By Andy Jackson
Korea's national obsession with English education may yet influence the outcome of the presidential race.
English education is not just academic for Korean voters, especially parents with children in public education. In Korea's high-tech, export-driven economy, English proficiency is seen as key to getting a good job and a stable income.
Parents also find themselves faced with the need to help their children compete with their peers to gain entrance to the best high schools and universities. They do the best they can to help. Korean mothers are famed for the support and pressure they give to their children during their studies.
Wealthy parents can, and often do, send their child abroad to improve their English skills. They also hire expensive private tutors to supplement their children's English education. Few middle and working class parents have the means to send their children abroad.
To compound the problem, parents see the English education offered by Korea's public school system as completely inadequate.
Faced with the prospect of seeing their children fall behind their classmates and eventually being pushed into a bleak future of marginal employment, parents sacrifice and scrape together what they can to send their children to private after-school language institutes (hagwon). English programs take half of the 30 trillion won a year ($32 billion) spent on Korea's private supplemental education system.
For parents who can afford it, English proficiency also opens the door to an international education, which further enhances their child's job prospects. Fifty-three percent of all international students are taught in English-speaking countries (mainly the United States, Britain and Australia).
So the debate on English education comes down to money and the future happiness of parents' children, two great motivators of voter behavior.
Of the three leading candidates, Chung Dong-young of the United New Democratic Party has taken the most ambitious position on English education. He has voiced concern that the current system places an ``English gap'' between rich and poor families. He claims that he will ``seize the public enemy; soaring private tutoring fees.'' That is certainly music to the ears of financially strapped parents.
To do that, he plans to have English classes taught by native speakers available to all students in elementary and secondary schools as after-school programs, which would help students with their English as well as reduce the amount of time they would have available to spend in a hagwon.
The difficulty with Chung's plan is that there are 12,000 elementary and secondary schools in Korea. It is unrealistic to believe that the government could successfully recruit enough native speaking English instructors for every school, especially for those in rural areas. The cost of such a program, including salaries and housing, would also be prohibitive if fully implemented, likely higher than the 1.8 trillion won per year that Chung claims.
So many students would have to be taught once or twice a week by native speaking teachers running a circuit between several schools. Naturally, parents who could afford to do so would chose to keep their children in a hagwon rather than place them in such a system, so it would do little to address the gap in English education between rich and poor children.
One hopeful idea that Chung proposed would be to eliminate the English section of the College Scholastic Ability Test. Most English education in Korea's public school system (as well as the private institutes) is directed toward passing the CSAT, which helps students in getting into good colleges and boosts the high schools' evaluations, but does little to improve student's communication skills. Chung would replace the English section of the CSAT with a separate English certification test
Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party also notes the burden that private English education places on families, and has his own ambitious ideas.
Rather than hiring more foreign teachers, Lee plans to strengthen English education by improving the English skills and teaching abilities of Korean teachers. He plans to train 2,000 current English teachers and recruit another 1,000 teachers every year.
The plan is realistic in the sense that it takes advantage of existing resources (Korean English teachers) rather than trying the difficult task of building a large pool of native speaking English teachers.
However, parents would have to be convinced that the quality of English education has really improved before they would willingly give up supplemental English education for their children. Lee addresses that need by planning to have elementary school students tested on their academic ability and secondary school students take standardized tests on their academic achievement.
Lee plans to introduce competition into the system by giving incentives to teachers whose students do well on the tests and by publishing the testing averages of every school.
Unfortunately, Lee's test and competition ideas would compound the current problem of schools ``teaching for the test'' rather than teaching to help their students learn to speak English. That part of Lee's plan would do little to change an education system that produces students with good English grammar skills but who can't communicate in English.
As can be expected from a candidate that has only recently entered the race, independent candidate Lee Hoi-chang has not yet articulated a full education plan. However, he has stated that he plans to move the English education system in Korea's pubic schools from a grammar and testing-based focus to one designed to enhance students' communication skills.
The candidates have noted the seriousness of the problems with Korea's English education system but offer radically different solutions. Voters are going to have a clear choice about which path they wish to see Korea take.
Andy Jackson teaches American government in the Lakeland College bridge program at Ansan College, Gyeonggi Province. ― ED.