South Korea Secondary graduation rate: 91.8 percent for men. Enrollment rate in secondary and tertiary education: 98.1 percent of 17 year-olds; 80.6 percent of 18 year-olds; 69.8 percent for 19 year-olds. (2018 OECD)

South Korea's 93 percent high-school graduation in 2014 was significantly higher than the U.S.’s at 77 percent.. In 2003, secondary school enrollment was about 87 percent of age-eligible students. In 2000, enrollment in secondary education was 4,662,492 (taking into consideration that some students may be enrolled at more than one school the secondary educational enrollment rate was 102 percent. In 2000, there were 192,947 secondary teachers and the secondary student-teacher ratio was 25:1. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007; Wall Street Journal, 2014]

In the late 1980s, coeducation was rare at the middle-school and high-school levels but was common in primary. At the middle and high school level even when schools were coed, classrooms were often separated by genders. Coeducational schools are more the more today although gender segregation still exists.

High school enrollment increased almost fourfold from 590,382 in 1970 to 2,251,140 in 1999. As of 1997, there were 764 vocational high schools with 868,395 students. In 1998, there were 1,085 general high schools with 1.4 million students. Of middle school graduates, 98 percent advanced to high school in 1997.

In 1987 there were approximately 4,895,354 students enrolled in middle schools and high schools, with approximately 150,873 teachers. About 69 percent of these teachers were male. The secondary-school enrollment figure also reflected changing population trends — there were 3,959,975 students in secondary schools in 1979. Given the importance of entry into higher education, the majority of students attended general or academic high schools in 1987: 1,397,359 students, or 60 percent of the total, attended general or academic high schools, as compared with 840,265 students in vocational secondary schools. Vocational schools specialized in a number of fields: primarily agriculture, fishery, commerce, trades, merchant marine, engineering, and the arts. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Secondary Education in South Korea

There are about 1,300 high schools and about 300 universities and colleges. About 80 per cent of high school graduates go to universities and colleges, one of the highest rates in the world. [Source: Suh Nam-Pyo, The National, March 21, 2013]

Competitive entrance examinations at the middle-school level were abolished in 1968. Although as of the late 1980s, students still had to pass noncompetitive qualifying examinations, they were assigned to secondary institutions by lottery, or else by location within the boundary of the school district. Secondary schools, formerly ranked according to the quality of their students, have been equalized, with a portion of good, mediocre, and poor students being assigned to each one. The reform, however, did not equalize secondary schools completely. In Seoul, students who performed well in qualifying examinations were allowed to attend better quality schools in a "common" district, while other students attended schools in one of five geographical districts. The reforms applied equally to public and private schools whose enrollments were strictly controlled by the Ministry of Education. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Middle school graduates or those with an equivalent academic background, usually about age 15, are admitted to high schools. Students bear the expenses of their high school education, which lasts three years. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The aims of education at the secondary level, according to the hundreds government, "to foster each student's personality and ability needed to preserve and strengthen the backbone of the nation; to develop students' knowledge and skills to prepare them for jobs needed in society; to promote each student's autonomy, emotional development, and critical thinking abilities to be brought to bear in and out of school; and to improve physical strength and foster a sound mind."

“The Education Law stipulates that high schools must furnish both general and specific education to middle schoolers. Article 105 establishes these objectives: 1) To educate students to be equipped with fine character and competence expected of good citizens by continuing to provide general education. 2) To improve students' capacity to understand and form sound judgments on social and political issues. 3) To promote students' awareness of national missions, to seek to improve physical conditions of the students, to help them choose future life courses appropriate for themselves as individuals, to heighten the level of their culture, and to increase their professional skills.

Korean middle and high school students have seven or eight classes a day and stay in the same classroom, with the teachers being the ones that have to move from room to room. Korean students get graded on a 1-to-5 scale that is similar to the American A,B,C,D,F system with 5 equaling an A and 1 equaling an F. Grades are less important for Korean students than American students, and few students fail, since the main goal is preparation for the college entrance examination.

Entrance Exams and Getting Middle School and High School in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Traditionally, entrance examinations to individual high schools for most students were largely symbolic, as a middle school and high school carrying the same name were in effect a single entity sharing a single campus. Examinations were extremely challenging only for those who tried to move upward into a better-rated high school. The progress of a middle school graduate to high school was more the function of parents' financial ability. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Entrance examinations by individual high schools were abolished in 1974. Instead, admission was based on middle school grade point average (GPA) and records and on the scores on the national qualifying or "selection" examination, established in order to limit the number of high school students.While successful applicants for general high schools are assigned to a school by a lottery system, applicants to vocational high schools compete based on the school's own examination or the student's middle school record.

“In actuality, however, the national selection examination has lately become meaningless, because the size of the group entering high school has been decreasing, thus no one is turned away from high school. In 1999, about 99.4 percent of middle school graduates advanced to high school, compared with 90.7 percent in 1985 (KNSO 61). The number of high school students, usually ages 15 to 18, in 1999 was 2,251,140, an increase of 5,590 percent over their total of 40,271 in 1951. (High school teachers numbered 105,304 in 1999 compared with 1,720 in 1951 — an increase of 6,122 percent.)

