During the day, Korean students attend classes like students from any other country. But there’s another piece to the Korean educational experience that sets it apart: hagwons. These hagwons—more literally, “cram schools”—are private, for-profit tutoring businesses that provide supplemental education for students after the school day. They are popular means of boosting scores, getting remedial help, or learning material not covered in school curricula.
These hagwons are an intimate part of the South Korean educational experience, and they are more intentional about connecting and staying connected with families than the schools are. They court parents and students by touting the graduation and college admissions rates of students who have studied with them. Once parents sign on, the hagwon sends frequent updates, including texts about daily attendance and several phone calls each month to update parents on their child’s progress. If the parents don’t get involved, this is considered the fault of the hagwon—not the parents. What would happen if there were this level of coordination between parents and teachers in the United States? In 2011 alone, Korean parents spent over $18 billion on hagwons or cram schools—that’s more money than the United States government ever spent on the war on drugs.
The word “tutoring” does not begin to describe the gargantuan operation that one hagwon teacher, Andrew Kim, leads in Seoul. Kim has thirty employees helping him keep things running at his business. In addition to hosting English lessons online which students can join for a fee of $3.50 per session, he has a publishing house where his 200 workbooks and textbooks are edited and printed. Success—and arguably, celebrity—of this caliber is uncommon, but the hagwon structure is about as pure a meritocracy as they come. Teachers build up a reputation through respect for students and competently conveying information; and the more successful their students are on exams, the more esteemed the teachers and desirable their classes. It’s worked out for Kim, who makes about $4 million dollars a year.
According to both Kim and Korea’s Education Minister, Finland’s education is superior to Korea’s. A school system that was average but supplemented by hours in hagwons meant a life consumed by education, a pressure-cooker education that left Korean students exhausted. No one spoke highly of the Korean system—even those on top, like Kim, who benefitted from it. At points, the government has tried to limit or even ban hagwons, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere. Students anxious for enrollment in top universities continue to go to hagwons for that edge over the veritable army of competitive peers.
The America student studying in Korea did not end up finishing his school year in a Korean high school. He was so fed up with the pace, the classmates who barely had the emotional energy to sustain a five-minute conversation, the obsession with test scores, the sleep deprivation, that he was willing to wrap up his year abroad at a vocational college where he would be learning business Chinese. His professor at the vocational college was shocked that the American had endured half a year in the Korean system.