Korea is not the U.S.

by David Safier

Friend of the blog Matthew Ladner wrote what he calls "a wonky tease" in one of his recent Goldwater Institute email blasts. He's announcing a new study G.I. is releasing soon, New Millennium Schools.

I want to answer his wonky tease with a wonky preemptive response.

The thrust of Ladner's email is this: South Korea has class sizes of 49 students and spends less on education than we do, yet they beat us in scores on international math tests.

The implied conclusion is, if we concentrated on hiring better teachers by paying higher salaries (Korean teachers are more highly paid than ours relative to other salaries), raised class sizes and adopted some of their teaching strategies, our students would learn more.

Some sources I looked at agreed with the 49 student class sizes, and others put the size in the 30s. It's probably the difference between calculating the number of students per teacher and the number of students in a classroom at any one time, so I won't question Ladner's  number. And it's true Korean teachers are paid more, in relative terms, than ours. Also, though Ladner doesn't mention it in the email, Korean teachers come from the top of their college classes, while ours tend to come from the middle. (Look at me. I'm even filling in facts that help make Ladner's case. What an honest guy!)

But here's the problem. Ladner has pulled out a few factual differences between Korea and the U.S. that help make his case and left out the multiple differences that make his comparison virtually meaningless. Maybe he'll bring a few of the other factors into his complete argument, I don't know, but let me put down some that come to mind.

  • The U.S. has a wildly heterogeneous population, while Korea's is far more homogeneous. Our students walk into the classroom with huge cultural variations in the way they view education, their communication and learning styles, along with a hundred other variables, while Korea's students share far more traits with one another. Any teacher will tell you, it's easier to teach similar students, especially if they have a mindset that values education.
  • Korea has a centuries old tradition of intense focus on literacy and the importance of education. Korea actually invented metal movable type in the thirteenth century, a few centuries before Gutenberg came up with the idea. Book printing and literacy are hard wired into their culture. Also part of their current cultural mindset is an intense focus on the importance of their children's education. I know this is true in Korea, and I saw it in the Korean students I taught. The vast majority of Korean students worked their tails off in my classes, even those without academic gifts. Most of them maximized their educational potential because their parents did everything they could to encourage them. I saw kids who came to the U.S. in the 6th grade knowing no English, were top students in my 10th grade Honors English course and went to Harvard. I'm Jewish, so I also come from a culture where, if you have academic potential, you're likely to make the most of it. I understand that cultural mindset. Politeness and deference to authority figures are also built into the Korean culture. I think I could be a very successful teacher, even with large class sizes, if most of my students fit that general mold.
  • The Korean school day is longer than ours, and probably longer than we would want ours to be. A typical school day begins at 8am and ends at 4:30 with an hour lunch break somewhere in between. Students return to school around 7pm and stay until 10, in studying or tutoring sessions. A teacher's day might go from 7:30am to 5 pm,then a half day on Saturday. The school year is 220 days. I can see us extending our school day and year, but 10 to 11 hours a day is a bit more than most of us would want for our children.
  • A large portion of Korean students also go to paid tutors about 7 hours a week at great expense to their parents. The main reason is, their futures are based on their performance on a multiple choice test they take before they graduate, which will determine the college they are accepted to, or if they're accepted at all. The tutors cram facts and test taking skills into the students. Much of the junior and senior year in school has the same purpose. The whole process is dubbed "examination hell." It takes a psychological toll on the students and pretty much wipes out their social lives. So these students could be said to have PhDs in multiple choice testing by the time they're 16, which would help them maximize their scores on international tests. There is no evidence suggesting that test taking skills have real world applications.
  • Korean education tends to focus on facts more than ideas and individual thought. The classes are lecture driven, with little discussion, as you would expect from a classroom with 49 students. While students in Korea have their heads crammed with facts and are excellent test takers, they often lack the self confidence and entrepreneurial spirit to strike out on their own. Over the past few years,Korea and other Asian countries with similar educational systems have sent delegations to observe U.S. schools to see how we encourage creativity and entrepreneurship in our children.

