Close the education gap

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Close the education gap

Even the financial crisis can’t cool Koreans’ passion for private tutoring. According to a survey by the Korean National Statistics Office, last year both net income and spending by families across the country fell from the previous year for the first time since statistics have been recorded. But spending on private tutoring went up by 4.3 percent from the year before. This shows that many parents tighten their belts to pay for private tutors or private institutes for their children.

More worrisome are the socioeconomic factors. The survey reveals that a family whose monthly income is 7 million won ($4,500) or more spends 8.8 times more on private tutoring than a family with a monthly income of less than 1 million. The discrepancy is even wider for families with high school-age children, with better-off families spending 11.2 times more than poor ones. This backs up data from a survey by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training that showed students at special high schools who are often from financially affluent families are more dependent on private tutoring than students at ordinary high schools.

Unreliable public education plus expensive private tutoring has predictable results. Children from richer families will get better results from university entrance exams, go to elite schools and get good jobs, while children of poorer families will follow the opposite course. The education gap will pass down poverty from generation to generation.

Normalization of public education is the only way to end this vicious cycle. It is worth looking into the Knowledge Is Power Program started by graduates of presitigious American universities in the mid-1990s. In schools under KIPP, teachers voluntarily taught students for longer hours on weekdays and had extra classes on Saturdays and during vacations. As a result, 80 percent of students at those schools, most of them from low-income families, got into universities. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and an education reformist, has donated $4 billion since 2000 to public schools in distressed areas, working on the front lines to improve the poor education environment there.

In Korea, an education reform movement started at Duksung Girls’ Middle School in Seoul has successfully conducted an experiment to do away with private tutoring. The government must contribute to speed things along. If the quality of public education improves, students from poor families who cannot afford private tutoring will benefit more. There is no better welfare measure than resolving inequality in education.
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