ON NOVEMBER 10th South Korea went silent. Aircraft were grounded. Offices opened late. Commuters stayed off the roads. The police stood by to deal with emergencies among the students who were taking their university entrance exams that day.
That's impressive, so let's read on:
Every year the country comes to a halt on the day of the exams, for it is the most important day in most South Koreans’ lives. The single set of multiple-choice tests that students take that day determines their future. Those who score well can enter one of Korea’s best universities, which has traditionally guaranteed them a job-for-life as a high-flying bureaucrat or desk warrior at a chaebol (conglomerate). Those who score poorly are doomed to attend a lesser university, or no university at all. They will then have to join a less prestigious firm and, since switching employers is frowned upon, may be stuck there for the rest of their lives. Ticking a few wrong boxes, then, may mean that they are permanently locked out of the upper tier of Korean society.Kids care when the tests have personal meaning--unlike California's annual standardized testing, that has no direct meaning for students at all.
In this section
Making so much depend on an exam has several advantages for Korea. It is efficient: a single set of tests identifies intelligent and diligent teenagers, and launches them into society’s fast stream. It is meritocratic: poor but clever Koreans can rise to the top by studying very, very hard. The exam’s importance prompts children to pay attention in class and parents to hound them about their homework; and that, in turn, ensures that Korea’s educational results are the envy of the world. The country is pretty much the leading nation in the scoring system run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2009 it came fourth after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but those are cities rather than full-sized countries.
Korea’s well-educated, hard-working population has powered its economic miracle. The country has risen from barefoot to broadband since 1960, and last year, despite the global slowdown, its economy grew by 6.2%. In the age of the knowledge economy, education is economic destiny. So the system has had far-reaching and beneficial consequences.
Update, 12/21/11: This comment (why can't I link to a specific comment on this post?) is so awesome that I'm reproducing part of it here. While I support a free K-12 system in this country, I see the value in the following:
For example, textbooks are not issued by the schools. The textbooks are typically paperback books, printed on cheap paper, printed in two or three colors, and bought in local bookstores for $10-$15 each.
When I taught in a public high school here in the states, the students were issued books by the school, and since folks tend not to value things they don't pay for, the campus lost thousands of dollars per year in texts that were not returned, for one reason or another.
Korean texts-- at least the high school math texts which I have, from about ten years ago-- aren't larded with photos that show diverse groups of students sitting around and smiling as they use graphing calculators, or other such fluff. They are pretty much all business.