Don’t rush the ‘free semester’

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Don’t rush the ‘free semester’

In yesterday’s briefing to President Park Geun-hye, the Ministry of Education proposed the government introduce a “free semester” system from 2016, when fourth graders at elementary schools enter middle school.

The “free semester” program is aimed at giving middle school students an opportunity to explore their career options without heavy burdens from tests for a semester, one of the core pledges of the new administration’s education policy.

No one would object to the idea of fostering young students’ creativity and talent by freeing them from tough competitions to enter top schools, as the program prioritizes active debate and field trips over written tests for rote learning.

We agree with the good intentions of the new program. But many problems need to be fixed first. One involves deep concerns about whether the program can really achieve the original goal under the hostile school environment today.

For instance, the program could end up adding more academic burdens for the remaining semesters if the schools don’t reduce major class hours like Korean language, English and mathematics even while concentrating on exploring their students’ potentials and polishing debate skills.

In fact, a number of parents are worried that the program will backfire as it could cause more financial burdens for the remaining five semesters due to a need to make up for a loss of class hours with private education.

Considering all the potential loopholes, it is unrealistic for the education ministry to fully embark on the experiment by 2016.

The ministry announced it plans to run a pilot program for 37 middle schools in the second half of the year, apply it to volunteer schools for two years from 2014 to 2015 and fully introduce it in 2016.

But the ministry has stopped far short of going through a critical process of gathering opinions of parents and teachers.

It’s not an urgent matter.

It took as long as 39 years for Ireland to expand the program to 75 percent of their middle schools. The Irish ministry of education made sincere efforts to change parents’ perceptions gradually.

Our education ministry must check any expected problems before it’s too late and rearrange the implementation schedule. It must respect the Irish model before hastily rushing to a full introduction of the system according to the script.

It should, above all, not forget that the government’s education policies have always failed when it ignored the reality of our schools.
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