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  • Kayleen Kim

Differences in Education: South Korea and United States Series

Kayleen Kim

Language, traditions, and norms. In a unified society, these components of a centripetal force could transform into a centrifugal force, splitting cultural variations in educational systems. Diverse education systems are present in many nations, but the United States and South Korea have the most starkly divergent educational systems as a result of their distinct cultures. As a consequence, the ways in which mental health is addressed, educational methods, and the various student bodies in terms of racial and socioeconomic statuses between the United States and South Korea account for the variances in their educational systems.

“37-grade school students attempted suicide in 2011, and that number jumped drastically to 258 in 2015 and last year [2018] reached a record high of 451” (Kim Hyun-bin). This was a report from the Ministry of Education’s 2018 psychoanalysis of suicidal students. With the general increasing trend of suicidal rates, it is no surprise why Korean teenagers are gradually wanting to escape from their reality: an ‘all-work, no-play’ life, as described by National Public Radio. In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), member countries proved that the average number of hours per week spent on academics was 33.9 hours, whereas “Korean youngsters aged between 15 and 24 dedicated 49.43 hours to study each week - 15 hours longer than the OECD average” (Ja-young). With persistent forces to excel in studies from both parents and schools, late ending school hours, and grueling hours in after-school programs and institutions, South Korea's educational system has been proven to reflect society's focus on academic achievement.

Rather than addressing the importance of mental health for students living with stress due to school, South Korean citizens continue to emphasize the importance of the college entrance test and academic life, describing mental health as taboo: “a mindset deeply rooted in the public conscience, making mental health awareness and advocacy work by South Korean physicians largely ineffectual” (Nagar).

United States

Unlike South Korea, the U.S. places much importance on personal freedom, individuality, etc. before all else. “Members of society are given the opportunity to think for themselves and make their own decisions—values that emphasize individualism, creativity, and autonomy” (Lynch).

The types of schools in the U.S. reflect the culture of mental health in the country. Through alternative schools in the U.S., students have the option to pursue other fields and prioritize their mental health before anything else in moderate circumstances. Even in public and private schools, mental health awareness is prominent and addressed through school counselors, programs implemented, etc. “Among children aged 3-17 years, in 2016: Nearly 8 in 10 (78.1%) with depression received treatment. 6 in 10 children (59.3%) with anxiety received treatment” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Influences of Education Systems

South Korea

The meritocratic system of South Korea stemmed from an outside power shaping the expectations of people and developing the South Korean culture from an early age, called Sinicization.

Sinicization in China, influenced by the Han dynasty, played a huge role in shaping the enthusiasm for educational achievement. The kwago exam, one of the main establishments, is a state examination system “devised as a way of ensuring that the most qualified, best prepared men rule the country” (New World Encyclopedia). The National Confucian Academy, a nonprofit organization with a mission of promoting Confucianism, implemented kwago. The academy was used to place people who scored higher in the bureaucratic government, where the position received great pay, treatment, and respect at that time. Most South Korean parents wanted their children to land a job in the government during this time for economic stability within their family, which meant that educational achievement was desired to pass the kwago exam.

Types of schooling

South Korea

In addition to sinicization, vocational schools, one of the four main types of high schools present in South Korea (general, special purpose, vocational, and autonomous), also had an impact on future generations. Vocational schools, implemented in the late 19th century, are “​​technical high schools designed for students (approximately 27% of all high school students in 2010) who want to develop vocational skills and enter the labor market immediately after graduation” (National Library of Medicine). There has been an increase in the number of graduates from vocational schools who enroll in postsecondary institutions instead of entering the labor market immediately.

High schools that are self-regulated, known as autonomous high schools, determine curricula meant for an individual and manage a student’s progress, have been largely debated for their true purpose. These schools pursue a much more individualistic approach, however, autonomous schools have been slowly retracting their practices in education. In 2019, “11 out of 24 autonomous private high schools [in South Korea] have been eliminated, sparking a debate about the right to self-govern” (Lim). Autonomous high schools focus highly on the entrance exam to college, and because they operate as private high schools, the tuition fees are “2.5 to 3 times higher than those of ordinary high schools” (Lim).

All four of the main types of high schools in South Korea are designed to fit sinicization and the expectations of the Korean culture: scoring highly on standardized exams and achieving academic merit.

Similarly, the U.S. has three main sectors of high schools: public, private, and alternative. Alternative schools have four main types: boarding schools, vocational schools, magnet schools, and homeschooling.

Alternative schools do not provide the traditional educational experience, but serve more of a purpose that “educate[s] students who haven't been successful in regular schools, often due to behavioral issues or learning disabilities” (Barrington). Though the original mission of alternative schools was limited to troubled students ill-equipped to excel in a public education system, today, alternative schools appeal to a variety of students. Boarding schools have residential educational facilities, vocational schools often have job training opportunities, magnet schools attract students for specific subjects, and homeschooling allows for individually paced learning.

The government's role in education

South Korea

The administrator and overseer of education is the Ministry of Education (MOE) in South Korea, which “formulates and implements education policies on education structure, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment” (Ministry of Education). Through this national system of maintenance of education in South Korea, the Ministry of Education sets goals such as “Enhanc[ing] publicness in education from kindergarten to college,” “Execut[ing] innovation in public education through a classroom revolution,” and “Restor[ing] the Ladder of Hope for Education policy.” (Ministry of Education). The Ministry of Education tackles challenging topics, such as socioeconomic status and inequality of education dispersion, which are crucial to the future of the Korean education system.

United States

In contrast to the Ministry of Education in South Korea, the U.S. government does not have a set controller of education for all 50 states. The federal role in education is limited in the U.S. “Because of the Tenth Amendment, most education polic[ies are] decided at the state and local levels” (US Department of Education). Furthermore, “[t]he powers not delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (United States Constitution. Amend. X). In other words, education becomes a function in each of the 50 states, allowing each state to form its own educational policies.

Socioeconomic status in education

In addition to school learning, students from economically advantaged families in South Korea have higher education rates and better test scores. However, this is not the case for economically disadvantaged families. Because economically advantaged students receive more guidance and support outside of school, it is unfair for those who are disadvantaged. According to “Class and Cosmopolitan Striving: Mothers' Management of English Education in South Korea,” “after-school programs include private and group tutoring (kwaoe) with Korean tutors or native English speakers; specialized English institutes (lyongo chonmun hagwon); worksheets (haksupchi) that teachers visit the home to distribute, collect, and grade; and internet lessons” (Abelmann 655). Through diverse methods of activities and programs, it has deepened the disparities among economically advantaged families. Statistics show that the gap between the economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged has created an academic difference between the two groups. The “[s]ocio-economic status explains 8% of the variance in reading performance in Korea,” meaning that economic inequality creates educational inequality in South Korea (OECD).

Optimism, opportunities, and a greater chance of success define the U.S. educational benefits for adulthood. In the U.S., education is accessible to all people of economic status, regardless of background, living status, quality of life, etc. However, accessible education does not mean that the quality of education is equal. When it comes down to learning in the classroom, “socioeconomic diversity may be difficult for instructors to detect in their classes, as students may strive to appear middle-class in order to self-normalize” (Yale). Although these students may “appear” middle-class, socioeconomically better neighborhoods are proven to have better schools with more specialized education, thus meaning the education dispersion across the U.S. is not equal.

Styles and values of systems

Two differentiating styles of educational systems in terms of pressurizing zeal for achievement versus accessible, poor education based on communities show the cultural impacts of South Korea and the U.S. “The Korean education system is based on a decades old system of rote memorization that is applied to every subject” (TESOL). Though this system of rote memorization has worked for the majority of South Korean citizens, as proven by the near 100% literacy rate, the Korean education system has aspects to be improved upon that need to be taken into consideration. According to, “Korean students [need to] learn to carefully listen to others and accept what they have to say before judging” (Kim). Due to their ambition to do well academically, Korean students naturally “ignore” the impact it could take on their personalities. “This self-deprecation of outstanding performance in PISA (and TIMSS) reflects the long-standing criticism that Korean education fails to nurture individuality, diversity, and creativity, with too much emphasis on rote learning, memorization, and testing” (OpenEdition). Furthermore, due to the traditional methods of teaching as well as the traditional education system in general, Korean education has “poorly equip[ped] students with creative, flexible, and independent thinking” (OpenEdition).

Conversely, the U.S. has a system based on logical thinking, interactions, and arguments that is extensive. “Since American students are trained to challenge and doubt others’ opinions and ideas, they often neither listen to others with a positive mind, nor accept others’ opinions wholeheartedly. When you converse with American students, they invariably respond with ‘but,’ ‘however,’ or ‘even though’” (Kim). Through more interactions between students, there is no doubt that the U.S. has a system that allows American students to challenge others’ thoughts, but it creates doubt within society.

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