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Chung Eunjung, a mother of two sons in Seoul, says South Korea’s plan to give children extra playtime by ending Saturday classes means only one thing: more private tutoring.
On June 14, President Lee Myung Bak’s government announced it would recommend that Korea’s schools end the Saturday classes, a feature of school life since the 1950s. Most schools now hold classes for four hours on two Saturdays a month. President Lee wants Koreans to consume more, and he hopes to wean the school system off its obsession with standardized tests. He figures giving kids and families the weekend off would help achieve both goals.
Don’t expect the playgrounds to fill up with liberated kids, though. “It would be a brave mother who let them play,” says Chung, who spends $1,700 a month on additional classes. Even the kids sound focused. Eleven-year-old Charlie Lee takes 15 hours of cram courses in English and math every week. “I like those classes,” he says. “I can meet my friends and play with them.”
East Asian nations dominate the top five slots in the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development’s assessment of reading, math, and science skills. U.S. students are ranked 30th in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. President Barack Obama has cited South Koreans’ zeal as an example of the need for American kids to study harder to compete. Three out of four South Korean parents use cram schools, tutors, or online learning to help get their children into college.
Rather than creating more family time, shutting schools on weekends could boost publicly traded cram school operators such as MegaStudy or language instructor JLS, says Kim Mi Song, an analyst at Hyundai Securities in Seoul. “If private institutions expand Saturday classes, I’ll definitely send my son,” says Kim Hyeran, who pays $2,800 per month for out-of-school classes for her 13-year-old, including as much as 20 hours of math. The Kim family, like the Chungs, live in Seoul’s Gangnam district, renowned in Korea for its specialized schools and private academies.
Traditional Confucian reverence for learning matters less to parents these days than the fear their children will be left behind, says Han Zun Shang, a professor of education at Yonsei University in Seoul. Annual per capita income has doubled in the past decade, to $20,759, and wage inequality is increasing.
The Koreans don’t want to repeat the experience of Japan, which cut the school week to five days in 2002. In 2009 the Japanese reversed course after their students began sliding down the OECD’s rankings. Between 2000 and 2006, Japanese high school students slumped from 1st to 10th in math, 2nd to 6th in science, and 8th to 15th in reading comprehension. Japan has added 278 hours back to the elementary school year and 105 hours to junior high school.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, which governs state education in the capital, says it plans to add two hours to weekday classes and cut some vacation days to offset the end of Saturday school. That doesn’t include all the new cramwork that will eat up those newly empty Saturday hours. “I put great stock in my son’s education,” says Kim, the mother of the 13-year-old boy. “I will make sure he gets whatever he needs.”
The bottom line: Koreans are so scared of falling behind at home and abroad that they do not want to ease up on intensive school prepping.