[WIDE INTERVIEW]Teacher wants to level the playing field

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[WIDE INTERVIEW]Teacher wants to level the playing field

Chang Hae-ok, the new head of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union, is a scrappy personality ― a quality that has stood her well in spearheading the union’s hard-line demonstrations on six different occasions. She is also the leader of the progressive democratic faction in the union.
Lee Soo-il, her predecessor, took a conciliatory approach to his job in an effort to soften the organization’s image, but the militant bloc within the union, including Ms. Chang, eventually forced Mr. Lee to step down.
Ms. Chang, 51, is the first female president of the teachers’ union since it was legalized in 1999. She sat down with the JoongAng Ilbo last week to discuss her views on a range of issues, from teacher evaluation to private schools.

Q.The majority of the public supports the teacher ratings system. Why is the teachers’ union against it?
A. I am well aware of the sentiment that incompetent teachers would be better motivated with an evaluation system in place. But ratings would essentially place teachers under strict hierarchy and grading scales. The system will pay teachers in accordance with their evaluation scores.

Do you find problems in how the testing is done, or are you against testing, period?
The nature of the evaluation system is anti-educational. The focal point of our education has been about orders and rankings and, essentially, about discrimination. Over the last half century, we’ve put students in rankings, and now people want to rank teachers as well.

But wouldn’t placing students who can’t understand cubic equations with those who can qualify as discriminatory?
No, because kids who can’t solve a simple math problem may be more sensitive than those who can. In classrooms, we tend to rank students just based on their exam scores.

Then are you against competition altogether?
Healthy competition is good. The problem is reckless, fierce, overly combative competition. [In Korea] the intensity of competition among students is such that it’s inhumane and anti-educational. And on top of all these problems is the university entrance exam.

Are you saying we should abolish the exam?
I am saying we should reform it. We should also reduce the number of courses and the amount of content being taught in high school and modify the curriculum altogether.

You think the state should not restrict education, and that schools should be allowed more autonomy. But why is the teachers’ union against independent private schools?
Those schools only reinforce discrimination.

But they simply want to have more independent decision-making without government intervention.
These independent schools cost nearly 20 million won ($20,970) a year ― we’re talking about very exclusive places. A founder may say, “I’ve got a lot of money and I want to teach kids with a lot of money.” But that has the nation and people who care about education really concerned because schools like them only exacerbate problems of polarization.

But these schools don’t teach anything that may harm the democratic society, or the children. Why are you against the idea of gathering smart students in one place and teaching them differently?
You’re basically speaking for those schools if you formulate your question like that.
The union is also against international schools in Seoul for the same reason: those schools, and specialty schools like foreign language institutions, are only focused on how to get children into universities.

The union’s teachers are giving special lectures on irregular workers despite criticism that the lectures tend to impose on students the teachers’ ideological values. Do you plan to continue those sessions?
I think those lectures should be expanded, given more regularly and deal with a wider range of topics. I don’t think teachers are force-feeding students with their own values; I think students are learning the right values.

As a parent, I try to give my children both sides of every story because I don’t want them to develop biases. Why are teachers trying to impose their own ideas on students?
Kids begin learning about values from the moment they’re born. When parents teach them how to live and how to conduct themselves, they’re teaching values. People say teachers should be neutral, but education itself is value-oriented.

What sort of values do you mean?
When our union was founded, people called the members a consciousness-raising movement, and teachers had to fight parents to get their ideas through. But some time later, it’s turned out the teachers’ ideas for establishing more democratic education were right. I think our members are a few years ahead of their time; what they are teaching today will be proved right five or six years from now.

Isn’t it problematic when teachers try to instill their own views on children who don’t have the capacity to critically assess such teaching?
Young students today don’t take teachers’ words literally all the time. They have the analytical ability to discuss these among themselves.

You want to level the playing field for all universities. Isn’t that a pipe dream?
We want all national universities to receive equal amounts of support, and to prohibit university entrance through financial contributions. We could have universities pick students based on their high school grades, not the scores on entrance exams. Dreams come true. Even the idea of a democratic society seemed unrealistic a century ago, but now we have that.

How would you evaluate President Roh Moo-hyun’s policy on education?
If I had to give a score out of 100, he gets 20.

by Kim Chong-hyuk, Kang Hong-jun
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