Your Complete Resources on Education in South Korea: A Critical Approach

English Education in South Korea

The English education frenzy evident in South Korea paves the working foundation for Korea's multi-billion dollar a year ELT (English Language Teaching) industry. As a matter of fact, billions of dollars are being spent on English education in and out of Korea, with 5 billion US dollars spent on educating S. Korean children abroad. 

The chief purpose of educating Korean children and youth outside of Korea is to improve the learners' English language skills, however, some parents send their children to study abroad to immerse them in learner centered education which is for the most part not the norm in Korea.

With no shortage of will to spend ever-increasing amounts of money on ELT by South Korean parents, it is highly unlikely that their children will ever become immersed in an education system wherein English education does not take center stage with regard to both domestic education as well as the education Korean students tend to take part in abroad.

Despite the strong will and the large amounts of money spent on ELT domestically and abroad, Korean students as a whole fail to do as well as their OECD counterparts in terms of their English language abilities.

University Entrance Exams and Private Education

South Korean 15 year olds abilities to do well in the areas of science, mathematics and reading may not stem exclusively from the education offered at the government run public education system but rather, at least in part, from the long hours students spend in private cram-schools that are invariably geared toward improving their abilities to do well on the annual national university entrance exam. In essence, students cram in private institutes so that they can reach high scores in their attempt to enter any one of an elite group of univeristies either in Korea or abroad.

As it stands, the more money Korean parents spend on their children's private education, the higher the likelihood that their children will do better on the annual SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and so it is increasingly likely that they will attain higher levels of education at higher ranked postsecondary institutions.

As such, it is no coincidence that South Korea is the highest spender on private education among the OECD nations.

In point of fact, whole city blocks have been transformed into private education hubs, often made up of hundreds of private institutes which cater to students needing additional education in a specific range of subjects. These 'hakwon towns' are bustling with student life even as late as midnight on weekdays. So then, is it just to attribute the 'successes of Korean education', to goverment run educational institutions or should this honor go to the numerous private schools scattered within Korea?
As a matter of widespread opinion, South Korean parents are leaning toward the belief that it is the private schools and the private teachers/instructors that are to be credited with the new-found success of Korean 15 year olds when it comes to the high results they have reached in the areas of mathematics, science and reading, when it comes to the Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD).


Even the South Korean mass media has gone on the attack against government run schools and the teachers that teach there. Parents are increasingly dissatisfied with government run schools due to what they perceive as a lack of interest on the teachers' part to properly prepare their students for the national entrance exam.
According to research (see Tables 1 & 2 below), it is those students whose parents spend the most money on them attendeding cram-schools that tend to do best on the entrance exams and this is leading the majority of Koreans to believe that state-run schools are inadequate in preparing South Korean students for a brighter future.
 Table 1

The Relationship Between Private Education and Academic Achievement in South Korea

Monthly Spending

1st Tier Group

2nd Tier Group

3rd Tier  Group

4th Tier Group



(USD 0)











(USD 220)











(USD 440)









KRW 1,000,000

(USD 880)









KRW 2,000,000

(USD 1,760)









Data from Research by Professor Kim Min-Seung of Sungkyunkwan University

According to data provided by the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (see below), the amounts of money spent by parents on their children's private education differs greatly from that shown in the data provided by Professor Kim Min-Seung, however, the ministry's data goes even further in showing a clear relationship between private educational spending and learner achievement. 

Table 2

'Private Education in South Korea'

by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (2009) 

(Based on 44,000 parents surveyed)


Top 10%

Top 11-30%

Next 31-60%

Next 60-80%

Bottom 20%

Money Spent/Month

319,000 KRW

283,000 KRW

232,000 KRW

184,000 KRW

139,000 KRW

All Levels Time Spent/Week

9.2 hours

8.6 hours

7.3 hours

5.6 hours

4.4 hours

Elementary School Time Spent/Week

10 hours on average

Middle School Time Spent/Week

11 hours





High School Time Spent/Week

5.7 hours on average

Vocational High School Time Spent/Week

2.6 hours on average

Percentage of Students Enrolled in Private Education






Chosun (2010)

In countries like Finland and Canada, for instance, the levels of performance acchieved by 15 year olds in the areas of mathematics, science and reading are comparable to those achieved by Korean 15 year olds, yet private institutes are not normally the trend either in Canada or in Finland. Unlike Korean students, Canadian students are seen to be under-acchievers if they take part in private education, therefore, the stigma of having to attend private schoos is usually avoided by young Canadians.

What should be of importance to note is the total number of hours Korean students spend studying per week"Koreans aged between 15 and 24 spent an average of seven hours and 50 minutes per day on studying at school, private crammers or at home as of 2003, nearly three hours longer per day than the OECD average of five hours." (Chosun, 2009) This clearly makes for unhappy students.

