How education policy fails

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How education policy fails

Joo Seok-hoon
The author is the principal of Mirim Girls’ High School and a member of the education subdivision of Reset Korea.

There is an old saying that education is a plan that spans a hundred years, but for a while now, education has become a means to spin public opinion or build political accomplishments in the short term. At the end of last month, the Education Ministry reported to the president its operation plan for the new administration, and it has become the hottest topic. Its plan to lower the elementary school starting age to five, ironically, united the people.

In fact, changing the school starting age has been proposed by all administrations since Kim Young-sam’s, including the Moon Jae-in government. What that clearly shows is that no government was able to push it forward. A report from the Korean Educational Development Institute showed that the people oppose any such change. All public servants of the Education Ministry are aware of that. Only the minister, vice minister and assistant minister of education of the Yoon Suk-yeol government were not. Whoops!

The controversy has revealed that the three highest leaders of the Education Ministry are not experts in education. Furthermore, their attitude toward policymaking was pretty clueless as well. The proposal was a sensitive issue that required step-by-step, reasonable persuasion of the public. But the ministry just rammed it through without any consideration of public opinion. It’s not a surprise it backfired.

One question remains unanswered. The issue was never a presidential campaign pledge. Why was it abruptly included in the report to the president? It doesn’t seem to have been the minister’s long-held belief since she did not major in education.

It is reasonable to suspect that an invisible hand forced the issue on the administration’s agenda since the ministry didn’t even bother to consult with metropolitan and provincial education offices. Whether it was an abrupt proposal from an internal power struggle or a high-level political act to cover up one problematic issue with another, who will take responsibility for the chaos if such a sensitive policy is pushed like this? Who will take responsibility to handle the unnecessary conflict and cure the people’s hurt sentiments?

There is, however, no room for sentimentalism. It is urgent to find a logical resolution. Let’s think about what has happened. As stated above, all past governments proposed the age change, indicating that there is a need for it. The problem is there had never been a serious discussion on why. The issue should be handled by the National Education Commission. According to the law governing the commission’s establishment and operation, the commission is to perform three major businesses independently. The first is creating a 10-year national education development plan for every decade. Therefore, the policy to restructure the school year system appeared to be a job of the commission.

Of course, handing over the issue to the commission will not resolve all issues concerning education. The Education Ministry must learn a lesson from the latest controversy and meticulously re-design the education reform plan from the issue of integrating kindergartens and childcare programs to grade schools and universities.

In order to resolve the massive problems associated with Korea’s education, not only the Ministry of Education and National Education Commission, but also metropolitan and provincial education offices must get a grip. As of now, no regular education workers are allowed to be hired when existing workers retire. Schools are forced to hire contract teachers, while the imbalance of teachers teaching particular subjects caused by the reduced number of classes remain unresolved. Financial support is also used to tame schools. Such practices ruin the field. And education offices are at the center of a ruined public education system. Education offices’ high-handed, oppressive attitude toward schools is more serious than that of the Education Ministry.

Education requires cooperation among students, parents and teachers. Therefore, decision-making on crucial issues must be based on consultation between teachers and parents. No policy was successful when teachers were bypassed or treated as a subject of reform. The government must respect teachers and parents to carry out its national agenda of “improving the responsibility of public education system.”
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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