[Viewpoint] Keep students out of political mud

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[Viewpoint] Keep students out of political mud

It has been only a few days since Seoul’s new liberal superintendent of education took office, but he is already sending shock waves through the system, talking of sweeping changes in the educational landscape. A youth rights group is planning a street protest to overturn standardized academic performance reviews and evaluations of teachers. The group called Asunaro - an Internet club comprised of thousands of middle and high school students across the nation - had played an active role in authoring a student rights manifesto last year sponsored by liberal educator Kim Sang-kon, just re-elected superintendent of Gyeonggi. The new Seoul superintendent Kwak No-hyun was another architect of the manifesto.

The teens are entitled to demand their rights. But adult educators must determine whether their demands are in sync with educational values and principles. Educators must explain whether their demands are disproportionate and unsuitable for their roles as students. I would like to point out some of the dangers in the Asunaro members’ demands.

First of all, the student group wants to scrap the standardized tests and evaluations on teachers, which they claim seriously undermine students’ human rights by fanning fierce competition. But their argument is half-baked, lacking an understanding of education. Evaluation does not aim to sift out the competent and incompetent or to spur competition. The pivotal role of performance reviews is to motivate students to learn better and evaluate the overall standard of educational courses. It would be an overstatement to equate evaluation with an instrument to trigger competition and infringe on human rights.

Based on their logic, all types of evaluations conducted on school grounds as well as diverse screening systems and mechanisms in society that could generate rivalry must be eliminated. Tests as well as college admission processes must be thrown out the window.

The football squad whose stunning performance at the World Cup in South Africa wowed the entire population is also recruited through a competitive process, but we don’t hear them complain of infringement of their human rights. Standardized performance reviews evaluate where students stand on an academic level. Parents and students may feel pressured by the evaluation results.

But I cannot understand why students would want to protest against the evaluations of teachers. The faculty evaluations are supposed to improve the abilities of teachers to provide better education for their students. It is not the students’ place to protest on behalf of their teachers. The teachers may end up facing unjustified blame for rousing their students.

Evaluation of students’ and teachers’ performance is an issue of education, not human rights. Important policies on education cannot be swayed by student voices. Later on, students may want their voices heard over appointments of teaching staff or principals, curriculum and overall learning as well as general school affairs.

To fend off such confusion and clashes on school grounds, the education leaders must draw the line. They don’t have to go as far as to penalize the student group leading the protest or block their rally. They must instead talk them down by explaining the inappropriateness of their argument and their student status.

The student group’s manifesto has been posted on the Web site of a certain liberal teachers’ association that campaigns against faculty evaluations. They must not use teenagers for their self-serving purposes.

Some liberal forces praise the student protests as the legacy of the April 19, 1960, revolution, the popular uprising led by student and labor groups that overthrew the autocratic Syngman Rhee administration. To liken self-serving protests by students to a democratic movement to oust an authoritarian government is more than a stretch. Politicians and activists must not drag students into the ideological mud.

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

By Lee Sung-ho
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