[OUTLOOK]Can New High Schools Make the Grade?Confusion continues to reign over the introduction of "independent high schools," which will be allowed to set tuition fees and their curriculum autonomously.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, which is required to back schools' applications, is resisting the plan. It said: "This office will not recommend independent high schools to the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development, even if some high schools do apply under the new system."
The Korea Teachers' and Educational Workers' Union is also opposing the plan, quoting a survey in which 65 percent of Seoul citizens declared themselves against it. The education ministry is facing a barrage of criticism. I really wonder whether the system can be introduced. I think this confusion symbolizes the chaos at the very heart of the Korean educational system itself.
Why has the introduction of the independent high school system become so complicated? Mainly because it threatens to bring down the long-running policy of "high school equalization," and other policies for private middle and high schools. Debate over the merits of these policies is so fierce that it took six years for the Education Ministry to finally decide to introduce the new system.
The high school equalization policy, introduced in 1974, tried to defuse cutthroat competition among students in middle schools for high school entrance. Public polls have consistently demonstrated a 70 percent support rate for the policy.
But opponents are equally vocal in their disdain for the equalization system, saying that it merely promotes "downward standardization," imposing a out-of-date bland, uniform education system and depriving students of their right to choose their school.
"Special high schools," such as foreign-language or science schools, were supposed to complement this equalization system. But these, critics charge and the government acknowledges, have failed, degenerating into university entrance exam prep schools.
Of Korea's 1,969 high schools, 930 or 47 percent are private, and of its 1.91 million high school students, 1.03 million or 54 percent attend private high schools － a far greater proportion than in many other nations. The contribution of private high schools to education should be carefully, honestly evaluated.
Since the equalization policy was introduced, private high schools have been treated as semi-public high schools, without the right to select students by their own criteria or create their own curriculums. Only 37 of the schools are run completely without state support, and the independent educational ideals for which they first strove have been lost. They must be able to find a balance; this is why the education ministry is trying to give them more autonomy.
But the warnings about the system must be heeded. The Korea Teachers' and Educational Workers' Union and some parents' associations are insisting that the independent high schools will cause greater discrimination in educational opportunity according to parental wealth and will eventually become elite schools. Some experts warn that the fierce competition between middle school students to get into the "right" high school will be revived. The Seoul Office of Education's opposition is based on these notions.
In a recent TV discussion panel on the matter, two high school principals confirmed that they fear the new schools will simply cater to parents who want to see their children in prestigious universities.
It is too late to reconsider the introduction of new independent high schools, but it is not too late to guard against some of these hazards. Under strict supervision, the schools must set out clear visions of what they wish to achieve and devise concrete special education programs for gifted students. This way they can outgrow simply serving as cram schools for the university entrance exam.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education should reconsider its position on the matter, and think over what legal and administrative problems await potential new students and parents. If the Office does not participate in the new system, it is doomed from the start.
The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Han Cheon-soo