When it comes to math education, "while Korean students spent eight hours and 55 minutes per week on math alone, the country ranked second in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2003 with 542 points, after Finland which scored 544 points. Finnish students spend just four hours and 22 minutes per week on math." (Chosun, 2009)

What is perhaps the most troubling is the apparent reluctance of Korean educators to adopt more favorable teaching techniques to better prepare students for a more successful future. Essentially, Korean high school teachers are perceived to be complacent because they have secure positions and parents feel that teachers have little to prove in the way of their students' success.
Even if the blame could be placed on the teachers alone, there is an evident problem with the Korean national entrance exam as there is no element of creativity involved in doing well on the test. Effectively, rote learning techniques are the preferred methods of studying for these tests since they are essentially multiple choice tests wherein students are to pick the best answers to each and every question. No essay type questions are contained in the tests, thus the majority of students graduate from high school without learning the basic essay writing skills necessary to succeed at especially American universities, as it is not a required skill for gaining attendance at university.

Furthermore, as a result of the nature of the university entrance exams, and the strong focus in government run schools as well as private schools to prepare students for the exams, there is a strong neglect in the areas of education that involve skills the likes of debate, discussion, creative writing, creative problem solving, hands on learning, independent studies and self time-management just to name a few. 
The aim of these national exams is to make it fair for all students in having to take the same test annually. However, the fairness may largely be lost in that there is a 31.8% discrepancy in the levels of education provided through public schools (according to the PISA 2006 report; p.32), with rich neighborhoods boasting the schools that provide the highest levels of education. Gangnam-gu in Seoul is such a district. Essentially, students who live and thus attend school in these more prominent neighborhoods are expected to be better prepared for the annual entrance exam due to the higher levels of education provided to them through the public school system alone. 
What is more, it is the cost of private education that may very well be the chief determiner in a child's educational success, and so it could essentially be the thickness of the parents' pocket books that dictate the levels of educational success their children are able to achieve.
This is troubling for Korean society since money seems to rule not only in terms of personal economic gain and development but also in terms of academic acchievement.
This kind of education system certainly does not favor the children of poor families. It would be more favorable if it was an education system that allowed everyone to succeed, not according to their parents' pocketbooks but according to their own hard work and potential.

Even worse, South Korean students are under tremendous pressure to succeed and their parents do little to ease the stress via the constant reminder that they must do their best when it comes to their education. For this reason, a significant number of South Korean students actually contemplate suicide, with some even taking their own lives.


Chosun (2009) 'Korea Youth Study Longest Hours in OECD', Chosun Ilbo, August 10, 2009

Chosun (2010) '9 out of 10 students, with scores in the top 10%, receive private education', (original Korean title: '성적 상위 10%, 10  9 사교육 받아'), Chosun Ilbo, March 7, 2010

 55.5% of all South Korean Students graduate from College or University


There is international admiration toward the South Korean system of education for not only producing 15 year olds that perform well in mathematics, science and reading but also for boasting a whopping 55.5% college graduation rate, which is incidentally the second highest rate in the world, just shy of the mark of 55.8% set by Canada.

While this seems to be an admirable achievement from the perspective of people looking in on the country from afar, those of us who are actually in the country know far too well that the high percentage of graduating students in South Korea merely leads to an overabundance of qualified individuals for jobs that require certain types and levels of qualifications. This inevitably leads to a surplus of jobless graduates who are willing to settle for any job they can get, even if it is not related to their own fields.

It is now the reality that mainly those alumni who have graduated from any of the elite SKY universities, or either of the elite institutes of science and technology, that have the best opportunities in landing decent jobs, with those having graduated from lower ranked universities scavenging for literally the leftover scraps.

The main reason for all this strife is the high number of South Korean colleges and universities that students have the option to enroll in after graduating high school.


All things considered, one should always remember that while the grass may appear to be greener on the other side, this may not always be the case and it's always important to think twice about what you wish for since it may eventually come true.


Many in Korea believe that Korea's greatest asset is its human resources and the fearsome competition that revolves around the Korean education system is a direct result of this belief.

With no natural resources to rely on, South Korea must develop its human resources to the point of being able to compete internationally. For this reason, a hardened and often authoritative education regime has begun to whip students into shape even at an early phase of educational development.

Still, the Korean system of education has many good qualities as the achievements it has reached speak volumes in themselves, but it has come at a great price to not only the children who spend endless hours studying but also to families that spend more and more on their children's private education.

Korean education is undoubtedly successful in its own way, but it may not be a suitable model to follow for countries around the world.


To each country its own style of education may be the wisest approach to this old age debate.
 South Korean

한국 교육