The Granite Tower
Time to Pull Up the Anchor for Public Education
Jeong Yeon Soo & Lee Eun Seo  | /
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승인 2019.09.25  18:17:15
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“The Reform Policy on High School System,” implemented by the present South Korean government, has been causing a huge controversy. President Moon Jae In launched a plan to abolish the Autonomous Private High School (APHS), starting from July. The purpose of the policy is to pursue equity in education. However, reaction to the change was not all positive. Some experts are raising doubts about the practicality of the policy, and many parents of APHS students are voicing their opposition through rallies. While students start applying to high schools in September, the sudden shift in policy is intensifying the confusion involved in decision-making in light of the reform. The social impact of the policy does not seem to be negligible.

South Korea has its own unique education system, which is set to focus highly on students’ university entrance. Most curriculums of all elementary, middle, and high schools are greatly affected by the university entrance system. As a result, students and parents tend to be obsessed with entering elite schools, such as APHS or science-specialized schools. This forces students to rely on private education, which has become a serious financial burden to parents. Therefore, the Moon Jae In Administration put up an undertaking of education innovation.
President Moon made a pledge to abolish elite high schools when he first ran for election. He also asserted “Three Steps for Progressive Reform of High Schools” that aim for the standardization of all high schools. The first step, which is already being implemented, is trying to deprive such specialized schools of priority rights to select their students, enabling all middle school students to apply for high schools at the same time.
The second step is to actually abolish specialized high schools. The metropolitan governments are gradually carrying out the policy by disqualifying some APHSs that do not fit in the established standards. Specialized high schools that fail to manage their former stance will be transitioned into ordinary high schools. The last step is an overall reform of the system of South Korean high schools through consultation with government officials and experts. The Ministry of Education (MOE) seemed to delay the execution of the third step since the controversy of the second step has not been abated.
Status of Public Education Before the Reform
The South Korean Education System has come under criticism for excessively focusing on students’ university entrance. This social atmosphere has prevailed in South Korean society for decades as people tend to regard entering a prestigious university as the first step for success. According to a study by Jeong Bummo, the former president of Hanlim University, South Korean high schools have the most hours of classes in the world but meanwhile, do not offer enough vacations and holidays. This shows that South Korean high schools are giving excessive academic burdens to students. Also, most high school curriculums are acting as a dependent variable of the university entrance system, therefore suiting their operation to the demand of this reality.
In order to meet the educational demand of South Korean society, the operation of APHS had deteriorated. Contrary to the original purpose of the foundation of APHS, which was to provide diversity of education, it has transformed into a short-cut for entering prestigious universities. According to Daehak News, 27.3, 18.5, and 18.8 percent of the freshmen of Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University (KU), and Yonsei University (YU) were from elite high schools including APHSs. Thus, the three competitive universities have the highest percentage of accepting elite high school students. As most APHSs possess a better portion of students that enter prestigious universities, the competitiveness of middle school students to enter the APHS increased. The MOE concluded that the right for APHS to select outstanding students to their school made the status of ordinary high school fall.
To relieve this tendency, every administration of South Korea has made a policy agenda to cool down the education boom. However, concerns about the effectiveness of the policies were always voiced. Moreover, as the education policy changed every five years each time the administration changed, there have been limitations in South Korea’s reform of education policy. Five years is an extremely short period of time to confirm the effects of a policy and it only amplifies the confusion for students and parents.
Why did the Captain Set a Sail?
From 2009, former President Lee Myung-bak started the establishment of APHS through the “High School Diversification Project.” The decision was initially made to promote school curriculums to vary the education environment. President Lee granted more autonomy to the APHS to designate their curriculums, such as classroom systems based on subjects not grades, non-graded instruction, and autonomous designation hours of classes. The Lee Administration believed that this policy would lead to the diversification of high schools, widen students’ choices of learning, and stir healthy competition among schools to promote better teaching environments.
