percent of the total male population in 1995 or twice that for women. In 1999, women made up 37.2 percent of students enrolled in professional colleges and 35.8 percent in academic higher educational institutions. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Despite a huge improvement in the higher education gender gap, women still tend to concentrate in traditionally female fields. Girls from poor families tend to be forced into vocational schools, which is much less true for boys from the same economic milieu. Political and economic leadership positions are still dominated by men. Express measures to help change the mentality of the society in this regard are needed.

“Ewha Women's University, started as a school for young girls in 1886 under the name of Ewha Haktang, achieved full university accreditation in 1946. As of 2001, with an enrollment of 17,000, it was the world's largest institution of higher education for women. With 14 colleges, 13 graduate schools, and special graduate courses, it offers 56 majors. The graduate school offers master's degree courses in 55 areas and doctoral degree courses in 42. Each year, more than 900 candidates graduate with master's degrees and 80 with doctorates.

“Despite Ewha's remarkable record, Korean women in general do not get the same education as men. Not only do they receive fewer years of education on average than men do, they pursue what have traditionally been considered women's fields. As of 1998, female students were a majority in such traditional fields. For example, 73.1 percent of all students at teachers' colleges were women. Female students accounted for 64.8 percent in educational departments, 57.3 percent in arts and athletics departments, 56.1 percent in humanities departments, and 44.2 percent in departments of medicine and pharmacology. In social and natural sciences departments, the share of female students were 32.9 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively. Gender inequality at higher educational institutions was particularly acute in the sciences and engineering. In the natural sciences, the share of women earning M.A. and Ph.D. degrees is very low. In engineering, female students accounted for only 5 percent of all recipients of B.A.s, 4 percent of M.A.s, and 2 percent of Ph.D.s. This trend of gender separation makes it all but impossible for women to explore various career paths without regard for gender restrictions while substantially increasing the likelihood of women being employed in traditional women's areas. In an age when science and engineering are key, the paucity of women in those areas is viewed as a grave problem for women's advancement in society. Underlying causes include separate curricula for men and women, textbooks that reinforce traditional gender role divisions, and teachers' attitudes discriminating between male and female students (2000).

“The situation for women is rapidly changing, however. As of 2001, more than 35 percent of high level information technology positions were held by women and more than 100 of Ewha's Information major graduates held chief executive positions at companies specializing in new technologies (Cohen).

Inequality in South Korean Education

On major inequalities in the South Korean education system, Shin Young-jun, while a junior at Korea University High School, wrote in the Korea Times: “ Firstly, educational expenses differ depending on districts schools are located in. Schools in richer areas get higher budgets. For example, in 2010, the Gangnam District in southern Seoul, the relatively richer area, had a US$25 million budget; while the district Eunpyung, which is relatively a poorer area, had only US$3 million. With its ample budget, Gangnam provides a greater budget to schools for the residents of that area. Whereas in the poorer area of Eunpyung, the quality of schools gets much lower. Of course, this example shows the two extremes, yet it is still an interesting statistic which points out the widespread extent of the problem. [Source: Shin Young-jun, Korea Times, April 13, 2011]

“The problem is also made clearer by the fact that many parents in the affluent areas also send their children to expensive private institutes or private tutoring. This means a disadvantage for those living in poor areas who fall behind and are unable to achieve the grades other better-performing students achieve.

“In addition, too much emphasis on college entrance exams creates a problem with the equality of education because it puts pressure on students who are not well suited to exams. Students in Korea go through the constant examination process, the so called "examination hell.’’ Not every student is going to be at the same level when it comes to taking examinations, with some students better suited to other activities such as performance of projects. However, this is not considered when assessing students and so a great number of students suffer and don’t get the grades that they might otherwise be able to get. Therefore, they cannot go on to the universities that will give them greater chances to get well-paying jobs and the best quality of life available.

“Another problem is that only the major subjects such as mathematics, science, English, and Korean are seen as necessary, whereas other subjects including drama, music, art and physical education are not. Therefore, the students who might be strongest in those subjects are treated unfairly. It is clear from these two issues that there is a problem with the equality in the Korean education system.

“It is unfair for the parents in the richer areas to be able to afford only the best education for their children, while the poorer parents must work their hardest to give their children even the very basic education. The chances for the poor kids to get good jobs and break out of this poverty become more unlikely. This then leads to another generation of poorer people not being able to afford the best education for their children.

In a paper titled “Social Class and Educational Inequality in South Korea”, Kwang-Yeong Shin and Byoung-Hoon Lee wrote: We used “log-linear models to investigate the effects of fathers' social class on children's educational attainment in South Korea.” “With respect to educational attainment, the middle class is the most privileged class among four social classes: the capitalist class, the petty bourgeoisie, the middle class, and the working class. The middle class has the highest odds of going to a general high school instead of a vocational high school. The ratio of children of the middle class who go to general high school rather than to vocational school is even larger than that for the capitalist class, let alone the petty bourgeoisie and the working class. However, the odds of going to university instead of not going to university or to a two-year college decrease for all social classes imply that fathers' class effect on children's transition after high school is weaker than that during the transition from middle school to high school. Children of the middle class are more likely to advance to university than those of other classes.

