[Viewpoint] Empower schools, don’t hobble them

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[Viewpoint] Empower schools, don’t hobble them

The announcement of the government plan to liberalize education provokes both hope and concern. The basic direction of the liberalization is good. However, it is easy to be blinded by the word “liberalization” because of its positive image. In order to overcome this, it is important to examine the situation with eyes half open, like the cross-legged bangasayusang Buddha.

The first thing we should examine thoroughly is whether the expected effects of liberalization will materialize in reality. Social expectations put more emphasis on college admission rates and the College Scholastic Ability Test than on government policy to standardize school education. Therefore, there is a high chance that a reformed curriculum will make it difficult for schools to continue providing the same level of diversity of subjects that they have managed to teach so far.

If the government’s real goal is to raise the academic ability of schools, not increase diversity, as some claim, this is not only unethical, but also an undesirable prescription, considering the situation of Korean schools, which are trapped in excessive competition.

In order for the education liberalization policy to live up to expectations, it should be expanded gradually, starting with pilot schools, and complemented by solutions to the remaining problems.

The scale of the liberalization drive should also change. The National Common Basic Education Program aims at passing along necessary skills to students so that they can become responsible members of society. In order to reach this common goal, there are things that the government will demand, and there must be a certain amount of autonomy for the schools. The government should allow individual schools to work to meet its demands in a free and competitive way.

When expanding the autonomy of individual schools we should also keep in mind the side effects of the expansion. The main side effects will be the loss of centralized authority because of the expansion of autonomy, and the appearance of new problems that did not exist before. Introduction of the teacher appointment system at the school and regional level will very likely bring about both of these problems simultaneously.

Korea has some school policies that are worth exporting to other countries, and one of them is the teacher circulation system. Suspicions have even been raised that those who claim it is unnecessary for good teachers to work in isolated areas, using the simple urban-centered argument that “working in remote areas has nothing to do with ability,” are cherry-picking their own teachers separately.

For the government to accomplish its real policy goal, it would be desirable to provide more inducement by enacting the Special Support Law for the Education of Children of Farmers and Fisheries, which was stopped, and create autonomous schools to give a sense of reward to those who work at schools in remote areas.

Pursuing the expansion of autonomous rights with no guarantee of autonomy could cause many problems. Expanding only the rights of autonomy of the principal, so that schools depend mainly on the personal capacity of the principal, appears to be especially problematic when you consider that a principal is supposed to be an expert who can take final responsibility for the decisions and situation of the school. In this case changing the principals by calling them to account, thereby punishing such schools with administrative or financial disadvantages, is no way to pursue reform.

As the students of the school and their parents suffer the ultimate damage, the one who is finally responsible is the government that sent underperforming employees to the school. The government must be the one to compensate students and parents for any damage arising from bad workers. The rights and autonomy of everyone in the school community, including students and parents, should be expanded to reduce the frequency of these cases. Needless to say, the government should, before expanding school autonomy, make sure that areas with weak environments are provided with basic conditions that will make autonomy possible.

Lastly, when it discusses the reform plan I hope the government will examine whether it is passing the buck to rural areas or individual schools under the guise of liberalization. If the government is shirking its duties, passing off responsibility to rural areas or individual schools, it will ultimately become difficult for the government to avoid responsibility no matter how much it emphasizes that decision-making rights have been transferred.

The people will then certainly call the government to account for its actions regardless.

*The writer is the president of the Gwangju National University of Education.

by Park Nam-gi
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