[Viewpoint] Ways to fix the education system

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[Viewpoint] Ways to fix the education system

The saga of corrupt teachers and education administrators that started in December, with the first riveting episode of a female school commissioner smacking her superior with her heeled shoe, becomes more scandalous and hideous as the investigation goes deeper. The main players range from commissioners and their deputies to head principals. The accusations are just as diverse: bribery, cronyism and graft in exchange for promotions, selection of school constructors and organizers for after-school programs. Prosecutors are determined to get to the bottom of the debacle while the media is having a field day in untangling the sordid story for the public.

Our society is usually immune to corruption dramas, having seen too many for too long. Yet the latest saga has the public shocked because the stories involve not the ordinary corrupt politicians and business leaders, but teachers and education authorities.

It would be unfair to throw a critical and suspicious eye over the entire education establishment due to the recent chain of scandalous cases. Most in the education field devote themselves with passion and integrity to nurture young minds. Yet the scale and details of the corruption are too extensive and organized to conclude that just a small group of greedy and ambitious individuals are involved.

Politicians and business leaders are mostly drawn by the twin temptations of authority and wealth. But educators should be motivated not by power or riches, but by respect and trust. Educators are humans, too, and therefore cannot be perfect. But they are required to be role models to generate respect and trust from students and parents.

By exposing themselves as corrupt and base as some have done in the recent scandals, they are jeopardizing their respect and trust and undermining the entire educational system.

Corruption in the education field cannot be prevented or rooted out just by re-emphasizing ethics among educators. There must be a mechanism to ward off improper dealings in the field.

First of all, administrative positions like school commissioner should not be considered a shortcut to a promotion. Ambitious teachers will then indulge in bribery to attain such a position because it could quickly be traded up for a post like school head. School commissioners certainly contribute to education, but it would be unfair for many other teachers who choose to devote their careers to the classroom if others easily get promotions. A position carrying such an edge in promotion is bound to smell.

Next, we can consider simplifying the administrative ladder in the education system. Currently, a district education office reports to the metropolitan or provincial office that, in turn, reports to the education ministry. Compared to other advanced countries, Korea has too many education authorities, doubling administrative workload. Too many teaching resources are wasted on paperwork. In the United States, a district education office often has only three or four staff taking up one room on a campus.

Reducing administrative posts in the education field does not mean job losses, but rationalization of labor resources. Instead of wasting valuable resources on supervising and interfering with school affairs, more can be spent to meet students’ diverse needs.

Lastly, school authority and independence must be enhanced. Given authority, schools will take more responsibility. Most advanced countries empower schools with authority over budgeting, appointments and teaching curriculum, making them accountable for the consequences. Finance and management at schools will be naturally transparent, leaving little room for improprieties.

The incumbent Lee Myung-bak government’s request that schools make their own education policies independently is distinct from the past Roh Moo-hyun government. But somehow there has been little progress in the field over the last two years. We may need time to break from past practices. But what’s more important is the leadership’s determination. The Education Ministry should step forward and loosen its bureaucratic grip.

Many developing countries consider us an exemplary society that has progressed on success in education. Let’s set an example as a role model.

*The writer is a professor of education at Chung-Ang University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Sung-ho
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