[Viewpoint]Reforming education reform

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[Viewpoint]Reforming education reform

This year it would be wise not to expect much change in the area of education. In his New Year’s address on Jan. 2, President Lee Myung-bak stressed that, “education reform will be accomplished no matter what difficulties we face.” Then, Ahn Byong-man, the minister of education, science and technology, carried out a major reshuffle of high-ranking officials on Jan. 12, as if responding to the president. Out of 23 mid- to high-ranking education ministry officials, 17 were replaced. Some suggested the large-scale reshuffle was just the education minister’s attempt to save his own job, after becoming aware that the president was not overly pleased with the slow pace of education reform.

Why did people reach this conclusion? It is because birds of a feather flock together. The reshuffle gave the impression that the focus was more on quantitative change than on finding the right officials to take charge of the posts. Minister Ahn could well be disappointed by such public reaction, especially considering that he played his card after a month-long deliberation, after civil servants tendered their resignations.

Let’s examine the situation. Many of the officials in responsible posts at the ministry have switched places with vice superintendents of education affairs at city or provincial education offices, or heads of national universities - posts that the presidential transition committee had once tried to remove because they were thought to be blocking the decentralization of educational authority and the autonomy of universities. Therefore, it’s natural for observers to point out that bringing in people who came from such posts will not help renovate the ministry and reform the system.

In terms of personnel management, the education ministry has made mistakes right from the beginning of the current administration. Officials who strongly supported an egalitarian education system through such policies as the “Three Nos”- no university entrance exams, no high school ranking system, no admissions for donations, as well as 50 percent weight on school grades, the College Scholastic Ability Test grading system, restrictions on special purpose high schools and regional allocation of law schools - were placed in all the important positions.

A Blue House official who is close to power and exercised influence in personnel appointments once revealed the ministry’s misguided view of appointments when he said: “If people who are supposed to leave the post were given a second chance, they would be touched and become loyal.” His judgment was off the mark. The officials did not get along well, and the government policy lost direction.

Let’s reflect on the past. For the past year, conflicts and mistrust over education have increased due to issues surrounding the reform of public English education, school autonomy, mediation of private school disputes and history textbook revisions, among others.

The problems have intensified because the country’s 48 million people are so passionate about education that they could even be called education experts. In contrast, however, the government acts like an education amateur. The zeal for education is so high that around 80 percent of the protests staged in front of the Central Government Complex in Sejongno, central Seoul, are related to education.

An education official I met a few days ago said, “We are in a tight situation.” But what is driving them into such a corner?

First, it is the ethical standard of educators. One representative case was the incident in which officials visited their alma mater on “Teachers Day” and showed off their high office by donating government money to their former schools. Ultimately, their behavior attracted a lot of criticism from the public. Isn’t ethics the very essence of education?

The ministry also lost the people’s trust. If the government wanted to change the standardized government-controlled education system, overseen by ministry officials for 10 years, into an autonomous and competitive system, it should have taken a more humble stance and showed sincerity.

However, officials’ actions were far from humble. Here’s what the dean at one private university said of them: “Education ministry officials still walk around with their noses in the air.”

Would people follow the policies of such people? Private education costs increased by 20 percent last year, as if to mock the president’s public pledge to “increase school satisfaction by two times, while cutting private education costs in half.”

Education officials had boasted, “We will introduce a teacher evaluation system to raise competitiveness,” but for five years did nothing effective. The previous government even appointed someone from the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union as an aide for the minister on the pretext of facilitating communication with the union, which was against policy. Now, it has abandoned its plan to enact the teachers’ evaluation system, leaving it instead to the National Assembly.

But the bills, proposed by three lawmakers from the governing and opposition parties, are still being held up at the Assembly. I wonder what efforts the government has made. Possibly, they are trying to attribute responsibility for the failure to pass a law on the teachers’ evaluation system on the Assembly.

The selection of 30 autonomous private high schools that will supplement standardization policies and diversify schools is set to be made by way of a lucky draw.

This is frustrating; it seems the education ministry is going to teach that luck is more important than skill; likewise, admission into new international middle schools were decided by the color of a ping-pong ball in a similar lottery.

The minister and officials have to change the way they think to speed up education reform. Minister Ahn has to show leadership by taking full responsibility for any confusion, and taking the whole ministry firmly under his command. As the American president Dwight Eisenhower has said, a true leader is one who takes responsibility while delegating to his subordinates.

Government officials should defer to students, parents and the nation’s elementary schools to the universities, without whose support it is difficult to accomplish the goal of autonomous and competitive education. Working together with parents’ heartfelt support is the first step for successful education reform.

*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yang Young-yu

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