[Viewpoint] A textbook case of policy gone awry

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[Viewpoint] A textbook case of policy gone awry

On the home page of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, a grand slogan appears.

“Education for the future, with science and technology leading the way,” it reads. Unfortunately, it is not very convincing, nor is it exactly clear how the ministry will accomplish its goal - particularly when you take into account its policy regarding textbooks.

I do not expect the ministry to present a road map for the next century. But shouldn’t it at least have a plan for the next two or three years?

The Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, which the ministry assigned to review and approve textbooks, last week unveiled its evaluations of textbooks for the 2010 academic year. The Korean-language textbooks to be used by second-year middle school students were among those evaluated. A total of 22 textbooks were submitted for review, and 15 of them were given the green light.

The Korean-language curriculum at middle schools had been taught with government-designated textbooks, but the policy has changed so that schools can select the textbooks they want to use from among those the institute has approved.

The main issue with this is tied to the fact that the publishers that failed to obtain approval this year passed broader evaluations last year. The books in question are also highly popular with the schools themselves. The publisher of one of the most popular textbooks - currently used by 107,000 first-year middle school students, or 14.8 percent of the total - failed to pass the evaluation this time around. The same is true for other publishers.

Because it is important to maintain consistency in textbooks, publishers hired the writers who created the textbooks for first-year middle school students to make ones for second-year students. In light of the latest evaluation, however, many students will have to use textbooks that are written and published by different companies.

Of the total number of first-year middle school students, 44.6 percent - or 323,000 - used textbooks from publishers that failed the evaluation for second-year material. This will create difficulties for both the students and their teachers. And you can bet the publishers that failed the evaluations are unhappy with the resulting financial losses they will rack up.

I have no interest in the success or failure of the publishers themselves. I believe the evaluation process was fair, despite rumors to the contrary.

We have to focus on the students right now, not the publishers. And this is where I see the problems. Nearly half of the nation’s first-year middle school students will have to learn Korean with different textbooks next year.

So what will happen? Many of the second-year textbooks that recently won approval duplicate a fair share of information in the first-year publications that were not approved. Students, therefore, will be taught the same information they already studied.

This will result in a colossal waste of time and resources. It will also bring about chaos when, say, the same literary works that the students studied are presented in a different light - and with a different educational bent - the second time around.

Teachers will have to struggle unnecessarily when they select textbooks for second-year students next year in order to avoid the repetition, instead of being able to focus solely on the actual quality of the material. Who will assume responsibility for such a mess?

“All textbooks are within the larger framework of the educational curriculum,” said an official from the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, brushing off these concerns. The official’s reaction appears to ignore the fact that subjects can be taught extremely differently depending on the textbooks used and the teachers standing in front of the classes.

The ministry has flip-flopped its policies on school curriculum numerous times, making it a challenge to figure out which direction it will ultimately take.

Again, I don’t expect to see the ministry present a grand plan for the next 100 years. But it should at least come up with a solid plan for the next year and implement it properly.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Noh Jae-hyun
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