Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Who Wants To Be South Korea

South Korea is on the reformster short list of Countries We Want To Be Like (right up there with Finland and Estonia). She Who Will Not Be Named frequently cites her own year in South Korea as a formative experience (from which she somehow jumps to the conclusion that every child in America needs the same experience).

And yet, a piece in the Sunday, August 1, New York Times reminds us why South Korea is more of a cautionary tale than a guiding light.

"An Assault Upon Our Children" by Se-Woong Koo reminds us of all the things about South Korea's system that are not to love. Koo's mother moved him to Vancouver for school after his older brother fell ill from the stress of meeting school requirements, but Koo returned to South Korea as a teacher. That different perspective did not make things look any better.

The students were serious about studying but their eyes appeared dead.When I asked a class if they were happy in this environment, one girl hesitantly raised her hand to tell me that she would only be happy if her mother was gone because all her mother knew was how to nag about her academic performance. 

South Korea is a real life reductio ad absurdum, an actual demonstration of "well, if we cared about nothing but test scores, we'd put students in school for thirteen hours a day and keep driving them until they were utterly miserable."

Which is, of course, what they do. 

This is what pursuit of test scores gets you. This is what happens when you believe that a test score is the be-all and end-all and measure-all of education. This is what happens when you believe that success, as measured by the uber-test, is the only thing that matters in a child's life.

Not only are students miserable, but the logical extension of a test-based system is an emphasis on obedience, Koo tells this story:

I remember the time I disagreed with my homeroom teacher in middle school by writing him a letter about one of his rules. The letter led to my being summoned to the teacher’s office, where I was berated for an hour and a half, not about the substance of my words but the fact that I had expressed my view at all. He had a class to teach but he did not bother to leave our meeting because he was so enraged that someone had questioned his authority. I knew then that trying to be rational or outspoken in school was pointless. 

Why we would want a system like this for our children or our country is beyond my comprehension. Yes-- we could finally triumph in the PISA scores, but so what? What would that get us? The US has never triumphed in the PISA scores-- ever-- and yet, the United States of America seems to have done okay for itself.

Everything in life costs something. South Korea shows us what the cost of universal testing supremacy is-- give up all joy, all curiosity, all creativity, all initiative, all fun and happiness, turning the childhood years into a nightmare. 

Here's a secret about great test scores. We know how to get them. We've always known. But most of us are unwilling to advocate for the kind of child abuse necessary for that "achievement. South Korea pays a huge price for their PISA supremacy, and what do they get for it, other than the admiration of a few American bureaucrats and reformsters. Why the heck would anyone want that?

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