Despite measures, hagwon still reignAround 4 p.m. on a recent February day, a string of sedans parked one by one near an intersection in Daechi-dong, an affluent area of Gangnam in southern Seoul known for its populated hagwon, or private cram schools.
The children got out of the cars, bid their parents goodbye, and pulled their wheeled suitcases in the direction of their respective academies.
“I put 10 English books in my luggage for a three-hour-long class,” said an 11-year-old girl surnamed Lee, who was dragging a suitcase on her way to a private school in the area. “I have to bring so many books for the classes, so I carry this luggage.”
“I have to memorize 30 or 40 English vocabulary words a day,” another child, a 10-year-old boy, added, as he lugged a heavy-looking bag.
Korea is notorious for its obsession with education, particularly English. As a result, hagwon and private lessons are commonplace, practically a social requirement.
One 41-year-old man in Seocho District, another part of Gangnam, said he spent nearly 8 million won ($7,505) sending his son to a so-called English camp in the United States every year during his vacation, until his son graduated from a six-year elementary school.
“Including the tuition for an English-specialized kindergarten and tutors to help him catch up with classes, I’ve spent about 100 million won in total for English education for my son,” he said.
“But I think the expense is worth it; many parents say children should master English before they enter middle school, where they should focus on their other studies.”
But Korean teachers usually don’t teach English as a practical skill, focusing instead on grammar and reading rather than writing and speaking. And that’s primarily because the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) only has listening, reading and grammar sections for English.
“I tried to teach some practical English skills to my son, but the CSAT focuses on grammar and reading only,” said Choe Hyeong-ju, 46. “So I started to send him to a cram school when he entered middle school.”
In an attempt to cool Korean parents’ fever for education, policy makers are considering overhauling the current English test on the CSAT. One idea in the works is to change the grading system to an absolute evaluation from the current relative evaluation.
The absolute-grading system is the traditional method of evaluating a student’s performance, where performance in a course is quantified as a percentage of grades.
Contrarily, relative grading, or curved grading, relies on a statistical system to plot the grades of each student on a curve, and the overall performance of the class or group determines the boundaries for how marks are assigned.
“As long as the CSAT is based on a relative-grading system, we will test students’ ‘techniques’ in answering questions, not their English ability,” said Eo Do-seon, an English education professor at the Korea University.
Under the relative-evaluation system, test writers tend to come up with more difficult questions to identify brighter students, educators claim.
“The current CSAT is not successful in easing demand for private education, nor is it actually evaluating the English ability of students,” said Kim Jin-wu, a teacher at Seoul Technical High School who is leading a campaign for a better education.
On the 2013 CSAT, for example, a question in the English test cited a thesis by a Harvard University professor, which teachers complained was too difficult even for them to understand.
“The government-published EBS textbooks, which are a major source for CSAT practice questions, increasingly require a broader range of background knowledge to solve a single English question - politics, sociology and even natural sciences,” said Go Jang-hun, 39, who teaches at a cram school in Gyeonggi. “Because these questions are so complex, I can only explain two or three questions to students an hour.”
Still, some argue that an absolute evaluation wouldn’t improve the situation either.
“Although it might relieve some parents’ obsession with the CSAT, it likely wouldn’t change the attitudes of parents who force their children to master English before they enter middle school,” said a teacher who works at an elementary school in Seoul.
In fact, said Lee Yeong-deuk, an education specialist, “it would probably just increase their fervor for other subjects, like math or Korean.”
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