[VIEWPOINT]Students are on the right path

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[VIEWPOINT]Students are on the right path

In a study last year by the Organization for Economic Cooper-ation and Development called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Korean students ranked first in the area of problem-solving, second in reading, third in mathematics and fourth in science. In another study, the Trends in Inter-national Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), they ranked second in math and third in science.
But people largely show cynical responses to such results rather than favorable ones. They say, “It is nothing to be proud of because it is the result of studying for the college entrance exam. It is not because students learn well at school but because they went to private institutes and received tutoring.”
The high performance of our students is no news. They maintained the high ranking in TIMSS assessment carried out in 1995 and 1999 and the other one given in 2000 as well. Our education harmoniously satisfies the two goals: “excellence” and “equity.” It proved its excellence through the high level of performance and also passed the standard of equity because parents’ socio-economic status had a meager influence on students’ performance.
PISA does not focus on assessing students’ knowledge of the contents of textbooks but measures literacy that is required to lead the life of a sound democratic citizen. The problem-solving area of PISA where our students ranked top includes a number of fresh and new items based on everyday situations. Many math items and science questions also demand justification, explanation or interpretation. Because they can be differentiated from items that students have practiced solving repeatedly for the college entrance exam, it is hard to see the high performance as the result of private education. In particular, the result of PISA this time is encouraging because it includes many descriptive items at which our students as it has been pointed out have chronically been poor.
If so, what could have been the factor for the high performance? Among others, high enthusiasm for education can be counted. Even private education that we are ashamed of is positively assessed in foreign countries. They envy us, saying how desirable it is that in Korea parents are privately paying to enhance their society’s intellectual level that will determine the future of a country. This interpretation makes me think that we may look at the private education from a different perspective rather than perceiving it as a social evil that may ruin the country.
It is an almost evident proposition that able students are raised by able teachers. As we have higher preference for teachers in our country than in Western countries, excellent students enter educational colleges. Compared to Western countries that suffer a chronic shortage of teachers, we have sufficiently secured highly qualified teachers.
Education in school can be a kind of “culture” that is handed down from one generation to the next. A virtuous circle will be formed when a student who is taught by a good teacher becomes a capable teacher again.
I recall the experience I had when I participated in the international conference as a member of the PISA math committee. Everytime I explained the situation in Korea, the chairman of the committee asked a Japanese member if the same held true in Japan too. He seemed to take more interest in the position of Japan than that of Korea. At each time, I had a sense of shame. Our ranking for the 2003 PISA was higher than the 2000 PISA while that of Japan went to a lower level. Seeing also the recent technological victory of our businesses over Japanese ones, I feel the unpleasant memories disappearing. PISA and TIMSS are a kind of mirror that reflect our education. We should not be complacent with the rankings.
There are some negative phenomena, such as relatively low performance of the upper 5 percent who determine national competitiveness compared to the total performance, big differences in performance between schools and gender, and low curiosity and confidence about curriculum. But I hope the PISA results this time will be a turning point to look at our education from a warm-hearted perspective rather than with harsh criticism.

*The writer is a professor of mathematics education at Hongik University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Kyung-mee
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