As a Penn State education researcher with a specific interest in comparative and international education, and a native of South Korea, Soo-yong Byun has extensive knowledge about the South Korean educational system and how it compares to the American model.
Byun, professor of education (educational theory and policy), demography and Asian studies, co-authored a chapter of a recently published book, “International Handbook on Education Development in Asia-Pacific,” which “delves into a spectrum of critical, contemporary topics in Asian and Pacifica contexts and socio-cultural perspectives.”
“There are two contrasting views,” said Byun. “How can we provide a balanced view of the Korean educational system by highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses and how the strengths and weaknesses correlate with each other?”
“Between Light and Shadow: The Contrasting Landscape and Contemporary Development of South Korea’s School System” delves into the “bright sides” of the country’s school system and unveils the “flip sides” of the system, corresponding to the system’s strengths. The authors explore longstanding issues such as academic excellence amid inequality, high educational attainment but low academic confidence and well-being, and the coexistence of a well-established school system with an expansive shadow education market — which refers to private supplementary tutoring.
Moosung Lee, a centenary professor at University of Canberra in Australia who is connected to Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, is lead author of the chapter. Youngmin Mo, who is affiliated with the Korean Educational Development Institute, is a co-author.
In co-authoring the chapter, Byun drew upon his personal experiences growing up in South Korea as well as previous research in this area. Having received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and sociology of education, respectively, from Korea University in South Korea, he came to the United States in the early 2000s. In 2007, he received a doctorate in educational policy and administration (concentration in comparative and international development) from the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities. Byun, who has a joint appointment with the Social Science Research Institute, also serves as a faculty member of Penn State's Comparative and International Education Program and as a non-residential visiting professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea.
According to Byun, many South Koreans, including himself, have been critical of the Korean educational system. In the book chapter, Byun and his fellow researchers describe the most common criticisms of the system that have been supported by research: a hyper-competitive, testing-oriented culture and system; a continuously expanding shadow education market; and widening socioeconomic achievement gaps.
Since immigrating to the U.S., however, Byun said, he has come to appreciate some positive aspects of the South Korean school system that also have been lauded by major think tanks and consulting firms. South Korea has shown consistently high performance global rankings of students in math and science, using a system called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In the chapter, the authors include a quote from former U.S. President Barack Obama, “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,” which was cited in the Korea Times in 2009.
The authors wrote in the chapter that due to the structuring of its school system, South Korea is “one of the few countries where socioeconomically disadvantaged schools have more favorable resources than advantaged schools.” While the majority of schools in the country are private, students are randomly assigned to schools based on their place of residence, regardless of the school sector. As a result, according to an earlier study by Byun and colleagues, there are relatively few disparities in the socioeconomic and academic composition of the student body by school sector in Korea. In addition, this study demonstrated that the South Korean practice of rotating public-school teachers every four to five years has resulted in a more egalitarian public education system.
However, the researchers noted in their book chapter that the “public sentiment of the international eulogy or adulation of the system based on Korea’s high performance in PISA is largely cynical” due to the longstanding criticisms of its school system. To address those issues, since the mid-1990s, “Korea has seen a notable shift from an egalitarian approach to a more neoliberal, market-oriented approach to education, as educational excellence emerged as a key issue in national competitiveness in the global market," said the researchers.
Indeed, Byun’s own research has shown that South Korea has been drawn to the diversity and flexibility of the American educational system and has instituted reforms to create more individualized paths for students.
As part of a nationwide effort to promote autonomy and diversity in upper secondary education, South Korea has instituted several types of reforms in the past couple of decades. Among those innovations are special-purpose high schools, which have been established to accommodate academically talented students focusing on science or foreign language education. Autonomous high schools — self-governing and self-financing schools whose curricula are tailored to their own educational goals — were also introduced as part of that multi-tiered reform effort.
According to Byun, these new types of high schools mirror the American educational model, which offers more differentiated choice in school/curriculum. However, in the book chapter, Byun and his co-authors cite research that provides evidence that special-purpose high schools contribute to educational inequality as they largely serve upper middle-class children.
“By adopting the American model, the Korean educational system tried to remove the system that actually improved academic excellence and inequality,” said Byun. “I don’t see any empirical evidence that reforms are doing a good job in terms of improving academic excellence and reducing educational inequality.”
The main reason that the South Korean educational reforms haven’t been successful, Byun said, is the “huge gap in terms of access to information and resources.” Research demonstrates that high-socioeconomic status (SES) families benefit more from expanded choice than low -SES people. He added that while reforms such as special-purpose high schools are intended to elevate South Korean students’ well-being and self-confidence, there is no evidence that they have been successful in those regards.
Byun said he is particularly interested in comparing the American and South Korean educational systems since they are essentially mirror images of each other, which is supported by evidence in a report released in 2008 by the International Benchmarking Advisory Group.
“In the United States, spurred by a desire to match high-performing Asian students’ academic performance, educators and government officials have tried to adopt a high-performing Korean-inspired education model by adopting more standardized curriculum,” said Byun. “What are the consequences of taking two different approaches, particularly in terms of educational (in)equality?"
Curiously, he added, a recent PISA report suggests that at least between 2005 and 2015, educational equity (measured by the degree to which academic achievement is explained by family SES) was much improved in the United States, while it was worse in South Korea.
“Korea and the U.S. are doing really interesting experiments that we can learn from,” said Byun.