When two countries have such different populations, educational styles and educational goals, you can't tease out a few facts and suggest a straight line cause and effect relationship. It may be that Ladner is aware of this problem and will create a more complex argument that will enhance our understanding of the similarities and differences of the two countries and their educational systems. If not, he's simply spinning a few numbers to reach a foregone conclusion. 

17 responses to “Korea is not the U.S.

  1. David Safier

    Any of you who haven’t been teachers, take Tucson Vice’s comment and multiply it times who knows how many thousands of teachers across the country who feel exactly the same way. When I first began teaching in 1969, virtually the same words came out of my mouth: please, raise my salary, but not at the expense of class sizes.

    And don’t forget this statement: “We must remember that this is not an either/or situation.” Conservatives want us to think everyone is taxed within an inch of their lives. T’ain’t so.

  2. My wife is an 8th grade civics teacher. At the age of 21, she is closing out her second year of teaching. She graduated Cum Laude towards the top of her class at NAU and now drives to south Tucson (we live in the Sabino Canyon area) every morning to teach in one of the poorest areas in town. As a high quality teacher who is motivated and enthusiastic and who the kids respond to and adore, her biweekly paycheck is less than seven hundred dollars. If I could think of a teacher that deserved a pay raise it would certainly be her. The problem is that when I ask her about the trade off for a larger class size, she resents the idea. Most of her classes throughout the day are in the high 20’s to mid 30’s already.

    How much higher can we go? A pay raise for my wife would be great, but would pros outweigh the cons? We don’t think so.

    We must remember that this is not an either/or situation.

    In reality, the really good teachers, like my wife, don’t sign on because they think it will make them rich one day.

  3. David,

    I would agree with your high school grad. I had excellent instructors at both the 2-year & 4-year colleges. I had a few duds at both too.

    I worked my way through school, so I had to take a lot of evening & weekend classes. Usually those instructors were my favorite ones. They generally had spent years working in the field they were teaching, or still worked in that field and were teaching classes on the side. The assignments were often much more focused, relevant, & geared towards working students.

    As far as the wages, you’re probably right. I also think they pulled from entirely different talent pools and that might account for some of the wage difference.

    At my 2-year school I studied for hotel management, restaurant management, & culinary degrees. Most of the faculty for that department were well known in the field. A master chef, several master pastry chefs, restaurant owners & managers, hotel general managers, executives from hotel management firms, etc. Even the core classes usually had working instructors. For instance, local CPAs taught the accounting & business math classes. These instructors usually focused on process & application.

    At the 4-year university I studied for finance & business administration. This is where the (daytime) instructors usually had an academic background. They had histories of writing textbooks, research papers, corporate positions, etc. It appeared that many had gone from grad school straight into teaching. These instructors usually focused on analysis & theory.

    I didn’t mean to derail the topic. I just wanted to point out that the quality of my college instruction far exceeded the quality of my K-12 experience. My 2-year college tuition was almost half my Catholic school tuition and my 4-year college tuition was about 2/3rds the cost of the high school tuition.

  4. OK, let’s compare apples and oranges. Here is the short version.
    In most countries outside US the students come out of high school with a well rounded education. Those who desire to go to college have to take an entry exam which is very competitive (2,3, up to 20 applicants per seat). Once in college they take, from day one, courses according with the chosen field, in other words no more English, History, etc. There is no such a thing as an Education major or a certain minimum number of courses, etc; so, if you want to teach math (5th grade and up) you major in Mathematics and take Pedagogy, Psichology, etc as electives, mostly during your junior and senior years. Same for English, Chemestry, Art and everything else. Now, if you want to teach at college level, you need a doctorate.
    In US college students spend at least two years to learn what they didn’t learn in high school.
    I don’t know how to break the cycle of incompetency and low expectations. Higher salaries for teachers will lure better candidates for sure but I don’t think it’s enough. Maybe a highly competitive entry exam along with free tuition and a 5-10 years requirement to teach will do the job. I just don’t know.

