[Outlook]Saving public education

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[Outlook]Saving public education

After Korea earned independence from Japan in the 1940s, education did not emerge as a government policy until 1983 when former President Chun Doo Hwan was in office. Since then, every president has promised to improve our education policy. Every president has been determined to take responsibility and play a leading role in reforming the education system. Each one established a government body for reforms in education, gave it a fancy name and made it report to him.
A quarter of a century has passed. Has our education system changed for the better? Of course, some minor things have been fixed, but the most important reforms have not been done. They always wind up right back where they started without affecting any real change. In fact, things have gotten worse instead of improving. Student performances on average has worsened. Character education has almost disappeared in schools. As parents and students depend heavily on private tutoring and trust it even more than public schools, public education has lost its competitiveness and is on the verge of collapse.
What caused all these problems in the education system? As former and incumbent administrations have attempted reform, goals and aims for education have been changed numerous times. Politicians who want to become president or legislators promise to achieve some goals in education. But their pledges are like overblown commercials. They do not present concrete ways to accomplish their pledges. Even if they present concrete methods, they do not do as they promise. In short, education reform policies have always turned out to be nothing but hot air.
This seems to be the case with the current election campaign, too. The people are sick and tired of rosy promises by candidates who want to win more votes. We sincerely ask them to be specific about how they will achieve certain goals and make certain changes, instead of telling us what they will achieve. There are a couple of things to be done to keep education reforms from continuing to fail.
First, the presidential candidates must present precise and concrete steps to guarantee professional skills and knowledge in teachers. They must show how education workers ― from teachers in day-care centers for toddler to university professors ― will have more professional skills and knowledge.
Second, they must promise not to use our education system for political purposes. Politicians have made too many unrealistic promises about education only to gain votes. Their irresponsible promises caused damage and chaos in our education system. Education must not be degraded into a vehicle to advance the ambitions of politicians.
Third, the presidential candidates must promise to appoint a qualified person education minister. Except for a few cases, unqualified people have served in this position. They include a person who has no idea about education and a person who has strong convictions but little knowledge. A person whose education philosophy was entirely wrong also served as the education minister. One had the right education philosophy but discarded it in order to become a minister. These people were appointed education minister so our education has gone through all kinds of chaos. Afterwards all felt regret about what had been done.
Fourth, the candidates must promise to minimize interference while maximizing support for universities.
They must clarify how universities’ autonomy will be maintained. They also must promise that universities will be severely punished for wrongdoing if they misuse their autonomy.
Fifth, the candidates must present concrete steps and methods to revive public education from kindergartens to high schools.
It is not enough to point out the bad things about private tutoring and to simply try to block people’s access to such instruction.
The candidates must show how public schooling will be differentiated from private tutoring. Private schooling’s goal is to improve students’ scores on tests, no matter what. On the other hand, public schooling’s goal is to improve people’s character. The candidates must say how they will restore the original goal of public schooling and achieve it.
Lastly, politicians and the government must stop passing the responsibility for failure in education on to parents. It is wrong to say that people’s overheated zeal for education is the cause of all the problems. The government criticized people’s desire for better education as if it is a bad thing, forcing people to look for places besides public schools to achieve their goals. The presidential candidates must promise that they will not do this any more.

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

by Lee Sung-ho
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