Fixing a dysfunctional system

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Fixing a dysfunctional system

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Kim In-sun

The Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education’s new guidelines for school starting times remain a moot controversy among educators. Under the new hours, students start their day at 9 a.m., which reduces the gap between the time the school opens and when the first class starts. Typically, high school students had to be in class by 7:30 a.m., middle school students by 8 a.m. and elementary students by 8:30 a.m., and would then study on their own until their first class starts at about 9 a.m. It is a pity that the spotlight is on the new starting times instead of the fundamental problems with public education.

This is not the first time school opening hours have been politicized. A liberal politician pledged to push back school hours during the 2010 parliamentary elections. The platform, which received little notice from voters, was picked up on by students who created the slogan: “Let us have breakfast. Let us have more sleep!” Students have been demanding extra time in the morning for years, but we adults have paid little attention. The new school hours in Gyeonggi can help the health and academic performance of students.

The new hours should be the starting point for normalizing the abnormalities of our public school system. The school hours have been criticized not for starting too early, but because the time was used for extra-curricular activities - mostly to make students study more. The extra study or education hours stem from fierce college-entry competition. Because students, parents and schools are all caught up in the race, they went along with the tight timetable. The idea behind the new school hours is to fix our dysfunctional education system. It should lead to a broader debate on reducing the study load of our students.

Students should be brought back to the center of education policy. They have been put in a position where they are forced to follow orders from education administrators and schools. The morning hours were tweaked because students raised their voices and were heard. This is a meaningful new step in our education course. Education policy should create a school environment where students can be happy and are encouraged to pursue their dreams.

Critics are skeptical that the new hours will benefit the students. They worry that students’ academic performance will deteriorate and the cost for private education will increase. But academic performance does not hinge on hours spent in the classroom. The education paradigm should be revised to focus on quality rather than quantity. On average, Korean high school students study nine hours a day. Their Finnish counterparts, who top world rankings for academic performance, spend just 5.5 hours.

Morning classes in private cram institutions must be regulated so that the private industry does not capitalize on the new school hours. Instead of adjusting private tuition classes according to the new hours, parents should consider reducing their children’s after-school private classes.

Some worry that their children will be left alone because working parents must leave home earlier than them. But students are allowed to come to school before class starts and use the library or other facilities.

According to a 2011 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Korean middle school students on average got 7.1 hours of sleep on weekdays, normal high school students got 5.5 hours and specialized high school students 6.3 hours. The U.S. National Sleep Foundation recommends 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep for teenagers.

We must leave behind the outdated mind-set that the early bird catches the worm. The later school starting time can help students better prepare for their day and enjoy their breakfast with their family. This is a small but meaningful start to a new course in public education.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a teacher at Kungnae Middle School in Gunpo, Gyeonggi.

BY Kim In-sun
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