  5. Teaching is science AND art. The “art” part makes wonderful teachers…well, wonderful.

  6. At the University I went to for Grad School, compensation and tenure was often based less on teaching ability and more on how good you were at bringing in the grant money. This was in the geosciences. Sure there were good professors, but there was also professors who neglected teaching in pursuit of research (i.e. grants), and farmed out much of their duties to graduate assistants.
    When I went to community college, the teachers were a mix of professors who probably didn’t make anywhere near 6 figures and part-timers who were semi-retired and taught a few classes. My dad did this once (for carpentry math) and he wasn’t paid a whole lot.
    Of course the ability of these educators varied widely. One of the best teachers I ever had was one of these part-timers.
    Long-winded way of saying just because someone is the most highly paid educator doesn’t mean anything about their teaching abilities.
    All in all, we don’t live in Ayn Rand land, where paying a lot more will mean that our Galtian overlords will magically decide that they will drop their hedge fund jobs and go back and teach 4th grade and our kids will be so awed into learning from such masters that our education system will become a magical unicorn. Teaching kids typing or algebra or introductory biology does not require a vitae that is anything amazing, and I suspect the John Galt’s of the world would find this incredibly boring and probably do a worse job than 90% of the teachers we have now.
    P.S. I’ve heard that poverty and hunger have a lot to do with whether an education system is working or not. Since the U.S. has higher child poverty rates than the rest of the 1st world, do you suppose that raising our children out of poverty might be a simple way to raise our education rankings? I suppose the topic of endemic poverty’s effect on education will be covered in the next Goldwater Institute white paper on why wealthy landowners need another tax cut and unions suck.

  7. David,
    I believe I saw something that at ASU faculty in business school make at least 3 times faculty in arts college. I think the starting salary for an engineering faculty is about what a senior humanities faculty makes. I think you are correct that the salaries are all over the place.

  8. David Safier


    I don’t know a lot about this, but I think at the universities, salaries are marketplace commodities. Big profs get big money, and other universities try to buy them away with bigger salaries, better research facilities, etc. Others negotiate lower salaries, based on tenure, publishing, etc. But if they can get temp profs paid by the class, it’s like stealing. I once had a prof at Portland State U who told me she was encouraged to take a sabbatical at half or two-thirds pay, because the U came out ahead even after it hired someone to cover her classes.

    I’ll bet you’d find that staff at community colleges and state colleges — not universities — aren’t well compensated.

    I often had high school graduates who returned to say Hi who had gone to both a community college and one of the Oregon universities. I asked where they got a better education. The response was almost universal. It depended more on the prof than the college. I’m sure there are very, very good instructors at the community colleges making relatively low wages, and I know there are high paid profs who shouldn’t be allowed near a classroom, they’re so awful. Of course, the reverse is also true. But salary isn’t what makes the difference.

  9. David,

    Wage data is proving elusive for college instructors. The best I could locate was a collective bargaining agreement for the 2-year college I attended that lists a range of base salaries between $48k-$57k depending on level of degree obtained by the professor. Wages increase based on the teaching specialty. Another example I found was an $81k average salary for my finance professors at the 4-year university.

  10. David Safier


    Ah, flattery. I’m moved, but unshaken.

    I was a child of the 60s, very idealistic, went into teaching as a calling, fled for my life (and sanity) after 4 years, then returned to put in my full 30-plus. On balance I did well, and did good.

    More money would lure more high quality teachers into the profession. I think higher class sizes would either scare them away immediately or send them running away, screaming, after a few years. The result would probably be a net zero.

  11. My niece is coming over from Japan this year to go to High School. She isn’t the best student, and since she is half white she is an outcast (gaijin-or dirty foreigner) anyways, my brother in law (English teacher in Japan, actually) thought it was better that she get her high school degree here rather than face a socially stigmatizing situation that would mark her for life.
    I imagine South Korea is similar to Japan. Your early school is a high stress situation focused on the high school entrance exams, where you then focus on the high stress college placements. School is long, and everyone has tutors after school. To do bad on a test when you are 17 socially stratifies you in ways that America just would not stand for.
    And as David said, this goes on in a rather socially and racially homogeneous setting.
    To say something works in South Korea without accounting for the huge differences in our society and culture is silly and dishonest, but it the sort of thing that pays the bills at G.I. I can’t wait to read this report from the people who brought us the racist policies of Operation Eagle Eye.

  12. Matthew Ladner


    The project is a blueprint to lure high quality teachers back into the classroom with six figure salaries. In essence- I want you to want to get back into the classroom.

  13. David Safier


    As I said, I was dealing with the limited information in your email.