Does Korean Society Hold Back Korean Education?

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “However, the Korean education system suffers from a thorny structural problem — the excessive weight it carries in Korean society. Extreme reliance on educational attainment as the sole or primary criterion of a person's worth must be repudiated. Next, education reformers must consider measures for promoting a new standard of personal qualifications. As long as there is no major change in perception, children growing up in such an atmosphere cannot avoid concentrating on means of getting themselves to the next distinguished diplomas and certifications. Abolishing the examinations altogether does not seem to be a solution either. In such a competitive environment, if the admission process were completely based on overall records, recommendation letters, and personal essays, then the possibility of subjective assessment and the lack of safeguards against corruption could be major threats to fair evaluation. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Promoting creative thinking is, of course, crucial and frequently presented as a problem in Korean education. Traditional thinking in Korea, as was often the case in most traditional liberal studies, emphasized "achievement" of creativity based on instilling the basics with a heavy reliance on the classics. The mantra of "creativity" should not be misunderstood as eliminating the rigor and formal nature of Korean educational tradition, which some Western educators envy. Often Korean educational methods have been accused of depending mainly on rote memory, but it is crucial for Koreans not to abandon these methods altogether, just because some learning appears to be less than a creative activity.

“The new trend for specialization at a precollege level may be viewed as early preparation for expertise. However, broad and balanced curricula at all levels of primary and secondary schools are desirable to provide solid, basic education at formative ages and, more important, to make it possible for students to find their own talents and preferences, rather than choosing a field by its reputation or some other perception.

“Finally, to correct structural problems, it will be necessary to institute some kind of affirmative action for those whose excellence is apparent without their necessarily having obtained advanced degrees. In a very un-Korean way, leadership positions might be filled based, not on educational attainment, but on other general criteria, such as experience, community service, innovative openness of mind, and a person's well-rounded character.

Forces for Change in South Korean Education

Se-Woong Koo wrote in the New York Times: “Despite decades of outright abuse and the entrenchment of this disturbing system, signs are emerging that some people are beginning to take reform seriously. In the course of coming to terms with the legacy of dictatorial rule, South Koreans have embraced the notion of “healing,” with the understanding that past political repression and continuing social pressure have engendered psychological ills that require redress. That trend has led to discussion of the detrimental effects the education system has on students and what should be done. Another sign that things may move in a positive direction is the election in June of a large number of progressive education superintendents around the country, spurred by the growing desire of the public for reforms. [Source: Se-Woong Koo, New York Times, August 1, 2014; Koo is a former fellow and lecturer in Korean studies at Yale, and editor in chief of Korea Exposé,]

According to The Economist: There has been discussions of “the need to create a “fair society”. That means, among other things, changing attitudes to educational qualifications. He says he wants employers to start judging potential employees by criteria other than their alma mater. “Merit should count more than academic background,” President Lee Myung-bak said. Lee urged Korean firms to recruit people with a wider range of experiences. Some have agreed to do so. For example, Daewoo Shipbuilding said it would start hiring high-school graduates and set up an institution to train them. But the managers who run big Korean companies are mostly from the generation in which academic background was everything, so they may be reluctant to change. [Source: The Economist, December 17, 2011]

The other force for change is Korea's young people. Many are questioning whether the old rules about how to live one's life will make them happy. Kang Jeong-im, a musician, puts it bluntly: “I think it's difficult to live the way you want to in South Korea.” High school was the worst, she recalls: “We were like memorising machines. Almost every day, I'd fall asleep at my desk. The teacher would shout at me or throw chalk.”

Ms Kang made her parents proud by getting into Yonsei, one of Korea's leading universities. But once there, she rebelled. She hung out with radicals and read Marx and Foucault. She went on protest marches, waving a placard, inhaling tear gas and almost getting herself arrested. “I kinda enjoyed it,” she says, “I felt I was doing something really important.”

Reforms of the South Korean Education System

Amanda Ripley wrote in Time Magazine: The South Korean government “is working to improve normal public schools by putting teachers and principals through rigorous evaluations — which include opinion surveys by students, parents and peer teachers — and requiring additional training for low-scoring teachers. At the same time, the government hopes to reduce the strain on students. Corporal punishment, an entrenched and formalized ritual in South Korean schools, is now prohibited (although students told me it still happens occasionally). Admissions tests for prestigious, specialized high schools (like foreign-language schools) have been eliminated. Middle schoolers are now judged on the basis of their regular grades and an interview. And 500 admissions officers have been appointed to the country's universities, to judge applicants not only on their test scores and grades but also other abilities. [Source: Amanda Ripley, Time, September 25, 2011]

Michael Alison Chandler wrote in the Washington Post: “Hoping to boost confidence in public education, the government introduced a controversial teacher evaluation system as well as standardized tests meant to stir competition among schools. It is also offering more after-school tutoring at public schools and on TV.” In 2010 “ the Education Ministry decided that 70 percent of questions on the national college entrance exam would be based on lessons carried on the government-funded Educational Broadcasting System, providing a strong incentive for students to tune in.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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