“Since 1995, high schools have been able to consider many factors besides selection examination scores in admissions. A new phenomenon for private schools is their right to self-governance, which allows for operation and maintenance by a school foundation and by student tuition and fees. Since 1998, private schools, if they so desire, have been given the right to set tuition and select students themselves; in such a case they would lose their customary government subsidy (MOE 2000, 62). Since 1998, some cities or provinces have started to admit new high school students based simply on their Middle School Activities Records. Students are also to have much greater opportunities in selecting their schools.

Middle School in South Korea

Upon completion of primary school, students advance to middle school, which comprises grades seven through nine for students aged 12 to 15. The curriculum consists of 12 basic or required subjects, electives, and extracurricular activities. While elementary school instructors teach all subjects, middle school teachers, like their colleagues in the United States, generally teach a specific subject

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Middle school education is compulsory for all students ages 12 to 15, but free only to a limited number of students. Free middle school education began in 1985 in farming and fishing areas and is to be expanded nationwide step by step (MOE). The middle school enrollment rate reached 99.9 percent in 1994. The high rate is attributed to the policy dropping the entrance examination in 1969. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“In 1969 entrance examinations by individual middle schools were abolished and all applicants have been assigned to schools near their residence by lottery in an effort to democratize secondary education. Before then, middle schools had clearly been ranked. A person's eventual elite status was guaranteed upon his or her admission to a top-ranked middle school such as Kyonggi Boys' or Kyonggi Girls' Middle School in Seoul. The school bond continues to be so strong and prestigious that, even decades after abolition of the middle school entrance examination, an older person's worth is measured by the secondary school he or she attended.

“By 1998, almost 100 percent of elementary school graduates went on to middle schools. As of 1999, middle school students, usually ages 12 to 15, numbered 1,896,956 — an increase of 2,347 percent from 80,828 in 1945. The number of middle school teachers increased even more dramatically from 1,186 in 1945 to 93,244 in 1999 — a 7,862 percent increase (MOE 2000, 34).

Middle School Education in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The program is divided into compulsory subjects, elective subjects, and extracurricular activities. Basic required courses consist of moral education, Korean language, mathematics, social studies, science, physical education, music, fine arts, home economics, technology and industry, and English. Elective subjects include Chinese characters and classics, computer science, environmental studies, and others. As of 2000, average class size remained large at 38, but had hugely improved over 1970, when there were 62 per class (KEDI). [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Since 1995, native speakers have been hired to teach English in middle schools in an effort to enhance English acquisition and prepare students for the "Age of Globalization." Despite the superficially democratic appearance, the current situation gives advantage to those students residing in affluent areas over those who live in poorer areas or rural districts. For example, there still exists a Kyonggi Girls' Middle and High School, and it is still considered a first-rate school. However, while the former Kyonggi Girls' School admitted students based on a strict entrance examination open to candidates from the whole nation, students today are there thanks to the economic status that allows their families to reside in that particular locality.

High School in South Korea

High schools are divided into academic and vocational schools. In 1995, some 62 percent of students were enrolled in academic high schools and 38 percent in vocational high schools. A small number attended specialized high schools concentrating in science, the arts, foreign languages, and other specialized fields.

Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle wrote for the Asia Society: The high schools that we saw were large and rather barren in appearance. Invariably, a large grassless area in front of the school serves as the playing field as well as accommodates schoolwide assemblies and other meetings. Inside, classrooms line the straight, sparsely furnished halls and are typically filled with 50 or 60 uniformed students and an instructor. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

“Most instruction we observed consisted of teacher lectures, with only rare interruptions for questions. If students had questions, they might speak to the teacher after class. There is considerable interest in computers. At the end of 1999 there was about 1 computer per every 23.8 primary and secondary school student and 1 per every 1.4 primary and secondary school teachers. The Ministry of Education planned to raise the ratio to 1 computer per 17.4 students and 1 per every teacher by the end of 2000. The computer laboratory we visited was equipped with about 50 terminals meant to serve 3,000 students, but at the time only teachers were in the room.

Counseling and Discipline in South Korean High Schools

Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle wrote for the Asia Society: “As we noted, discipline problems were infrequent, and great respect for teachers was evident. Students bowed, as is the custom, when passing teachers in the halls and appeared hesitant to enter faculty offices. We learned that discipline cases are generally referred to the student’s homeroom teacher, who then talks with the student and his or her family. In addition to administering discipline, which may but infrequently includes corporal punishment, homeroom teachers offer counseling, help students with college applications, and maintain contact with parents. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

“We were told in 1996 that in years past when teachers informed parents of discipline problems, parents responded by sending the teacher either a small amount of rice as an apology for having caused the teacher worry and trouble or a switch for the teacher to discipline the child. Since 1999, teachers no longer have the legal authority to administer corporal punishment. This change has created some confusion as to the extent of teachers’ authority.