    You and I agree on a few things. One of them is the potential of charter schools. I’ve often said that, if I were starting out now as a teacher, I would probably be applying to some charter schools for a job. Though I was a teacher in a large, traditional public school, I’ve always been an advocate for alternatives in education. (Please, please don’t try to spin that into advocacy for vouchers. Let’s enjoy a moment of agreement.)

    I want charter schools to be adequately regulated by the state, which doesn’t happen in Arizona. That said, I would love to see charters experiment with variations in pay and class sizes, along with a host of other educational strategies. I posted awhile back about a charter in NY that plans to pay its teachers six figure salaries. My understanding is that KIPP schools, which are quite successful (with some caveats), pay their teachers higher salaries than traditional public schools, and they also demand longer hours. Far be it from this teacher who would have loved a few extra bucks in his paycheck — and thought he deserved the extra money — to complain about higher pay.

    I don’t think Korea is a good place to start your discussion, but as I said in my post, I don’t know how you’ll be working this into your thesis or where you’re going with it.

  14. Matthew Ladner


    As you will see when the actual study comes out, the South Korean example is used for illustration purposes for a body of empirical research on the importance of teacher quality. There is a growing consensus on both the right and the left that teacher quality is by far the most important in school factor that includes many Democrats, including at least rhetorically President Obama.

    Of course there many other differences between South Korea and the United States, but not all of them favor the Koreans. The differences include as you note culture, spending (they spend less), income (they fall below Mississippi in per capita income). South Korea is not the only example of a system successfully choosing to emphasize teacher quality over teacher quantity.

    I’ll ask for you to try to keep an open mind on these issues and hear the argument out. I welcome skepticism, but try to keep it on this side of reflexive hostility.

    In the end, I do not make a proposal on class size and teacher quality to impose on the public school system, but rather a blueprint for a charter school model to experiment with a different quantity/quality tradeoff than that typically made here in the United States. I’m not into one size fits all solutions. The proposal I make with my coauthors is to treat teachers like true professionals, and to pay high quality teachers much higher salaries and drive more education money into the classroom.

  15. David Safier

    Stephen, were your college teachers better paid than your public school teachers? That probably depends on where you went to school and how much prestige and experience the college teachers had. I know I made more as a high school teacher than many college teachers, and if they were teaching individual courses rather than being hired full time, they were working for peanuts. So I wouldn’t in any way equate college teacher pay with the quality of your higher education.

    There’s lots of agreement about more school time for children. I agree as well. There’s lots of agreement for getting superior teachers by paying them more. I agree as well. It wasn’t the point of my post to disagree with those points. I was looking at the nature of an argument that says, let’s get better teachers with less money spent per student by significantly raising class sizes. It’s not a successful combination here. And to look at Korea and the U.S. in a side-by-side comparison only using two or three variables is shoddy social science.

  16. With the voucher debate, I started out seeing the potential of Mr. Ladner’s side. Gradually, I was driven away with his use of shoddy data and not accounting for the real world consequences of his proposal.

    Again I find myself agreeing with Mr. Ladner at the beginning.

    I’d be willing to take larger class sizes to get better teachers. I had a few excellent teachers in K-12, but I had dozens of mediocre and outright terrible teachers (in both public & private school).

    In college I had much larger class sizes, but also much better teachers. College was more demanding and I learned more. I would assume my college professors were more highly paid than my K-12 teachers.

    I think a longer school year & longer school hours is necessary to stay competitive. We need to adapt to the reality of single parent households & the disappearance of the housewife/homemaker. Most kids are going home at 3:30 to an empty house. 3 weeks of summer vacation should be the max when that’s typically the maximum for working families.

  17. Teachers are also treated very differently in Asian culture. For example, while most American teachers complain about the disrespect afforded them by the parents of the children they teach, in Asia, teachers are so revered that they can often talk their way out of things like parking tickets just by saying, “I am a teacher.” (my mother-in-law who is a teacher in Singapore has done this!) — I wholeheartedly agree that we cannot draw a parallel between schools in Korea and schools in America based on class size and performance. The cultural environment is such that OF COURSE you could increase the class size of a Korean school and still have better performance than an American school on standardized tests.