It’s time to shut them downAll imaginable forms of corruption took place at Younghoon International Middle School and Daewon International Middle School. The series of events eventually forced the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education to implement drastic measures. Starting next year, the international middle schools will scrap their application processes and select students through a lottery system. But that is just a stopgap measure. We need to reconsider the reason for the existence of international middle schools.
It is necessary to operate specialized schools to improve the nation’s competitiveness, but it is unclear if such programs must exist for middle schools. The younger the students are, the more they are coached by their parents.
And it is desirable to establish middle schools specializing in math and science, because youngsters gifted in math and science will be more distinguishable than those with a gift for language. Math and science are the fields where innate ability is more important and gaps between individual abilities show more prominently.
Foreign language abilities, which are highly valued at international middle schools, depend on other factors like parents’ social and cultural capital. Those admitted to the schools are likely to be students raised to be gifted, not born with talent.
Even if the international middle schools select students based on a lottery, the demand for private tutoring linked to the school won’t be reduced. Even after students enter the schools, there is much room for private education such as English debate tutoring to catch up with classroom discussion as well as preparation courses for the specialized curriculums of the international middle schools. Furthermore, younger elementary school students and children at kindergartens will be forced to take private tutoring to prepare for such added demands.
In Korea, well-rounded education programs provide younger students with valuable skills since they are far from college admission age. Therefore, elementary school has maintained a desirable format. However, the existence of international middle schools will damage the elementary school system in a number of different ways.
In 2008, opening international middle schools was supported because it was considered a means to absorb the rapidly increasing number of students leaving Korea to study overseas at a young age. But study abroad is about the entire experience of living in a foreign country, and it is not just learning a foreign language. In other words, international middle schools cannot be a substitute for studying abroad.
The schools are also intended to be a soft landing for students returning from abroad, but they also fail to serve such a purpose because most students do not fit this description.
As of now, international middle schools are nothing but a preparatory program for a few elite students to guarantee their admission to special-purpose high schools.
If students are selected through a lottery, as the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education announced, international middle schools will face a serious self-contradiction of denying the reasons for their very existence.
Some say the international middle schools which were marred with corruption should lose their authorization for the operation of special programs and be transformed into regular middle schools. Others say there is no need to keep the international middle school system at all.
The education office’s decision is to keep the current system with a small modification in the admission process. That position is extremely weak.
Operating middle schools specializing in foreign language education is hard to justify because middle school students are at the age of mandatory education with standardized curriculums. Furthermore, the international middle school program runs against the Park Geun-hye administration’s education policy to promote students’ freedom to pursue their dreams.
To this end, we must think seriously about scrapping the international middle school system completely.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of mathematics education at Hongik University.
By Park Kyung-mee