Teachers give bad grades to state-run ESL programPresident Roh Moo-hyun last year expressed strong support for English-language training, saying “I believe the promotion of English and English education is essential.” Unfortunately, the comment highlights what has become a serious failure on the part of the Korean government.
Despite nearly a decade of strenuous efforts, the Ministry of Education has been unable to establish an effective means of teaching a language that most Koreans feel ― for better or worse ― provides a key to their economic and personal well-being.
It is no overstatement to say that most Koreans share the president’s view on learning English, which has become a $3-billion-a-year industry. Yet the Korea Government Information Agency reported that last year Korea ranked 110th worldwide in the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL. The gap between investment and returns reflects a crisis within Korean English-teaching industries, one that’s compounded by the government’s inept response to enormous public demand.
It’s not that the government hasn’t tried. In 1995, at the crest of a wave of private language institutes sweeping the country, the Korean Ministry of Education launched a pilot program called KORETTA, or Korea English Teacher Training Assistants, later renamed the English Program in Korea, or EPIK.
It was the first and only nationwide government-initiated program to address the demand for English education in Korea, designed to place native English speakers in public school classrooms to co-teach alongside Korean English teachers.
EPIK, however, was marked from the start by disorganization, miscommunication and allegations of corruption by its foreign teachers.
Based on a flood of complaints in the past year, an evaluation of the EPIK program by www.EFL-law.com, a Web site that provides legal information to teachers of English as a foreign language in north Asia, fell from an “A-” to an “F” when compared to other state-run team-teaching concepts in Asia, such as the Native English-speaker Teaching program (NET) in Hong Kong and the Japan Exchange and Teaching program (JET).
JET, which has operated in Japan since 1985, served as something of a model for the creators of EPIK. However, while JET counted 6,226 new and returning teachers participating for the 2003-2004 session, EPIK currently employs fewer than 300 teachers, representing less than 3 percent of the foreigners who come to Korea to teach English.
Compared to the JET program, said Lim Gill-chin, who advised the then-Minister of Education Ahn Byong-young on the creation of EPIK, “Korea is far behind and lacks long-term strategy.”
The government has been trying to catch up ever since it became clear that English was necessary to become part of the world economy.
“There was a need for what I call ‘global competency’ of English teachers,” said Mr. Lim, now a professor of Asian studies at Michigan State University in the United States. “It was the time when people felt that without English language capacity, Korea could not be competitive in the global scene.”
As the government cast about for a solution, the private sector rushed in to meet the rising demand for English lessons. The English frenzy in Korea began in earnest slightly more than a decade ago, roughly corresponding to the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, which put modern Korea in the world’s spotlight. The Internet boom of the early 1990s, which signaled a rapid shift toward widespread global communication, reinforced the desire for greater English fluency.
These days, the drive to learn English starts at a very young age. For many Korean parents, the ultimate definition of success for their children is admission to a good university, and this goal is next to impossible without a firm grasp of English.
Every November, traffic throughout the country yields for one morning out of the year to nearly 700,000 stressed-out high school students who make their way to test centers for the University Entrance Exam. The test, which decides in one shot the fate of all of these youngsters, is made up of six subjects. Of those, English is worth more than 20 percent of the total score, and is weighted more heavily among top-tier university admissions.
In the late 1980s, before private language institutes, or hagwons, were as common as they are now, English teachers in Korea often had previous experience living in the country or had higher degrees specifically in English-language instruction. However by the mid-1990s, the number of hagwons had increased exponentially, and demand had far-outdistanced supply. As hagwons and universities struggled to fill teaching positions, selectivity dropped.
It was in this environment that EPIK was launched. The team-teaching concept employed by Japan’s JET program provided a logical model for pairing Korean educators who couldn’t speak English fluently with native speakers who were inexperienced in the classroom.
The idea behind EPIK, said Mr. Lim, was “employing native speakers of English to enhance the instructional competence of Korean teachers.” The native speakers were seen as necessary for teaching colloquial English.
The eligibility requirements for becoming an EPIK instructor are minimal. Applicants must be a citizen of one of the six major English-speaking countries, or, for those with an ethnic Korean background, they must have studied English from the seventh-grade level and resided for at least 10 years in one of the six countries.
