By Jenna Gibson
Last month, the Korean Ministry of Education announced major changes to the way South Korean students will learn English. Some of them are positive, and can potentially help ease the overwhelming classroom workload for Korean students. But these new policies may also have some unintended side effects.
Schools will be cutting the classroom workload for all classes by 20 percent, and English classes in particular by 30 percent starting in 2017. The plan doesn’t just cut the classroom hours for English learning, but it also shifts priorities – elementary and middle schools will be expected to focus less on reading and writing, while high schools will reduce conversation and listening practice.
In addition, in a major shift, the English section of Korea’s notoriously intense college entrance exam (known as the Suneung or KSAT) will now be graded in absolute terms rather than on a curve – a move designed to lessen the atmosphere of competition between peers vying for spots in elite colleges.
In some ways, these changes are long overdue. According to language learning company EF Education First, the average Korean student spends 20,000 hours studying English by the time they graduate from university. However, South Korea ranked 24 out of 60 in a 2013 English Proficiency index survey. Clearly, the ministry should be shaving down some of those long hours and making English education more efficient.
While some of these new policies seem logical, they could also have unintended consequences.
In the past decade, Korea has tried to become a bigger player on the world stage. Former President Lee Myung-Bak had his “Global Korea” policy, focused on taking up a leadership role in regional and global stability. And President Park Geun-Hye has repeatedly spoken about her plan to build a “creative economy,” with the goal of increasing the competitiveness of Korean ventures and helping them make inroads into global markets. Building a population with solid English skills is an essential component for both of these plans. English is by far the most used language in newspaper publishing, book publishing, international telecommunications, scientific publishing, international trade, mass entertainment, and diplomacy. Most international organizations and international corporations operate in English.
And up until recently, Korean society has invested both time and money to stay competitive in this English-centric world order. In 1997, elementary schools were required to start English language classes in third grade. And in 1995 Korea introduced the “English Program in Korea” (EPIK), which hires native English speakers and places them in schools around the country to serve as supplemental instructors that could expose Korean students to real-world listening and practice. The KSAT, a grueling gatekeeper to success in Korean society, includes an English section, raising the stakes for Korean students and, therefore, their parents. All of this sparked an outbreak of “English Fever,” sparking huge growth in both the time and money Koreans spend on English language learning.
The trend has now reversed, however. Citing budget constraints, many cities including Seoul and Incheon no longer hire native English teachers for middle and high schools. In 2014, the number of native English teachers in public schools throughout Korea fell to 6,785, down from a high of 9,520 in 2011. The EPIK program has been cut nearly in half since 2011.
To replace these foreign teachers, schools are starting to rely on Korean instructors, who cost less and are willing to work longer hours, according to a recruiter who places foreigners in English-teaching jobs. An Incheon Metropolitan Office of Education official confirmed – with housing and airfare, native English teachers cost the city 37 million won ($31,000) while a Korean instructor only costs 32 million won ($26,800).
However, even the most well-trained Korean teacher cannot provide the perspective and expertise that a native speaker does. Modern, spoken English, the kind that will come in handy in the global job market, cannot be taught from a book. Further, one of the biggest obstacles for students of a foreign language is the fear of using their skills in front of a native speaker. Having a foreign English teacher in the classroom can ease those fears and make Korean students more comfortable when they interact with native speakers in the future. Given that one of the big changes that the Ministry of Education announced this month is to shift the focus for elementary and middle school students toward more listening and speaking practice, these budget cuts for native speakers may not work in concert with the new objectives.
The new changes could not only reduce Korea’s global competitiveness in general, they could disproportionately affect middle and lower class families.
Education ministry officials may be underestimating the lengths parents will go to in order to make up for these “lost” hours of class time. One parent of a middle school student told The Chosun Ilbo that they will likely send their child to extra hagwon (cram school) classes to stay competitive.
And those classes do not come cheap – despite some talk of cracking down on costs, Koreans still spend 32.9 trillion won (about $3.2 billion) on private education annually. On average, tuition fees for English kindergartens cost families 751,000 won ($630) a month, an amount that has increased 8.5 percent increase since 2013.
The problem is so significant that a new term has arisen – “edu-poor” – to describe a family that has become impoverished because of the amount they are spending on private education for their children.
With these changes, the Korean government rightly identifies the need to systematically revamp English education. But if done without simultaneously taking a close look at private education spending, students whose parents can afford to pay for an extra hagwon classes will maintain their exposure to English, while students who rely on free public education will lag even farther behind.
The change has the right idea at heart – to cut down on the burden for already over-worked Korean students. Some of the measures make much-needed changes. For example, reducing the focus on reading and writing in middle schools could help emphasize more practical English skills. And switching the English portion of the KSAT to an absolute evaluation rather than the current curve-based system might help reduce the high level of competition between peers. However, the education ministry should also address some of the underlying issues in the Korean education system and focus on reforms best suited to the needs of a more innovative and creative economy.
The cost of private lessons and the implications for inequality aside, Korea needs English to stay competitive in the world. Former President Roh Moo-Hyun said it best – “English is a must in order to catch up with the stream of globalization.”
Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a former Fulbright Scholar teaching English in Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from UNC-CFC-USFK’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.