While the former president considered that those who are more talented and interested in academics should be provided with more opportunities to discover and develop their expertise, President Moon emphasized the value of equity, thus providing true education for all. The educational policies set by President Moon pointed towards one direction - the normalization of public education to ensure equality for all. President Moon enacted a new educational policy to diminish the ranking of high schools, which seemed to be encouraged by establishing APHS.
According to the Korean Culture and Information Service (KCIS), the Moon Jae-in Administration aimed to innovate public education by revolutionizing classroom education through the restoration of the ladder of hope in education. This is the part which is in stark contrast with the former president Lee Myung-bak, who accepted the needs of private education to encourage the development of learning. The Moon Administration is making a great effort to abolish APHSs with an expectation of promoting competitiveness in ordinary high schools and contributing to the standardization of all high schools ultimately to enhance the level of public education. The initial purpose of reversing APHSs into ordinary high schools is to transfer outstanding students into ordinary high schools, and therefore, create a better academic atmosphere. The Moon Administration expects that through the new policy of disqualifying APHSs, the problem of South Korea’s distorted education system will be resolved and accomplish the present administration’s agenda of equal education.
Moreover, the policies set by the President aim to nurture self-directed learners through innovative methods. He suggested one to one customized classes by designating more than one teacher per class and the focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, also known as STEAM. Because the current structure in classes only focuses on a specific group of well-performing students, the new policy hopes to bring changes by considering every student through diverse ways of learning.
Despite simmering rows regarding the problem, the recent abrogation of some APHSs is considered a rational decision by some, in the sense of penalizing the dysfunctional system of APHS and eliminating the intervention of capital in education. According to Article Four, Section One of the Fundamentals of Education Act, citizens shall not be discriminated against under any condition for their education rights. Considering the true meaning of education, which is to foster individuals who have a comprehensive understanding of society and build constructive critical thinking, the mere selection of students will simply yield education towards entrance examination.
The Spread of the Wave of Opposition from Crews
Those who object to the abolition of APHS assert that the reform would not resolve the ultimate problem of easing the competition of high school entrance. Several organizations have expressed backlash toward the policy. The Alliance of Seoul APHS parents prepared a joint statement to the MOE, requiring the administration “not to agree with the education office’s decision.” Through these rallies, students and parents voiced their stance and the first-hand disadvantages they faced due to the disqualification of their school.
On July 9, eight Seoul APHSs were at risk of losing their title. The Seoul Metropolitan Education Office went through an evaluation test and asked the MOE for the disqualification of the APHS s that did not meet the standards. As a result, from July 24 to July 26, rallies of those opposing the Seoul Metropolitan Education Office’s decision were held in Gwanghwamun Square. Participants including students and parents of the APHSs insisted the evaluation process was not done righteously because it did not reflect the opinions of the people directly involved.
However, on August 2, the MOE took the side of the Education Office and approved the disqualification of the eight APHSs that did not pass the evaluation test. This judgement caused more resistance from the APHSs. According to The United Press International, principals of APHSs requested a provisional injunction on execution of duty to the Seoul administrative court on August 8 and are planning to file an administrative litigation.
According to Professor Shin Hyunseok (Department of Education), the mass rally occurred because of the decision that was unilaterally made by the current administration. He said, “If the MOE arranged a system to gather public opinion for the policy enforcement, there would have been less resistance from the students and parents.” He stressed that in a diversified society, the government should consider the minority’s opinion during the decision-making process.
Controversy arose over the implementation process of the policy as well. Sangsan High School has been one of the well-known APHSs, but Jeonbuk Provincial Education Office required the cancellation of their title to the MOE. Parents and students of Sangsan High School protested against the decision, criticizing the process of evaluation. Principal Park Sam-ok of Sangsan High School pointed out the extremely high cut-off points of the evaluation. “Jeonbuk Provincial Education Office has used expedience to push ahead the abolition of APHSs,” said Principal Park. Principal Park made the assertion because unlike the Education Offices located in other provinces in South Korea, Jeonbuk Provincial Education Office set their cut-off level 10 points higher.
