Thursday, October 24, 2013

(Don’t) Privatize this

South Korea’s private tutoring system is a tempting, but ultimately destructive model for U.S. education to follow.

By Nathan Davis

Long lectures, loud lunch breaks, and the struggle to feign interest in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel “The Scarlet Letter” are familiar activities for many Americans working their way through the public education system. As students, many of us have stared through droopy eyes as our teachers try to prepare us for long hours of homework and the inevitable terror of standardized tests. While nearly 75 percent of high school students graduated in 2010, based on a report from Education Week, there is still a significant proportion of students struggling to pass their courses. 

That’s where private tutoring comes into play. Private tutoring has been a booming market in America for the past decade, according to research and consulting company Eduventures, and is likely to play a larger role in the education of many Americans in years to come—especially as technology continues to work its way into our personal lives. Yet private tutors have little monetary incentive to excel past their peers in the public sector when they receive similar salaries and set goals that fulfill the bare necessities of student goals. What if our country could give these tutors a greater incentive to push our students to the next level? Perhaps we should look to South Korea, where tutors can make up to $4 million, far more than any private instructor in the United States.
"Hagwon Row" is seen in Daejeon, South Korea.
(ricksinkorea/Wikimedia Commons)

South Korea employs a multitude of instructors through hagwons: privately owned afterschool academies that students use to supplement their education. These academies are run by private owners who compete against each other to hire educators and publish academic materials that students can purchase. 

The idea is to let families decide which programs and teachers are worthy of their time and money. The best teachers get great reviews, multiple bids from different hagwons, and will (hopefully) reach the largest amount of students. Students receive lessons from outstanding teachers and these instructors receive nationwide recognition. The popularity of these institutions may even warrant Americans to adopt South Korea’s model.

Unfortunately, the hagwon system of instruction is not perfect. Critics of the afterschool program say that the system is a broken model that has become less effective due to corruption. The stress and emotional toll on families caused by the cutthroat private education system has garnered enough attention to get legislators involved. 

In 2011, the South Korean government engaged in a vicious political battle with hagwon operators over laws that required them to do everything from posting fees online to mandating background checks for all teachers. The legal battle continues to this day, as parents insist that hagwons are unfair and cause students and their families into unnecessary situations. Politicians have even begun lowering standardized test standards and creating curfews for hagwon classes to curb the current trend in afterschool tutoring. 

Regrettably, families still find themselves forced to pay more than they can afford for afterschool instruction in lieu of depriving their children of a proper education. Some families cannot afford these programs, which often come at a premium cost, and must rely solely on public education to teach their young ones. This raises yet another concern for parents. Some of South Korea’s best instructors are leaving public education for more lucrative positions as afterschool instructors, leaving the majority of students with teachers that hagwons are unwilling to employ. 

While many aspiring teachers may aspire to rise to the ranks of John Dewey or James Loewen, in America that is not often a reality. In fact, many citizens would like more emphasis placed on teachers and our education system. However, South Korea’s current scholarly woes seem to be giving the US an important reminder that the expansion of private tutoring is a treacherous path when it comes to educating students. Even though private tutoring has been on the rise, the US still puts a much bigger emphasis on public instruction, and with South Korea’s current struggles, that may just be the best decision that we can make.

Nathan Davis is a contributing writer for Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa studying Industrial Psychology and Business Administration.

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