[INSIGHT]Another day, another new policyI wonder if it is proper to disclose "classified information" about our paper's editorial meeting? The Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development's recent guidelines to strengthen the public education system, which allowed schools to run after-school college preparation classes, started a heated debate among the JoongAng Ilbo's editorial writers at the meeting. Most were cynical, but there was a wide range of comments.
"Look up what the ministry said when it decided to ban after-school classes," said one writer, while another said we should run an editorial declaring we would not comment on the new guidelines because education policy is changing too frequently.
Every Korean has something to say about education, although most shut their mouth about the F-X fighter jet issue because they do not know much about it. Educational authorities should reflect the people's opinions and interests in the policies they draw up; people are acutely sensitive to changes in the college entrance examination. The authorities should develop specific, goal-driven policies even though their job is difficult because of the close public scrutiny.
I think education officials understand the issues accurately. They are aware of questions and suggestions to improve the system raised by efforts. Education officials are paid by the taxpayers to perform this job.
The problems flow not from ignorance, but from a bureaucratic willingness to push new plans despite expected opposition. For instance, officials must have examined the consequences thoroughly when they decided to resume after-school classes. The ministry had decided to ban the additional classes in 1999 because they believed the classes were bad for the education system. But now the resumption is justified on the grounds of "normalizing" schools.
We find it hard to accept the ministry's abrupt about-face because they did not make clear their reasons for again emphasizing the merits of the additional classes and downplaying the ill effects.
Have there been some changes in schools that we are not aware of? The ministry should tell the people of such changes and convince them that the facts warrant the change.
But if officials were not prepared to handle the aftereffects of their decision to ban the classes in 1999 and are now trying to sweep their mistakes under the carpet, they should be held responsible. They gambled with the nation's educational system.
The phrase "trial and error" is a good one. Another smart principle, "learning by doing," appears in educational theory books I have read. But what the education ministry is doing does not fit into those phrases. The basis of trial and error is that if road A is blocked than one should turn to B. If road B is blocked then the person should seek road C, not return to A.
The ministry's recent decisions to make the College Scholastic Ability Test easier, to resume corporal punishment and to change the system of grading schoolwork all clearly showed that it is not learning from previous mistakes or seeking better options.
I do not think this happened because education officials were ignorant or incompetent. They are committing mistakes despite knowing that they are doing so. Seven education ministers have been replaced during the past four years, which made it hard for officials to stick to their beliefs. Who would step forward to champion the right course and take the responsibility for changes before ministers who are likely to be replaced sooner rather than later?
We cannot expect to reform the educational system when the education minister makes excuses to the effect that the intention of the reforms were wholesome, but there were problems in the process of carrying out them. If after-school classes serve a good purpose, then they should not have been banned. On the other hand, if the after-school classes are wrong, then the ministry should never have allowed them to resume.
Educational policies served as eye-catching publicity for the president in previous administrations. President Kim Young-sam established a presidential education committee and President Kim Dae-jung raised the status of the education minister to a deputy prime minister.
But has Korean education improved? Some joke that overhauling systems that do not need it is reform, but making changes based on solid evidence is being conservative.
I am pinning my hopes on the reformist ideas of the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union, but I think a conservative education ministry would not be bad either - for a change.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Joseph W. Chung