Obama admires Korean schools?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Full article: Obama urges longer school hours, extended school year


"We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day," Obama said, adding U.S. education to his already crowded list of top priorities.

"That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy."

He urged administrators to "rethink the school day" to add more class time.

"I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas," he said. "Not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America."

South Korean public schools are "closed" for almost two months following Christmas, although many students attend "winter camps" and other school programs. The students also have a month-long vacation in summer. My hypothesis is that the schools are closed during the most extreme weather of the year to avoid atrocious conditions or the energy bills that would come with keeping classrooms at bearable temperatures.

Students attend school five days per week, plus a half-day every other Saturday. Probably this is where they make up extra time. But unlike the U.S., where grades 1-12 must put in the same number of hours per day, South Korean students put in longer days as they get older. Although they're not in academic classes the whole time, high school students are at school into the evening for required activities and study time.

I'm not convinced all that time is well-spent. The normal teaching style here is lecture and listen. Many teachers do not even allow their students to take notes during lectures. Students are merely to absorb the knowledge, then regurgitate it via standardized tests. Middle school students spend weeks studying for their midterms and finals. In fact, coming here directly from teaching public school in the U.S., I saw the South Korean system as a ghastly example (think Dickens' ghost of Christmas future) of what may happen to the American public school system if the test-focused "No Child Left Behind" madness continues. The South Korean model lacks creativity, problem-solving, and independent thinking, important skills if we want American students to be globally competitive.

Now I realize that Obama was only referring to the scheduling side of South Korean schools, but I don't think you can extricate that part of the system. It's a whole: long hours, including weekend, standardized tests, fear of failure (rumor is, no one ever gets held back because they would lose face), school uniforms and single-sex education after grade 6, etc. If that's what we're heading for, I'll pursue other options for my sons. (I could get behind the school uniforms, though. Korean middle and high school students look very snappy, even when they wear sneakers with their uniforms.)

I still support Obama, but I hope he gathers more information before he holds up the South Korean system as any type of example.


4 Responses to “Obama admires Korean schools?”
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What's not to admire? Korean schools boost kids' math and science scores. Isn't that all there is to learning anything in school?

Yeah, Obama lost a little gloss with me as well when he started mentioning merit pay for teachers. Of course, I'm all for merit pay if I get to pick the students.

The one thing that Obama doesn't talk about while proposing a longer school day is the amount of actual teaching time teachers in South Korea put in a year compared to their American counterparts. Teachers in American middle schools average teaching over 1,100 hours per year compared to only about 600 hours per year in South Korea. South Korean teachers have more planning and professional development time than American teachers. According to an article I read in Sourcebook, Korean teachers have an average of 15 to 20 hours per week to plan! That is a huge part of the longer school day equation that I am not sure Obama understands.

My American friend who works at a Korean public school works 40 hours per week, up to 22 of which (according to EPIK contract) are teaching hours. She says her Korean co-workers only teach about 18 hours, not including homeroom, club activities, and every-other-Saturday school.

As a point of comparison, when I taught at a public high school in the U.S., I taught 25 hours out of the 37.5 hours (including lunch) I was paid to be there per week. Very few of the staff members at my school left every day at 2:30, so obviously the 10 hours per week of required planning time is insufficient.

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