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In Hypercompetitive South Korea, Pressures Mount on Young Pupils

January 21, 2011 at 4:36 PM EST
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Margaret Warner reports from Seoul, where extraordinary student commitment has helped the nation's 15 year olds rank second in the world in reading and fourth in math, well ahead of their American counterparts. Many students take private lessons in addition to required coursework, but the pressure can create serious stress.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: making the grade where the pressure is on.

Margaret Warner reports from South Korea.

MARGARET WARNER: Just outside Seoul, high school freshman Yoo Jae Won gets ready to study, his mom and dad, both doctors, already out the door, big sister away at school. So that means all the more time to spend with the lovely Ms. Lee (ph).

Jae Won’s virtual teacher leaves this 16-year-old with virtually no time off, and that’s the way he wants it.

YOO JAE WON, high school freshman: I think I need to study and work harder for my future.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s a widespread belief in South Korea, where extraordinary passion for education is the norm.

Have we mentioned Jae Won is on his two-month winter holiday? No matter. He began his day by walking in the biting cold past a billboard touting perfect-scoring students to a 90-minute math tutoring session and study hall.

The tutoring was at a private cram school, or hagwon. From early morning until late at night, six days a week, nearly 60 percent of South Korean youngsters look for a leg up by adding hagwons on top of their public school load.

That kind of dedication — some say obsession — has catapulted South Koreans into the top tier of educational achievement. In world rankings of 15 year-olds released last November, South Korean students scored second in reading. American kids were 17th. And they scored fourth in math. Americans came in at 31st.

KATHLEEN STEPHENS, U.S. ambassador to South Korea: Koreans have something they call (SPEAKING KOREAN) which means education fever.

MARGARET WARNER: U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens first came to South Korea in the ’70s as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching some 70 young boys in an unheated classroom.

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: The passion for education here is part of the Korean passion for excellence. And that is what has given this country such dynamism, such vibrancy, such success, even in the face of — of very daunting circumstances.

KIM KYONG-DONG, Korea Development Institute: The very first phrase of Confucius Analects goes — I quote — “To learn and to practice and repeat it every time, every day, isn’t this joy?”

MARGARET WARNER: Korean society is permeated by values reflecting the teachings of the ancient Chinese scholar. But joy of learning is not the sole motivation.

KIM KYONG-DONG: On the other hand, education is a channel for your social mobility. And if you want to become somebody in society, you want to go to a better college, better school, and study certain areas which will bring you higher status, and probably high income.

MARGARET WARNER: This hyper-competitive personal drive is what jet-propelled resource-poor South Korea into the top ranks of world economies, from a war-torn wasteland, one of the globe’s poorest countries 50 years ago to the 12th richest today.

Shin Dongpyo runs the SDP Institute, a hagwon that specializes in teaching English, for a pretty price.

SHIN DONGPYO, SDP Institute: We have competitive parenting going on here.

MARGARET WARNER: Competitive parenting? Explain that.

SHIN DONGPYO: You see your neighbor’s kid speak better English than your kid, and you try to figure out what kind of English program he is getting and what kind of kindergarten he is attending. You have figured it out, and you send your kid to same kindergarten — that kind of competition going on.

MARGARET WARNER: Twenty-five-year-old Kim Tae-hoon, a student at SDP, says his hard-charging mother had him, even as a young child, attending specialized cram schools every day.

KIM TAE-HOON, student: For a 10-year-old boy, that was big deal, and that was a big pressure for me. Throughout middle school and high school, the burden grew heavier. In my high school days, I had to go to school in the morning, like 6:20, and school ended up around midnight. So, I was, yes, stressed out.

MARGARET WARNER: High school is especially pressure-packed. College admission is seen as a make-or-break moment. Scoring well on the national entrance exams means a ticket to a better life.

Is it ever enough?

KIM TAE-HOON: I just feel like it is just ongoing and never-ending, and I have to study more and more, and I have to learn new things. But I never felt it’s enough.

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: Preparing for that all-important college test means rote memorizing, says advanced English student Kim Eun Ji (ph), who enjoyed the give-and-take of her years in a U.S. school.

STUDENT: In Korea, it’s like teacher is just saying, just lecturing and, students are like writing and like trying to memorize it and just taking a test. That’s — that’s all, I think, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Stephens says some Koreans question why President Obama holds up Korea’s educational system as a model.

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: So, I have many Koreans who say to me, well, you know, Ambassador Stephens: If you know Korea so well, why aren’t you explaining to President Obama that, really, our educational system is very problematical? Again, the education fever is too high here.

MARGARET WARNER: The cost of all that schooling can also be crushing. The average South Korean family spends more than 10 percent of its income on after-hours cram schools, more spending per capita on private tutoring than any other country.

Sadly, with more than 80 percent of high-schoolers going on to attend college, the demand for prestige jobs in big corporations outstrips the market, says Yonsei University economics Professor Lee Doowon.

LEE DOOWON, economics professor, Yonsei University: All of these 500,000 college graduates are looking for decent jobs. And the decent jobs are jobs in large companies. But those jobs are limited, 200,000, or definitely less than 250,000.

MARGARET WARNER: Some 8 percent of the under-30 set are unemployed, more than twice Korea’s enviably low overall unemployment rate. That relentless pressure on students, graduates and their parents takes another toll.

LEE DOOWON: When young students are lagging behind in their classes, they get blamed by their parents, and they blame themselves. And, sometimes, they blame themselves so hard, that it’s going to lead themselves to suicide.

MARGARET WARNER: A higher percentage of Koreans kill themselves than in any other country in the developed world. The nation’s suicide rate of more than 20 per 100,000 is more than double the U.S. average.

Young Yoo Jae Won feels the pressure even if he scores below his classmates on one test.

YOO JAE WON: I think negative thinking: I’m not really competitive to others. I’m not a smart student, or I can’t go to a good university.

MARGARET WARNER: Does that thought scare you?

YOO JAE WON: Sometimes. If I go to a bad university, I can be ignored by other people.

BAE EUN-HEE, national assemblywoman, Republic of Korea (through translator): We really need to redefine what is success. Like, money is not everything.

MARGARET WARNER: National Assemblywoman Bae Eun-hee, who sits on the Education Committee, says something has to be done. South Korea must promote more vocational and other alternatives for its young people, she says, and there needs to be a national conversation about what real achievement is.

BAE EUN-HEE (through translator): We need to rethink our views on success. It is now time for South Korean society to allow diversity about what is successful. Being happy is also success.

MARGARET WARNER: By that measure, these kids seem wildly successful. Singing and dancing at song rooms is a favorite pastime here, a way for many young people to blow off steam.

(SINGING)

Hundreds of thousands of those young Koreans who have come to this lookout over Seoul have left padlocks inscribed with their personal hopes and dreams for a future filled with happiness, if they can just take the time to enjoy it.