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.