Saturday, October 23, 2010

The American Envy of the Korean Education System (Part 2): Is America Uncompetitive? No.

According to most studies, the American education system is uncompetitive compared to the rest of the world.  After visiting 30 countries, and having lived in Europe, Asia and the United States, it doesn't seem that America is uncompetitive, but it focuses on a different set of students.  That emphasis is due to the vast differences in political systems and availability of resources.

First, there is no doubt that the Korean education system is more competitive than the American system through secondary school.  The reason?  Simple supply and demand.  The Korean population is now 50 million.  The American populations is approximately 300 million.  Let's ignore demographic differences for now (the Korean's average age is greater than the U.S. at the moment, and that will most likely not change for the foreseeable future).  That means that there are 6 times more students in Korea when compared to the U.S.  In Korea, the competition is intense for entry into the top universities as exhibited by the phrase (SKY).  In the U.S. competition is very intense for the top universities.  However, the number of very good universities is far, far greater than 6 times the number of top universities in the US.  Depending on the exact discipline, you could easily state that the there are 10 times more high-quality universities in the US when compared to Korea.  So there are 6 times the number of students in the US, but there 10 times the number of high-quality universities. 

Second, serious studying, for the most part, begins during university in the US.  For example, a student who gets into an average US university, but then excels at that university, has the opportunity to enter the very best graduate schools in the US.  Many, many years ago, I had a friend at college.  When I first met him, I wondered to myself, "How did this person get into this school?"  He seemed clueless.  Well four years later, he entered Harvard Law School.  There is a saying "Only in America."  Indeed. Could a similar tale be told in Korea?  Nope.  In Korea, a student that aspires to enter into the best school in the country must be serious by middle school.  Otherwise, there is almost no hope.  In other words, competition begins much earlier in Korea when compared to the US.  That does not mean that the end result is that much different, especially for the top students.  It does mean, however, that the average student has greater educational skills when raised in Korea.  Once gaining entry into Korea's prestigious SKY universities, what do the students do?  They PLAY.  Once gaining entry into a US university and having the dream of continuing on to the best US graduate schools, what does an American student do?  He STUDIES.

The idea that the US is uncompetitive is quite wrong.  It is more that Koreans study harder during younger years, and Americans study harder during later years.  The American system supports the best rising to the top when becoming adults, whereas the Korean education system emphasizes greater ability by the average student.  The best Korean students peak before becoming adults, generally speaking. 

Making matters worse is the obligatory military service served by Korean males.  While you can certainly make arguments supportive of the military service, the fact is that when males are in their early 20s, is there any better time to learn?  Young men have the physical ability to endure long hours of studying and the energy to pursue their dreams.  At precisely that time, Korean males need to serve in the military.  Americans?  They are able to focus on their studies when they still have great capacity, and maturity, to learn.  In that way, the Korean system, I have always believed, is quite unfair in many ways to the young men of Korea.

These are, of course, generalizations.  They are observations of the systems, not of individual cases.  The fact that these systems are this different explains why Korean students that attend to the top American universities do not meet the lofty expectations when in America.  That is the topic of Part 3.

Let me know what you think!  Thanks

The Lost Seoul


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