[Viewpoint] Comedy of foreign language schools‘It’s rather embarrassing,” said a junior reporter after a few drinks. We were talking about foreign language high schools.
“The high schools that are considered the best in the country have ‘foreign language’ in their names.” He said that foreigners would find it odd to learn that the schools specializing in foreign languages are the most prestigious and competitive.
We laughed at his argument then, but his claim made a bitter impression on me because he was actually pinpointing the “inconvenient truth” of Korean education.
The reality was revealed when a foreign language high school announced that it would exclude the foreign language listening test from its admission procedure.
It is ridiculous, indeed.
The school, whose goal is to select students with linguistic talent and educate them to become global leaders, decided to get rid of the listening test instead of strengthening it.
If The New York Times reporter who covered a story about the school finds out, he will fly back to Korea in no time.
In fact, The New York Times reporter knew the reality. He wrote that 133 students from the school were admitted to Ivy League colleges, a success rate that most American parents would envy.
“Their formula is relatively simple,” he wrote. “They take South Korea’s top-scoring middle school students, put those who aspire to an American university in English-language classes, taught by Korean and highly paid American and other foreign teachers, emphasize composition and other skills crucial to success on the SATs and college admissions essays, and - especially this - urge them on to unceasing study.”
However, his report was not totally thorough since it missed how the school abused the vulnerable points of the educational system to select the best middle school students.
While he wrote that many of the parents are wealthy doctors, lawyers and professors, he failed to explain why it is so hard to be a parent of a student at the schools unless you are rich.
Their tactics used to cherry-pick the brightest students include accepting students with high math scores, creating a modified math test called the “Test of Creative Thinking” and making a foreign language listening test that even well-educated adults would find difficult.
When the regular school curriculum does not cover the tests offered by the school, students have to take private lessons, which only rich parents can afford. That’s the background of the comedy of excluding the listening test from the admission process. The school was accused of being responsible for the private education craze.
However, it is unfair to blame foreign language high schools alone.
There are accomplices that made the school deviate from the original purpose of specialized education and to focus instead on sending students to elite universities.
The prestigious universities appreciated their pre-selection of outstanding students, and parents decided that it was advantageous for their children to go to those universities.
The ministry of education gave tacit approval to the foreign language high schools to be considered the elite schools. The universities, parents and government encouraged the foreign language high schools to deform into what they have become today.
I do not doubt the necessity of elite education. However, the deformed foreign language high schools are not up to the job.
Just as my colleague said, this is embarrassing for everyone.
Also, the nominal standardization is no longer valid. The schools that abused the weak spots of the system and made national educational policy useless should not be recognized as prestigious.
We need to give due respect to those schools that did their best within the boundaries of the law and the system. I believe that the schools that accomplish great results by working together with their teachers and not relying on private lessons, such as Pungdeok High School in Yongin and Gokseong High School in South Jeolla, should be given priority to pick the best students.
It would be enough to give them the power to accept students from among the top 20 percent through a lottery system. Foreign language high schools would compete under the same conditions. The competition would not be solely for the benefit of the students.
When foreign language schools begin from the same starting point and produce great results, they will deserve to be called the best.
Other significant perks would be minimizing private education and preventing the structure of social inequality from worsening.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom