Compulsory Education: Primary education is compulsory. It has been free since 1979. At the age of six, children are admitted to a school in their residential area. By the late 1960s, the primary school enrollment rate reached 100 percent. Once children enter primary schools, they automatically advance to the next grade each year.
Middle school education is compulsory for all students ages 12 to 15, but free only to a limited number of students. Free middle school education began in 1985 in farming and fishing areas and is to be expanded nationwide step by step (MOE). The middle school enrollment rate reached 99.9 percent in 1994. The high rate is attributed to the policy dropping the entrance examination in 1969.
Educational Attainment: Since the Korean War, education has expanded enormously. As of 2000, there were 536 higher education institutions with 1,434,259 students in a country of 47 million; and in 1945, there were 19 such institutions with 7,819 students (in 1949 the population was just a little over 20 million). This means that the number of tertiary schools increased by a factor of 28 and students by a factor of 18.3, while the population only doubled. Korea boasts a literacy rate near 100 percent and one of the highest levels of education anywhere in the world. This is a dramatic change over the past 70 years. In the late 1930s the adult literacy rate stood at less than 30 percent, in spite of the Confucian respect for learning and the easy to learn Korean writing system, han'gûl. In 1995, it was about 98 (UNESCO).
As of the late 1990s, almost all Koreans of school age were able to finish high school. Even at college level, the enrollment reached 61.8 percent in 1996, compared with 6.7 percent in 1966 (UNDP). The enrollment rate in primary education reached 100 percent as early as the 1960s. The dropout rate is negligible in secondary schools. In 1985, the transition rate from primary school to middle school reached 99 percent. The transition rate from middle to high school exceeded 91.4 percent at the onset of the 1990s and 98.7 percent in 1996.
The transition rate from high school to higher education has also been increasing. Until the late 1980s, however, the government, while trying to make universal education available to precollege students, strongly controlled the expansion of higher education for fear of creating an oversupply of college graduates for available jobs. Following the government's relaxation of such control beginning in the 1990s, the transition rate from high school to higher education reached 79 percent in 1996. As of 2000, upon birth, a child has a 77 percent probability of receiving a higher education. Though the rate of high school graduates advancing to college has been increasing for both men and women, 92 percent of male high school graduates ages 18 to 21 went on to colleges in 1998, whereas the share for women was just 55.5 percent. Some scholars point out that concentration of male and female students in specific areas of study leads to gender discrimination and employment inequality (Shim).
Almost all high school graduates would be attending an institution of higher education were the quota increased and financing available. The overwhelming majority of Korean parents want nothing less than a college degree for their children. For example, in 1993, about 86.5 percent of the Korean parents expected their sons to get a college or university degree and 79.4 percent, their daughters (KEDI 1994, 33). Many who cannot pass their preferred institution's examination study abroad.
As of 1995, about 28 percent of Koreans ages 25 to 29 had college degrees. This figure can be roughly compared with percentages of college degree holders in other countries among those ages 25 to 34: Canada, 20.1 percent; France, 12.4 percent; Germany, 12.9 percent; Italy, 8.3 percent, Japan, 22.9 percent; the United Kingdom, 15.2 percent; and the United States, 26.5 percent (National Center for Education Statistics).
As of 1999 the number of students enrolled in higher educational institutions was 3,154,245 compared to 2,343,894 in 1995, a 35 percent increase in just 4 years (MOE 2000, 68).
The ever-increasing frenzy for education and the extent of Korean educational attainment are most evident in the number of doctoral degree holders. In 1966, the ratio of doctoral degree holders numbered 35 per 1,000,000. It increased to 200 per 1,000,000 in 1980, to 945 in 1995, and to 1,144 in 1997 (KEDI). The number has continued to explode; as of 2001, Korea had a total of 90,983 doctoral degree holders—70,360 from Korean institutions and 20,623 from abroad—meaning almost 1 in 500 Koreans held a doctorate.
Academic Year: Elementary and secondary schools have more than 220 school days (34 weeks) per year. Considering daily class hours and calendar length, as well as after school instructional hours (academic and extracurricular), the amount of time spent by each student on education becomes significantly higher. On top of five full weekdays of instruction, students also attend school half the day on Saturdays. A high school student in Seoul typically starts school at 7:30 A.M. and ends at 5:00 P.M. Some students also undertake a year or more of extra college preparatory work when they do not at first pass their desired college's entrance examination. Although it has sporadically been declared illegal, high school students have been forced to remain at school for "self-study" as late as 9:00 or 10:00 P.M. to prepare for the college entrance examination.
College-level institutions provide classes for no fewer than 32 weeks per year. The academic year typically consists of two semesters: 1 March through 31 August and 1 September through 28 or 29 February. Summer vacation generally lasts for about 45 days during July and August; the winter vacation lasts about 70 days from mid-December to the end of February.
Public & Private Institutions: In curriculum and administration, at the primary and secondary levels, there is little difference between public and private educational institutions other than their founders. Admission to high schools in equalized areas is randomized.
The public educational system has experienced a shortage of financial resources due to an increasing number of students. Limited government budgets have led to an increase in private schools and an increased reliance on private lessons or tutoring.
In 1994 the Presidential Commission on Education Reform (PCER 1994) suggested basic principles and guidelines for private school reforms. The PCER recognizes three categories: independent private schools, private schools with public financial support, and semipublic private schools under the jurisdiction of MOE. The governmental subsidy will be provided only to semipublic and subsidized private schools. Independent schools will enjoy more autonomy in their admission and tuition policies.
Under the new "School Choice Program," students and parents play an active role in choosing schools when applying to middle and high schools. In 1997, PCER noted that, despite the vital role private schools have played in Korean education, they are disadvantaged compared to public schools. While recommending increased government support for private institutions, PCER also emphasized the need for their responsible, accountable, and transparent administration (PCER 1997, 118-21).
Curriculum & Textbooks: To further democracy, Education Law 155 establishes the standard curriculum for each level up to high school and the criteria for textbooks and instructional materials. The national curriculum and regional guidelines allow schools to implement criteria and adopt textbooks according to their individual characteristics and objectives. MOE and the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE) are responsible for developing the national curriculum at elementary, middle, and high school levels.
The national curriculum is subject to periodic revisions (seven times since 1945). The seventh national curriculum, devised in 1997, came into use in 2000. Some of the main objectives in the sixth and seventh national curricula are democratization and local autonomy to allow flexibility to meet individual needs and to enhance character, creativity, and diversity, while imparting basic knowledge.
Until recently, precollege students had little freedom to choose specific courses for themselves. In high schools, students learn all subjects in small increments at each level rather than concentrating on a few chosen subjects at a time as in the United States. Primary and secondary schools require extracurricular activities, although the degree of emphasis varies from school to school. These include journalism, chorus, orchestra, athletic groups, calligraphy, or fine arts. All are supervised by regular faculty members.
Formerly one's college major, including premedical, was decided at the time of admission, and it was almost impossible to change majors after admission. More recently, colleges have shown some flexibility in allowing students greater freedom in changing majors and specific courses.
To correct what was viewed as monopolistic textbook standardization, MOE revised its textbook publication policy in 1995. Textbooks and teachers' manuals compiled within the new framework are classified into three types: Textbooks published by MOE, called Category One (iltchong) Textbooks; those published by private publishers and authorized by MOE, called Category Two (ijong) Textbooks; and those published by private publishers and recognized by MOE or superintendents as relevant and usable, called Category Three Textbooks.
Individual schools have the freedom to choose textbooks in the second and the third categories to meet student needs. Total Category One and Two textbooks published for fall 1999 and spring 2000 amounted to 137,636 volumes in 2,439 titles. Of these, 75.1 percent were Category One textbooks (KEDI 2000). Because of its open-ended nature, the exact number of volumes is not available for Category Three.
Instructional Technology: Contemporary Koreans are firm believers in and users of technology. Korea is making various efforts to provide a national information infrastructure with a view to joining the ranks of the advanced information societies in the twenty-first century.
According to the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC), the information technology (IT) industry has become a core sector of the national economy, accounting for 11.8 percent of GNP in 2000 and 12.8 percent in 2001. There were 15.34 million Internet users in South Korea as of July 2000, representing approximately one-third of the population. As of 2000, there was 1 computer per 13.7 students in elementary schools, 1 per 10.2 students in middle schools, 1 per 11.2 in general high schools, and 1 per 3.5 in vocational high schools (KEDI). The nation's progress in the adoption and use of information technology has been remarkable. By April 2001, every teacher had his or her own PC, and every elementary and secondary school in Korea was connected to a Local Area Network (LAN) and the Internet—the first such achievement in the world. According to NetValue, as of April 2001 more than half of South Korean Internet users enjoy broadband connections, ahead of any Western economy, while 10,700,000 house-holds—almost every household—had a computer. The number of Internet users rose explosively to 27 million, or more than 1 out of 2 Koreans as of April 2001, compared to 1.6 million in 1997.
The MOE established a computer education development plan in 1988, which supported computer assisted instruction in schools and computerization of school administration. In the same year, the Educational Technology Research Center was established under the KEDI to conduct research in computer education and develop instructional computer software. MOE has provided computers to schools since 1989. Between 1989 and 1994, KEDI developed and distributed about 600 computer assisted programs to schools (OECD 34).
To meet the demands of a high-tech industrial society in the 2000s, several policy measures have been adapted, which include recruiting bright students into science and technology via scholarships and other privileges. Faculty members are also encouraged to conduct joint research, promote internship programs, and conduct seminars. Scholarly exchanges with other technically advanced countries are encouraged. Resources have also become available for research facilities, and the government facilitates cooperation between schools and industry (MOE).
In 1999, the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS) was established, combining the Korea Multimedia Education Center (est. 1997) and the Korea Research Information Center (est. 1996). KERIS has been developing high quality software and an electronic platform to support the research activities of teachers. It also operates the Cyber School for student self-instruction and a certification system for excellence in commercial educational software.
Beginning September 2001, Ewha Women's University's Multimedia Education Institute is to administer Korea's first ever "international cyber university," with online courses to 30 institutions around the world. The international Cyber University, in collaboration with eight other local colleges, is to provide five courses, mainly in women's and Korean studies. These will initially be taught via the Internet and later complemented with videoconferencing and field trips to East Asia (Cohen). Information technology has also been an excellent solution for lifelong education and those who cannot attend school for various reasons.
Women's Education: Modern Korean women have had the same opportunity as men for education, although cultural factors account for their somewhat lower educational attainment. Nevertheless, contemporary Korean women are highly educated and share a thirst for study with their male compatriots. The proportion of women with college and advanced educational backgrounds has steadily increased from 2.4 percent in 1975 to 13.1 percent in 1995. In the case of men, the share of those with college and higher educational backgrounds was 26.6 percent of the total male population in 1995 or twice that for women. In 1999, women made up 37.2 percent of students enrolled in professional colleges and 35.8 percent in academic higher educational institutions.
Ewha Women's University, started as a school for young girls in 1886 under the name of Ewha Haktang, achieved full university accreditation in 1946. As of 2001, with an enrollment of 17,000, it was the world's largest institution of higher education for women. With 14 colleges, 13 graduate schools, and special graduate courses, it offers 56 majors. The graduate school offers master's degree courses in 55 areas and doctoral degree courses in 42. Each year, more than 900 candidates graduate with master's degrees and 80 with doctorates.
Despite Ewha's remarkable record, Korean women in general do not get the same education as men. Not only do they receive fewer years of education on average than men do, they pursue what have traditionally been considered women's fields. As of 1998, female students were a majority in such traditional fields. For example, 73.1 percent of all students at teachers' colleges were women. Female students accounted for 64.8 percent in educational departments, 57.3 percent in arts and athletics departments, 56.1 percent in humanities departments, and 44.2 percent in departments of medicine and pharmacology. In social and natural sciences departments, the share of female students were 32.9 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively. Gender inequality at higher educational institutions was particularly acute in the sciences and engineering. In the natural sciences, the share of women earning M.A. and Ph.D. degrees is very low. In engineering, female students accounted for only 5 percent of all recipients of B.A.s, 4 percent of M.A.s, and 2 percent of Ph.D.s. This trend of gender separation makes it all but impossible for women to explore various career paths without regard for gender restrictions while substantially increasing the likelihood of women being employed in traditional women's areas. In an age when science and engineering are key, the paucity of women in those areas is viewed as a grave problem for women's advancement in society. Underlying causes include separate curricula for men and women, textbooks that reinforce traditional gender role divisions, and teachers' attitudes discriminating between male and female students (2000).
The situation for women is rapidly changing, however. As of 2001, more than 35 percent of high level information technology positions were held by women and more than 100 of Ewha's Information major graduates held chief executive positions at companies specializing in new technologies (Cohen).
Special Education: The Special Education Promotion Act, enacted in 1977 and amended in 1994, guarantees that students with disabilities receive appropriate and equal educational opportunity with special educational curricula and approaches to enhance their personal development, future employability, and social participation. According to the September 2000 National Assembly Report, special education's share of the budget ranged from 1.5 to 1.9 percent between 1995 and 2000.
It is estimated that 2.4 percent of all school age children need special education. Only about half of severely handicapped children are enrolled in special schools. Some 44 percent of the mildly handicapped are enrolled in special classes at regular schools; the rest attend regular classes (OECD).
To better serve the disabled, several measures have been adopted since 1988. Training programs in special education are offered to regular teachers, and special education courses are compulsory in teachers' colleges. The revision of the Special Education Promotion Bill in 1994 guaranteed early education for the disabled at regular kindergartens. Furthermore, reflecting public sentiment, a law to promote vocational employment of the handicapped was enacted.
In 1999, some 123 special education institutions served a total enrollment of 24,091 severely handicapped children, who were taught by 4,244 special education teachers—a student to teacher ratio of less than 6 to 1. Children with lesser impediments are taught in special education classes in regular schools; in 1999 there were 26,178 such students taught by 3,812 teachers in 3,764 special classes, which were offered by 2,990 regular schools (MOE). As of April 2000, according to the National Assembly Report, there were 129 special education schools—13 times the 1962 total of 10 schools and more than double the 53 in 1979, only 2 years after the passage of the Special Education Promotion Act in 1977.
The National Institute for Special Education, established in 1994, which is in charge of research and development in special education, supplies teaching and learning materials and trains teachers of students with disabilities. Special education teachers, who are deemed qualified either by passing an examination for special education or through supplementary in-service training for special teachers, are assigned to kindergartens and elementary and secondary schools. In addition to 20 graduate schools of education, 4 national colleges, 10 private colleges, and 3 special graduate schools train special education teachers.
Programs for the Gifted & Talented: Abolition of middle school entrance examinations in 1969 caused worries that extreme standardization and democratization of curricula would not produce outstanding leaders. Many felt unusually gifted and talented students need special attention as well as those with disabilities. MOE designated specialized high schools in the 1990s for science, foreign languages, the arts, and athletics. With strong governmental support, these schools aim to identify gifted and talented youngsters at an early age and develop their potential in these specialties. These schools enjoy autonomy in their admission processes, faculty recruiting, curriculum development, and financial management. The Education Law was revised in 1995 to promote special education for the gifted and talented and accelerated grade advancement and graduation programs in regular schools.
For the education of scientifically talented youth, Kyônggi High School of Science was founded in 1983. In 1994, about 9 percent of primary schools, 17 percent of middle schools, and 8 percent of high schools offered special education for the gifted and talented in science, mathematics, the Korean language, foreign languages, arts, and computer science (OECD 39). In 1996, nationwide there were 15 science high schools (16 in 1999), 14 foreign language high schools, 16 arts high schools, and 13 athletic middle and high schools. Those completing two years in a science high school are eligible for admission to the exclusive Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST). Other such institutions include the Kwangju Institute of Science and Technology, Seoul National University, and the Pohang Institute of Technology (MOE).
As of 2001, KAIST had about 7,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs. KAIST was established in 1971 by and remains under the auspices of the Ministry of Science and Technology, not MOE as is the case with all the other universities. The original institution, then called the Korea Advanced Institute of Science (KAIS), was founded in a specific governmental effort to reverse the brain drain to foreign countries and to create an environment conducive to the return of scientific researchers active abroad.
It soon expanded its mission and size to maintain a closer relationship with industry while pursuing basic scientific research and education. It merged first with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) in 1981, under the new designation KAIST, and again with the Korean Institute of Technology (KIT) in 1989. KIST had been a research institute and KIT an undergraduate college established in 1985 to educate scientifically gifted students. In 1989, the KAIST campus was relocated inside the strategically located Taedôk Science Town, in which are gathered not only other universities, but also public and private research institutes and venture businesses. Thus KAIST, as Korea's best research-oriented science and engineering educational institution, plays a leadership role in developing and advancing the nation's science and technology. By 2001, KAIST had produced about 18,500 graduates, including 3,800 Ph.D. degree holders who occupy key positions in science and technology in both the public and private sectors, at home and abroad.
Role of Education in Society & Development: Although not actually decreed by law, the Korean government tried to instill anti-communism into children's socialization as an important ideology (Yoo). Policies of President Kim Dae-jung and his dramatic encounter with North Korea's Chairman Kim Jong-Il in 2000 have considerably altered the South Korean stance on this issue. The future of the Korean peninsula is, however, still too volatile for anyone to be overly enthusiastic or pessimistic about current political developments.
More important than anti-communism have been the South Korean educational ideals of democracy and freedom. Korean students, especially at the college level, have felt that they were the ultimate and just arbiters of the corrupt government and adult society. Students have been an important part of the Korean political process toward the democratization of Korea.
Scholars have often indicated that during the past four and half decades, Korea's overall development has largely resulted from the growth of a well educated population. Even in the very early phase of economic development in the 1960s, Korea's educational level was far above those of other developing countries with equivalent incomes, such as Hungary and Italy. Even in the 1960s, the nation's illiteracy rate was only 27.9 percent and primary school enrollment measured 59 percent. Moreover, over the past 45 years, enrollments at secondary and tertiary schools have exploded, providing a sufficient pool of modestly paid but well educated workers needed for economic growth. Human resources are acknowledged as the key factor in both economic and social development. The key to Korea's rapid development was the rapid expansion of the educational system, coupled with relatively high educational attainment (UNDP).
Increasingly Korean leaders, performers, visual artists, and scholars—a significant number of whom have earned doctoral or terminal degrees in foreign countries—are active on the world stage. As Korea becomes more and more visible internationally, its scholarship and culture will gain the world's attention as much as its products. In this age, when knowledge and material goods are exchanged around the globe, education takes on added significance for South Korea.
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