[VIEWPOINT]Let a hundred flowers bloom in education

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[VIEWPOINT]Let a hundred flowers bloom in education

Among parents of students from the primary grades to high school the hottest topic must be private education. Which private institutes are good at teaching what subjects, and how much it costs per month, are the focus of intense interest.
Predictably, parents of high school students are more intensely interested in the topic than parents of primary school students. That’s because the burden of private lessons grows heavier the higher a student goes up the education ladder. Some people set aside money for years for their children’s private education; some scramble to take out bank loans so their children can have an edge. The burden shouldered by parents grows heavier as their children advance up the grades.
To reduce family spending for private education and ease the burden on parents, the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development has devised a number of policies, including after-school classes, but the demand for private education is still on the rise.
Let’s look at recent data from the National Statistical Office. In the first quarter of this year, spending on education was 14.1 percent, or 310,000 won ($327.77), of the national average monthly household expenditure, which was 2.2 million won ($2,327). This was the highest on record since statistics on household earnings and expenses began to be reported in 2003.
The average monthly family expenditure increased by 3.9 percent over the same period of the previous year, but expenses on education increased almost threefold, to 9.9 percent.
The main culprit has been spending on private education; these costs, which include tuition fees in private institutes, have risen by 15.9 percent.
Many people suspect the average cost reported for private lessons, 135,000 won, is grossly underestimated.
What it indicates is that the parents of our school children are overwhelmed by the burden of private education. This is partly due to parents’ “education high fever,” but to a large extent, faulty education policy is to be blamed.
Let’s take a look at the uniform high school standardization policy. This egalitarian policy in practice has brought about a positive effect of restraining overheated competition.
But there is also a bad side effect of lowering students’ satisfaction with their schools since they are forced to sacrifice the right of school choice. Naturally, the number of students who look for private education when they are not satisfied with public education has increased. In order to ease this problem, special-purpose high schools and independent high school systems were introduced and they have proved to be successful.
According to a survey conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo and reported on March 20, the total education expenses of students who attend special-purpose high or independent high schools was much less than that of public school students.
Although tuition fees are higher than in regular schools, families spend much less on private education since the quality of education is good. As a result, the number of parents in search of special-purpose and independent schools has grown.
In a poll conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo among 50 experts in different fields, some 56 percent agreed with the supposition that reliance on private education would decline when competition is introduced in public education, while only 38 percent disagreed.
Nevertheless, the Blue House and the education ministry, insisting on an unrealistic egalitarian system, object to establishing more independent high schools. Moreover, they encourage private education by producing policies that are remote from reality.
Let’s turn to the evaluation of school records of high school seniors in the college admission process. At present the school records of high school seniors bear an absolute evaluation of their school work, graded according to a descending scale (A, B, C, D, and F). But a different rule is applied to second-year high school students. For them a nine-mark relative evaluation system is used. Within the narrow difference of actual test scores, students receive nine differentiated grades. This leads to fierce competition.
We hear of students stealing their classmates’ notebooks and throwing them away. Second-year high school students envy their seniors who do not have to deal with hot competition among classmates. It is difficult, therefore, not to be tempted to get private tutoring on each subject.
We had a similar situation in the 1990s. Then the issue was not absolute evaluation, but relative evaluation. As universities emphasized reliance on school records of students applying for admission, some students even got private tutoring on physical education.
As the effects of high private education costs loomed large, the education ministry shifted emphasis to an absolute evaluation system in 2000, whereupon the corrupt practice of inflating school records by high school teachers became rampant. When the government shifted to the relative evaluation system to prevent corruption, the problem of private education arose again.
Adding fuel to the problem was Kim Jin-pyo, deputy prime minister of education and human resources development.
With the view of reducing the financial burden on families, he succeeded in pressuring universities to give more weight to students’ school records in their admission criteria, while lowering the importance of the essay test. Because of this shift, however, competition for higher school marks became hot and fierce; now the burden for private education is increasing.
In order to reduce demand for private education, we have to enhance the competitiveness of public education and give universities more freedom to determine their own admission’s policies. Whatever evaluation system is used, high schools already provide universities as much material as they can, and universities develop various means of evaluation in selecting students.
If we expand university admissions in specialized fields and diversify admission methods, the perceived need for private education will decline. But if we increase regulations and limit admission methods, competition will naturally get fierce and reliance on private education will increase. The ministry has to look at the reality squarely rather than just talking.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Day-young
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