“Despite these differences, Korean teachers still have more responsibility for counseling students and controlling their behavior than do teachers in the United States. Korean culture grants teachers the same authority as parents and attributes them even greater responsibility for children's moral and academic development.”

Curriculum and Course Selection in South Korean High Schools

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: First year students in high schools must all take identical courses, but from the second year students take electives as well as requirements. They choose from four different tracks, according to their abilities, interests, and future career plans: humanities, social science, natural sciences, and vocational training. Common compulsory courses for high school students are ethics, Korean language and literature, basic mathematics, social studies, history, basic science, physical education, music, fine arts, and English. Electives include Chinese and Korean classics, foreign languages, non-basic mathematics, non-basic science, ancient civilization, philosophy, ethics, logic, psychology, education, economics, religion, environmental science, drama, and dancing. Among general high schools, several specialized institutions concentrate on particular areas, such as foreign languages, science, and physical education. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Until recently, precollege students had little freedom to choose specific courses for themselves. In high schools, students learn all subjects in small increments at each level rather than concentrating on a few chosen subjects at a time as in the United States. Primary and secondary schools require extracurricular activities, although the degree of emphasis varies from school to school. These include journalism, chorus, orchestra, athletic groups, calligraphy, or fine arts. All are supervised by regular faculty members. Formerly one's college major, including premedical, was decided at the time of admission, and it was almost impossible to change majors after admission. More recently, colleges have shown some flexibility in allowing students greater freedom in changing majors and specific courses.

South Korean High School Student Life

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The basic routine of South Korea's high school students involves going to regular classes from 8 A.M. until midafternoon, with time after that devoted to athletics, extracurricular activities, and study sessions. Their subjects include advanced versions of what they studied in middle school including English and mathematics (normally including calculus). They may also study an additional language such as Chinese or German, and in vocational schools they may study agriculture, engineering, and home economics. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

Many of the boys go into ROTC, hoping to serve as officers when they fulfill their required military service, normally at around age twenty. Many Korean high school students get up early to study before school. A large number attend after-school "cram classes" to help them master topics for the all-important college entrance examinations that have to be taken in the senior year.

Programs for the Gifted and Talented Students in South Korea

Suh Nam-Pyo wrote in The National: “The country's secondary educational system is unique because in addition to its general high schools, South Korea has special high schools. For example, its science high schools, about 20 in number, are designed for students who show special aptitude for mathematics, science, and engineering. There are also four high schools for students gifted in science and art. These competitive special-purpose high schools generate about 2,400 graduates a year, each school producing about 100 graduates each year. [Source: Suh Nam-Pyo, The National, March 21, 2013]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Abolition of middle school entrance examinations in 1969 caused worries that extreme standardization and democratization of curricula would not produce outstanding leaders. Many felt unusually gifted and talented students need special attention as well as those with disabilities. MOE designated specialized high schools in the 1990s for science, foreign languages, the arts, and athletics. With strong governmental support, these schools aim to identify gifted and talented youngsters at an early age and develop their potential in these specialties. These schools enjoy autonomy in their admission processes, faculty recruiting, curriculum development, and financial management. The Education Law was revised in 1995 to promote special education for the gifted and talented and accelerated grade advancement and graduation programs in regular schools. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“For the education of scientifically talented youth, Kyonggi High School of Science was founded in 1983. In 1994, about 9 percent of primary schools, 17 percent of middle schools, and 8 percent of high schools offered special education for the gifted and talented in science, mathematics, the Korean language, foreign languages, arts, and computer science (OECD 39). In 1996, nationwide there were 15 science high schools (16 in 1999), 14 foreign language high schools, 16 arts high schools, and 13 athletic middle and high schools. Those completing two years in a science high school are eligible for admission to the exclusive Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST). Other such institutions include the Kwangju Institute of Science and Technology, Seoul National University, and the Pohang Institute of Technology (MOE).

“As of 2001, KAIST had about 7,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs. KAIST was established in 1971 by and remains under the auspices of the Ministry of Science and Technology, not MOE as is the case with all the other universities. The original institution, then called the Korea Advanced Institute of Science (KAIS), was founded in a specific governmental effort to reverse the brain drain to foreign countries and to create an environment conducive to the return of scientific researchers active abroad.

“It soon expanded its mission and size to maintain a closer relationship with industry while pursuing basic scientific research and education. It merged first with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) in 1981, under the new designation KAIST, and again with the Korean Institute of Technology (KIT) in 1989. KIST had been a research institute and KIT an undergraduate college established in 1985 to educate scientifically gifted students. In 1989, the KAIST campus was relocated inside the strategically located Taedok Science Town, in which are gathered not only other universities, but also public and private research institutes and venture businesses. Thus KAIST, as Korea's best research-oriented science and engineering educational institution, plays a leadership role in developing and advancing the nation's science and technology. By 2001, KAIST had produced about 18,500 graduates, including 3,800 Ph.D. degree holders who occupy key positions in science and technology in both the public and private sectors, at home and abroad.

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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