Some say it abuses its power to block educational reforms

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Some say it abuses its power to block educational reforms

At a public hearing on Oct. 20 to review a new teacher evaluation system, about 100 members of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’Union had a confrontation with police. The meeting was interrupted as 25 union members were taken away by riot police for investigation. Three of them were detained. The union members called for cancellation of the new evaluation system. The union staged rallies on Friday and Saturday in Seoul that were attended by up to 3,000 leaders of the union’s branch offices nationwide. They planned to leave school early after finishing morning classes on Friday, Oct. 27. On Nov 20, the union said, around 10,000 members of the union will take a collective day off, after the College Scholastic Ability Test on Nov. 16. Because teachers are not allowed to go on strike, they will take a day out of their annual vacation allowance for the protest..
You may wonder what made these teachers so upset that they would abandon their classes and go out on the streets to protest. Today, we will learn about the teachers’ union and its ongoing protests against the government’s educational reforms including the new system of teacher evaluation.

What is the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union?
The union was founded in September 1989 with the goal of establishing “true education” based on democracy, humanity and national autonomy. At the time, the union was not legally approved by the government. More than a hundred members were detained and 1,511 teachers were discharged. After a nationwide signature drive, about 1,300 teachers were reinstated in 1993. The union agitated for democratization of schools and liberal education for students. The union was finally legalized in July 1999 during the Kim Dae-jung administration.
Currently the union has about 100,000 members, about 24 percent of the total number of teachers, and branch offices at about 8,600 out of 10,600 schools nationwide.
In the beginning, the union was praised by students and parents for its decision stop to the practice of soliciting and expecting gifts of money from parents and for its criticism of corrupt private educational foundations. However, recently, the union has been at the center of controversy for espousing left-leaning views on many social issues, including opposition to the dispatch of Korean troops to Iraq and the proposed free trade agreement between the United States and South Korea; it has been criticized for showing anti-American video clips in the classroom. In addition, the union has been blocking the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s education reform policies, including a new teacher bonus plan and the new teacher evaluation system.
An older organization, the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations, founded in 1947, is the conservative counterpart of the teachers’ union. It has about 180,000 members.

What is the new teacher evaluation system and why is the union against the plan?
Under the ministry plan, 400,000-plus teachers and principals at elementary, middle and high schools nationwide will be evaluated every three years, starting in 2008. The ministry stressed the evaluations will not be made public and will not be used for promotions or demotions. The evaluation asks parents and students for input, as well as fellow teachers. Teachers who receive a poor rating will be advised to take special training programs. The ministry is considering making the programs mandatory if there is no progress from one evaluation to the next.
After prolonged negotiations with the union failed to reach an agreement, the Education Ministry announced on Oct. 20 it plans to implement fully the evaluation system in 2008. The ministry will present the bill to the National Assembly in December.
During their Oct. 20 protest union members called the evaluation plan an “imposition designed to restructure teachers” and a “plan to crush teachers to death.” They argued that before implementing the new evaluation system, the government first needs to reduce teachers’ workload and teaching hours. The union wants teaching hours to be decreased from the current 26 hours to 20 in elementary school, from 22 hours to 18 in middle school, and from 18 hours to 16 in high school. To comply with this demand, the Education Ministry will have to hire 55,000 additional teachers, spending over 1.5 trillion won ($1.56 billion). “Demanding what the ministry cannot offer means that they don’t want to be evaluated,” an education official said.
The union has a strong voice at the negotiating table because of the law on the public school teachers’ union which was revised in January 1999 during the Kim Dae-jung administration. Under that law, the union was granted the right to negotiate with the government regarding teachers’ working conditions and new educational policies. The union thus achieved power to restrain government attempts to launch new policies. Critics, however, complain that the union is abusing this right, blaming the union’s hard-line stance for sabotaging several rounds of negotiations.
Besides the new teacher evaluation system, the ministry’s new bonus plan has also met opposition from the union. Under the plan, teachers with better performance records would receive bigger bonuses. The ministry said the measure aims to encourage teachers to achieve more but the teachers’ union says it would only cause conflict among teaching staff. Until last year, teachers received bonuses without regard to merit, on the basis of their job title. In September, the union tried to return their bonus money to sabotage the system, but the gambit failed as each local education office refused to accept the money. Earlier in July, the union came under fire when conservative newspapers reported that the union’s Busan branch office held a seminar for teachers on Korean unification in October last year using excerpts from a North Korea text book, among other accusations. The police have been investigating those union members involved.

Is the union in crisis?
A few days after the union’s controversial seminar, elections for local education boards were held and the union fared poorly. Only 14 out of the 42 candidates from the teachers’ union won seats, down from 2002 when 24 out of 35 candidates supported by the union were elected to the education boards.
Local education boards review the education offices’ policies, regulations and budgets and are elected by a committee at each school, consisting of teachers, parents and local residents. In Busan, Daejeon and the Jeolla provinces, no union candidate was elected. In Seoul, only two out of seven union candidates made it. Increasing numbers of teachers and parents with more conservative perspectives have been organizing new groups including the Liberal Teacher’s Union, established in April, to counter the left-leaning union.

by Kim Soe-jung
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