Teaching experience isn’t necessary, and according to Park Jeong-hee, office director of EPIK for the past five years, most applicants don’t have certification in teaching English as a foreign language.
The minimum requirement is a bachelor’s degree, which is necessary for visa purposes. Salary depends on credentials; those with a master’s degree, a teaching license or an ESL teaching certificate receive more money. Personal interviews are supposed to take place at the applicant’s local Korean consulate.
In 1996, a summer intake that consisted of several orientation sessions, run by Korea University, brought in more than 860 teachers, but by the third week of October, fewer than 500 remained. Those who quit cited reasons such as inadequate housing, late salary payments and refusal of severance pay.
The high rate of attrition continued, and today, EPIK operates at only a quarter of its intended scale.
Up until last year, the program had problems filling even the smaller quota, but increased recruiting has increased the number of applicants. Mr. Park said in recent years, EPIK has had more applicants than spots available.
“Most applicants are eligible, but we cannot accept all of them because of the limited quota,” he said.
“More schools want to hire native English language instructors, so we should recruit more EPIK members, but we cannot do so because of the budget situation and other issues we are facing,” he said.
However, he doesn’t see it as surprising. “It is not easy to have so many instructors. Every system cannot be perfect,” he said.
Mr. Lim noted several problems that contributed to EPIK’s difficulties, beginning with the unsuccessful recruitment of qualified instructors.
Schuyler Roche, manager of auxiliary legal services at a Korean firm in Gangnam, was among the first wave of teachers in EPIK’s first session, which started in June 1996. She said she was shocked to hear from Canadian teachers who joked that the recruiters at the Korean consulates in Canada were so hard-pressed to fill their quotas, the only interview question was, “What’s your favorite kind of pizza?”
The screening process led to some alarming consequences as well. David Lenard, who was a teacher with EPIK at the same time as Ms. Roche, said in an e-mail interview, “My group included a psychologically unstable woman and a New Zealander with a completely indecipherable accent.”
Other incidences of alcoholics and even pedophiles being hired finally led to the decision to require criminal background checks on applicants to find more qualified instructors, said Mr. Park. The measure, however, has only gone into effect this year.
Once in the country, the new EPIK instructors, many of whom had little cultural knowledge of Korea, had difficulty adjusting to the new culture, among the greatest being the language barrier.
“Cultural differences in communication tended to make small problems into big ones,” said Gilbert Schramm, a former Peace Corps worker who was also among the first EPIK teachers.
In some areas, Mr. Lim said, housing was a big problem. According to Ms. Roche, the Ministry of Education allotted 23 million won ($20,000) to each teacher in key money for housing.
“Twenty-three million won, outside Seoul, could get a teacher a comfortable two- or three-bedroom apartment,” she said. “Most teachers never saw such apartments. They were put in old studios and some were placed in homestay situations.” What happened to the money is unclear.
Compensation was another point of conflict between provincial education offices and teachers. Mr. Lim said what he considered an uncompetitive salary may have contributed to the program’s inability to attract more qualified people. Currently, first-year EPIK instructors who meet only the basic requirements are paid 1.7 million won per month and those with teaching credentials can earn up to 2.2 million won. Private institutes generally offer more than 2 million.
Also, a large percentage of the initial drop-outs did so in reaction to a sudden change in their contracts that required pension payments be withheld from their salaries. The new pension program was in accordance with Korean law; however, Ms. Roche said, the law was not adequately explained to the EPIK instructors.
“Some provincial education offices decided to take advantage of the confusion between the ministries to skim some money for themselves,” she said. “North Chungcheong withheld the legal 2 percent and others, like North Jeolla, went as high as 15 percent of the teacher’s total salary. North Gyeongsang was withholding 9 percent,” she said.
In some extreme cases, security issues extended even beyond the financial.
A spokesperson for www.EFL-law.com, a consortium of consumer rights and protection lawyers living and working in Northeast Asia who provide legal advice to foreign teachers in the region, says the group has substantiated complaints about EPIK ranging from wrongful termination and withholding of money to sexual harassment and disregard for foreign teachers’ “professional dignity.”
