Myth of the Korean Super Teacher and the 3 Bird Tragedy
Recently, teachers at my elementary school were subjected to a poke in the eye with “data” confirming that we were among the lowest 5% of performing schools in California. A presenter threw out the latest mantras. “It’s all about teachers. Teachers matter. In Korea, teachers are held in high esteem.”
Whoa, stop right there reformer. Pull out a factoid (It’s all about teachers) with: no inkling of the realities accompanying it. Then “reform incorporated” pushes to transfer that one little factoid without the rest of the support pyramid beneath the factoid. I lived in Korea, taught in Korea, my wife is Korean and although it is wretched I can speak some Korean.
Korea’s phenomenal educational performance has little to do with teachers. It is entirely about parents. Parents who were weaned on a Confucian ethic which echoed for centuries - education is the route to success and status. Korean parents sacrifice all for their kids. One of the most disturbing and tragic outcomes is the three bird syndrome. Many educationally inspired families are separated, moms live overseas with their kids from New Zealand to Canada, anywhere the natives speak English. The dad’s reside in Korea or other nations and they work to pay the overseas bills. If they make lots of money they can fly often and see their kids and wife regularly (eagle dads), some less monied fathers only visit once a year like a migratory bird (goose dads), saddest of all are the fathers who toil in dire solitary poverty, and reside in horrible conditions. They are separated by miles and years. These wingless dads rarely see their families. (Penguin dads) Their willingness to sacrifice their families for educational opportunity is commendable, yet sad and shocking. Teachers play no role in this.
Educational intensity in Korea is off the scale – one-hundred days before the one and only national test date, moms and dads go to churches and temples and pray three or four times - a day and for each of those one hundred days. They are praying for high scores. Church calendars even come with these days pre-marked.
Still think it’s teachers that make Korea perform so well? If a child misses the bus or gets up late on test day, police bring them to test areas in squad cars. Children in hospitals are brought via ambulances to test centers. To reduce noise during the exam, commercial vehicles are not allowed within 200 meters of the testing area. Planes are not allowed to take off or land during the listening section of tests. Taxi companies hire extra fleets of cars to make sure kids arrive on time. Oh, and in major cities work is delayed for one hour to accommodate the test takers.
In preparation for all this, high school students spend years finishing school at 10:00 P.M. and then many attend private institutions until midnight. Parents pay unbelievable sums of money to buttress their kids’ educational weaknesses. Stress is unbelievable – far too many kids and parents commit suicide.
So, you reformers get your facts right. All of them. Conditions are just a smidgeon different in Korea. When we get parents who care like they do in Korea our kids will perform better. But some Koreans are beginning to ask - “Is it worth it?”
So please don’t tell us about the importance of teachers in Korea. We know how important teachers are. Just don’t blame us for conditions beyond our grasp - positive or negative.
And back here in USA - we have trouble with a different kind of our own bird – the flightless dodos of current educational reform.