As seen in the case of Sangsan High School, there have been flaws in the process of policy enforcement. According to Professor Shin, the policy had a predetermined direction to convert several low-level APHSs into ordinary high schools. They held a token evaluation test and public hearing just for show. Additionally, the opinions of the education experts and students were not fully reflected in the policy making process. The professor emphasized that the current government should admit this problem. It would have caused less controversy if the MOE consulted public opinion during the policy formulation.
▲ Professor Shin Hyun-seok (Department of Education). Provided by Professor Shin Hyun-seok.
Consequently, on July 26, the MOE did not approve the transition of Sangsan High School to an ordinary school, stating that there were flaws in the assessment process of Jeonbuk Provincial Education Office. The disapproval by MOE has stirred up the controversy of evaluation processes even more. According to Shinailbo, on July 29, the superintendent of Jeonbuk Education Office Kim Seung-hwan responded to the decision by planning an administrative litigation to the MOE. He also pointed out that MOE is guilty of the dereliction of duty since the abolition of APHS is the national political agenda.
The Debris Left Over from Promises
As the number of APHSs decreases, this rather increases competitiveness of entering elite high schools, because those schools are renowned for sending a significant portion of students to prestigious universities. Therefore, questions were posed about the appropriateness of the initial purpose of the education policy. Professor Shin showed a skeptical attitude toward the policy by insisting, “There is no direct causal relationship between the disqualification of the APHSs and enhancing competitiveness of the ordinary high schools.” The professor suggests that setting up the school’s vision and developing their own unique curriculums would contribute to the rehabilitation of ordinary high schools.
Professor Shin also questions whether setting the standardization of high schools as the aim for policy is desirable. He asserted, “Standardization of high schools can lead to unification of the means of education, which would not meet all the various educational demands in recent times,” revealing his doubt about whether the aim of the policy is appropriate. He added that even in France and Finland, which are known to provide equality-oriented education, governments do not sacrifice the implementation of all other policies to provide standardized education.
▲ Rallies Opposing to the Abolition of Seoul APHSs. Provided by the Korea Times.
Moreover, the professor is concerned about the fact that the education policy of the present government has been dividing public opinion into two. According to a public opinion poll from Realmeter, 51 percent of respondents agreed with the abolition of APHS while 37.4 percent opposed it. The percentage difference is not big enough which reveals that public opinion is diverged. Professor Shin mentioned that the division could further cause other social problems.
Therefore, the MOE should take follow-up measures to arbitrate the dispute. As the abolition of APHS is an educational issue, political ideology should not drive the policy decision. Politics often determine whether an education policy is deemed good or bad, and this has a tendency to distort the ideals of education. The ripple effect caused by the abolition of APHS is not only limited to a personal dimension, but could spill over to other social dimensions.
The Fear of the Balloon Effects
Even if there will be no elite schools left due to the policy, schools in certain regions - such as Gangnam – could substitute the former APHSs. For that reason, there is a possibility that the education policy of the present government will lead to a rise of house prices in the Gangnam area in the future. After the Education Office’s decision to revoke the APHS, parents actually started to consider moving into the Gangnam district Education experts are concerned about the high schools in Gangnam becoming new elite schools, which is encouraging a new high school ranking.
Professor Shin expressed concern about the balloon effects due to the education policy. “The Gangnam educational district 8 can possibly revive as a result of the abolition of APHS.” The professor said that if only ordinary high schools are left, it is expected that the relocation rate to the Gangnam district would gradually increase, unless the high schools located in the Gangnam district fail to maintain good results on the university entrance rate.