Exacerbating the situation was the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when the won fell by more than 50 percent against the U.S. dollar, and many foreign English teachers left the country after they found their salaries had sharply depreciated in terms of their home currency.
“Twenty percent of the foreign English teaching staff left between December 1st and 31st in 1997,” said Rob Dickey, who served as a former president of Korea Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Perhaps even more difficult than the administrative problems EPIK faced were what Mr. Lim referred to as “informal dimensions,” or the insufficiently addressed culture gap between foreigners and the Koreans with whom they worked.
Mr. Schramm, who wrote his thesis on the cross-cultural problems of Western teachers in Korea, specifically Americans and Canadians, said, “I think the biggest problems EPIK officials created were also linked to a cultural issue ― the kind and level of cross-cultural training we received.”
Or didn’t receive, as the case was. “We lacked a lot of background cultural information about the Korean educational system,” said Mr. Schramm.
Ms. Roche said, “No one prepared the EPIK teachers, or the Korean English teachers they were ordered to co-teach with, and endless misunderstandings and hurt feelings were the result.”
In Korean schools, where the highly structured environment revolves almost solely around “test coaching,” Ms. Roche said, “the Korean teachers felt that they barely had enough time as it was to prep the students for those strenuous exams, so they resented the EPIK teachers’ lesson plans because they felt they didn’t help them in reaching their teaching objectives.”
In this atmosphere of personal strife and resistance to their efforts, many EPIK teachers complained of what Mr. Schramm calls “expensive human tape-recorder syndrome,” or the sentiment that they were disregarded as people and tolerated only for their native speaking ability.
“It’s not that we expect EPIK teachers to show a miracle,” said Oh Seung-hyun, director of the Teachers’ Education and Development Division of the Ministry of Education. “EPIK teachers are only assistants to Korean teachers of the English language.”
However, low expectations sometimes translate into low maintenance as well. William, a former JET employee and current EPIK instructor who asked that his real name not be used, said, “I haven’t had a letter, an e-mail, a phone call from EPIK in two years. They abandon you.”
The high turnover among teachers and the constant reshuffling of management at the Ministry of Education and at EPIK, has also disrupted the growth and development of the program. “Whenever there is a new officer at the Ministry of Education, existing programs disappear or change names,” Mr. Lim said.
Quality of education
In the end, it is the students who suffer. During his thesis research, Mr. Schramm said that among the more serious EPIK teachers there was “a strong feeling that the Koreans weren’t really getting very much for their money.”
Mr. Lenard said part of the problem was that there weren’t nearly enough teachers to go around. In his area, one EPIK teacher was assigned to two schools.
“I don’t think the schools had a lot of guidance from anyone as to how to use the teachers, so they assigned me to teach all the ninth-graders at both schools ― for exactly one hour a week,” he said.
“This fundamental problem ― insufficient classroom time per student ― was unsolvable, unless they had been willing to hire 10 times more teachers. By trying to spread the teachers so thinly, they basically made their impact negligible,” Mr. Lenard said.
Despite all this, Mr. Lenard said he regards his experience with EPIK as positive, and current problems aside, EPIK was designed on sound principles. “Despite possible hurdles, it was a promising program,” said Mr. Lim, “a good risk-taking project.”
Indeed, the principles behind EPIK was a good one to start with, as evidenced by the fact that other private organizations have taken the same approach, such as Fulbright Korea’s English Teaching Assistant program, which places young Americans as co-English teachers into public middle and high school classrooms in Korea.
Like the EPIK and the JET programs, Fulbright hires young college graduates with little to no experience in teaching, saying optimistically on its Web site that their teachers “learn the most through the act of teaching itself.”
Despite the three programs’ similarities, Fulbright and JET have thrived while EPIK has consistently struggled, suggesting that it is not the teaching experience of the foreign recruits that decides the success or failure of these initiatives, but the supporting infrastructure of the programs themselves.
by Kirsten Jerch
JoongAng Daily staff writer Chun Su-jin contributed to this report.
Tomorrow, the JoongAng Daily looks at the Fulbright’s English Teaching Assistant program.