[Viewpoint] Lots of lip service on education front

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[Viewpoint] Lots of lip service on education front

Recently, President Lee Myung-bak made a meaningful remark at a New Year’s briefing with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

“In fact, I am quite dissatisfied with educational issues,” Lee said.

He also mentioned the recent conversation he had with U.S. President Barack Obama.

“When President Obama asked me what the strong points of Korean education are, I didn’t know what to say,” he said. “I told him that Korean parents are very passionate about education and try to provide quality education for their children, and as a result, Korea could pull off such economic development.

“The U.S. president regards Korean education highly, but I was sorry in a way.”

Educational officials said the president hit the nail directly on the head.

Let’s think about what the president really meant. Last year, the educational system was truly chaotic. As if chased by the pledge to cut private education costs in half and double the nation’s satisfaction with public education, the government frantically rushed to produce all kinds of policies and programs.

I recently turned to my reporter’s notebook to rehash what has happened.

In February, the results of the academic achievement assessment were made public. In April, the government declared war against private education. In June, independent private high schools were designated. In November, a civilian-government council to reduce private educational expenses was launched. In December, the government announced the reform of the foreign language high school system, followed by a plan to change the College Scholastic Ability Test.

And there is more than one captain guiding this ship.

Kwak Seung-jun, chairman of the Presidential Council for Future and Vision, led the war against private education, while Grand National Party lawmaker Chung Doo-un initiated efforts dealing with foreign language high schools. Deputy Minister of Education Lee Ju-ho, a powerful educational policy maker, stirred up the pot on these issues whenever he spoke.

Recently, Prime Minister Chung Un-chan joined the fray.

“In the New Year, I will break out of my reputation as ‘Sejong City’s prime minister’ and more aggressively pursue public education reform,” Chung said.

As a former Seoul National University president, he has expressed his will to become an education-oriented prime minister. At the same time, however, Minister of Education Ahn Byung-man remains quiet. While some say he is bold and unmovable by the power game, others say he is an old boy with no color.

As if building a roof over a roof, there are so many redundant and unnecessary procedures surrounding educational policy. Parents are excited that power holders are so involved in education. The problem lies in leadership and synergy. They talk so much but get little done.

This is a consequence of “educational populism.”

And what about President Obama, who has asked about the strong points of Korean education? Instead of saying hundreds of words, he is showing his resolve with actions. He gave an ultimatum to the worst-performing public schools to choose among four options: 1) Replace the principal and half of the faculty; 2) Close down and reopen as a charter school; 3) Have the students transfer to other schools; 4) Enhance the capacity of the teachers.

President Obama figures that the solution lies in the principals and teachers. He is right on the money.

The starting point to reform public education is to focus in on the teachers. The president must demand high-intensity school reform that includes teacher evaluation. The officials who become obstacles to reform should be replaced, and policy makers need to work together to row the boat. That’s true leadership.

The JoongAng Ilbo spoke to three female educational leaders - Kim Young-suk, principal of Duksung Girls’ Middle School; Im Gye-hwa, principal of Mirim Girls’ High School; and Seo Hyeong-suk, principal of Moms School. Their advice? When a parent asks for one, the school should give two or three. The teachers do their best to teach, and the principal should work like a servant. Only then can the school win the trust of the parents, these teachers said. At last, an answer.

*The writer is the policy and society editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yang Young-yu
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