There are a significant number of parents who are planning to move into another educational district to provide better education for their children. According to a real estate expert Park Jong-bok, “After the Seoul Provincial Education Office’s decision for the cancellation of the reassignment of the APHSs, we got more inquiries from the parents who lived in Gangbuk area or other cities for their move to Gangnam area.” Though the lease and the price level of Gangnam acts as a burden to the parents, they sacrifice themselves and decide to move their houses for their children’s education.
▲ Real Estate Expert Park Jong-bok. Photographed by Kim Seung Hye.
Expert Park Jong-bok emphasized that despite the government’s announcement of the adoption of “Price Regulations of Apartments” in the near future, the rate of rising house prices in Gangnam area did not halt, though the tendency slowed down. This reveals that an increasing number of students are deciding to attend schools in Gangnam, rather than APHSs. It is possible that this phenomenon may strengthen the status of schools in Gangnam. Thus, the doubt that the abolition of APHSs will set up a new ranking of high schools does not seem to be a groundless rumor.
Suggestions to Change the Sailing Course
While President Moon came up with many steps of policies to eventually renovate the education system in Korea, the way it was directed could perhaps be altered to better reflect his original stance. In order to successfully hit the target, the government, instead of tackling the high school education that merely serves as a middle ground, should consider the deeply-rooted education system in South Korea. In order to truly reflect his notions, other methods should be taken into consideration instead of the initial pledges that he had promised for the election.
The government should set up policies refraining from narrowly defining education as a means to enter prestigious universities, which is the main problem of education in South Korean society. Particularly, there is an odd tendency for people to evaluate others solely based on their academics, favoring those who have moderate or high educational backgrounds. This makes parents force their children to go to private academies to overtake others, and eventually outperform their peers.
APHSs could help solidify the ranking of high schools, but the foundation of APHS is not the main cause of the social atmosphere that judges people on their level of education. Even if all the APHSs are converted into ordinary high schools, it does not fully guarantee a total disappearance of rankings between high schools. Since the excessive eagerness of education in South Korea still exists, the ranking of high schools cannot be eliminated by the abolition of APHSs.
The main factor of high school ranking is the education system oriented to university entrance. The streamlining of college admission procedures by eliminating ranking of universities should be applied, enhancing fairness throughout the entire procedure. Smoothing out the competition among rankings of universities would also change the system for high school education as a trickle-down-effect.
Unfortunately, this is realistically hard to manage. As application to university is based on one’s free will, there must be prestigious universities that people prefer. Besides, as the ranking of universities is deeply-rooted in one’s perception, it is nearly impossible to break it. Therefore, the wisest plan to relieve the ranking is through government policies. Although revising the policy is the most practical solution, it is not the best plan. For the past 20 years, the MOE had executed the plan through establishing specialized universities. Nevertheless, the implicit ranking of universities remains.
Better Education, for Better Korea
Since President Moon has been strongly emphasizing the need of equality in education, the true fairness comes in when there is no hierarchy within the overall system, where people get to study without being alienated. As the current system aggravates inequality among people in terms of education level, wealth, and other external factors, the fresh idea of adopting new policies must be considered at this stage.
Thus, the effectiveness and practicality of the new policy should be re-evaluated. While its original purpose should be highly praised, most education experts and the press are commenting on the ineffectiveness of the reform to realize its expected results. Additionally, the second step of the policy, which was the disqualification of APHS, had a ripple effect on society. To settle down the controversy and ease the resistance of the opposing public opinions, the enactment of a follow-up policy is necessary.
The MOE is planning to carry out the next step of the policy, aiming for totally breaking the ranking of high schools. However, it is unsure that the third step of the policy will bring positive effects to the current education system. Even step one and two are often criticized as unsuccessful these days. So, does carrying out the next step signify a meaningful action to take? While many former presidents have attempted to change the education system in Korea, no one has turned out to be successful. Now, it is the current government’s task to revolutionize the current policy to enforce the competitiveness of ordinary high schools and to ultimately approach the standardization of high schools.
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