[Viewpoint]Students’ choiceMiddle school students in Seoul will soon be allowed to choose the high school they want to attend. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education has announced that it will redraw high school districts in the city to make the new system possible. Under the two-step plan, students will be allowed to apply for the high school of their choice by 2010. Final admissions will be decided by a lottery.
The so-called leveling system for high schools, which have long restricted the school selection rights of students and parents, will be partially modified after 36 years.
The new system is important not only because it gives back the right to choose a school to education customers, but also because it will inject competition into schools, which have routinely accepted students until now. In order to attract the brightest middle schoolers, high schools will inevitably compete. The new system will work as a catalyst to improve the quality of public education. To this end, the new system must succeed.
For the new system to take root, schools must offer parents and students meaningful choices. Currently, most school curriculums are extremely similar, which undermines the rationale for choosing one school over another.
As the situation stands now, a student’s best choice would be to choose a school near home.
The ball is now in the schools’ court. They must change in order for the new system to succeed. Each school must make efforts to differentiate its curriculum, while respecting the country’s basic educational standards. Competition must become fierce among schools.
There are many ways to make this happen. The top priority is changing how students are taught. Lecture-only classes should be replaced with discussions and field trips.
It is also important to create various educational tracks that match students’ diverse abilities. Unique after-school programs are also important to highlight a school’s specialties. Creating these programs will be easy when the principal and teachers are determined to change the school’s environment.
The Lee Myung-bak administration gave schools more autonomy on April 15, 2008 in an effort to prompt such changes.
In the new era, schools and teachers must not fear competition. They must forget about past practices and move forward. They must fulfill the reason for their existence by pursuing high-quality education.
To this end, there is no reason for them to oppose the disclosure of a school’s information on student abilities and teacher evaluations. They should be critical of the government’s narrow-sighted measures to reveal only three out of four levels of school information. They should also urge the government to introduce the new teacher evaluation system.
To ensure the success of the new school selection system, education authorities must use both carrots and sticks. Schools that are not favored by students need to analyze the reasons why and find ways to improve. In the early stages of the program, the government must provide support to struggling schools in the form of talented teachers and improved educational environment.
For schools that still fail to improve, handing down administrative penalties is unavoidable. It is impossible to continue a school’s operation when it has few applicants and students have to be forced to enroll. Such schools must change their characteristics by either cutting down the size of their student body or becoming special-purpose schools.
That is the only way to reduce the number of students who are assigned to schools where they do not want to go.
With the introduction of the new school selection system, it is also important to consider the introduction of a school evaluation system. Education authorities or a third party must objectively evaluate a school’s educational achievements and make the information public to assist students and parents in their school selection. This is also a healthy way to encourage competition among schools.
School evaluations take place in the most advanced nations. Britain and Singapore even rank schools and make the lists public. There is no longer any reason for Korea to hesitate.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Nam-joong