by David Safier

The Sunday NY Times has a lengthy article, For English Studies, Koreans Say Goodbye to Dad. Korean mothers are taking their young children to the U.S. and other English speaking countries to study while their husbands remain behind in Korea. The main reason they give is that they want their children to be fluent in English, which will help them get accepted into Korea’s best colleges, which will in turn grant them entry into Korea’s best jobs. But there’s another reason:

Driven by a shared dissatisfaction with South Korea’s rigid educational system, parents in rapidly expanding numbers are seeking to give their children an edge by helping them become fluent in English while sparing them, and themselves, the stress of South Korea’s notorious educational pressure cooker.


South Korean students routinely score at the top in international academic tests. But unhappiness over education’s financial and psychological costs is so widespread that it is often cited as a reason for the country’s low birthrate, which, at 1.26 in 2007, was one of the world’s lowest.

South Korean parents say that the schools are failing to teach not only English but also other skills crucial in an era of globalization, like creative thinking. That resonates among South Koreans, whose economy has slowed after decades of high growth and who believe they are increasingly being squeezed between the larger economies of Japan and China.

Korea’s schools are always in the top ten worldwide, often in the top five, in reading, math and science scores, while the U.S. is generally in the middle of the pack — around number 16 out of 31 nations studied. Yet South Korean families are spending enormous amounts of money, not to mention the emotional strain involved in a wife/mother and her children living thousands of miles away from their husband/father, to pull their children out of the world’s top ranked schools and study in our sub-standard schools. (They’ve been going to New Zealand as well lately, whose rankings are higher than the U.S., but that’s because New Zealand is less expensive, not because it’s more desirable.)

So maybe world rankings based on test scores aren’t everything. Maybe our best public schools aren’t so bad after all. Maybe our students aren’t so lazy and so addicted to their Ipods and video games that it’s possible for hardworking Korean students with highly supportive parents to share the classroom with U.S. students, then return to Korea and attend the country’s top universities alongside students who benefited from Korea’s world class schools.

And maybe that’s why Asian educators have been flocking to the U.S. lately to understand how our schools foster the kind of initiative students need to strike out on their own and become entrepreneurs willing to risk everything to try out creative new ideas.

If we’re going to question No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on testing, we also have to question the results of worldwide educational testing. Students elsewhere score higher than our students, true, but does that mean they leave school better “educated” than our students? If you measure education by scores on objective tests, the answer is, yes. But if you believe, as I do, that the process of education is as complex and incomprehensible as the human spirit, you have to ask yourself, what educational intangibles do the tests miss?

Does the student who ends school with the most testable facts win? Or are there other factors we have to consider when we decide what makes for a high quality education?

Let’s keep criticizing what we dislike about our schools and try to make them better. God knows they need improvement. Let’s express our disgust with the inadequacy of our worst schools and pour thought, talent and money into them so they can give their students the education every child deserves. But let’s not denigrate our schools by making mindless comparisons with schools in other countries simply because they have higher test scores. There’s a reason why people flock to this country to attend our colleges and universities, and there’s a reason why people choose to have their children attend our K-12 schools even if their countries’ schools rank higher. Their actions speak louder than test scores.