At Time, Amanda Ripley reports that the South Korean government is so concerned about test-cramming that it is raiding late-night hagwons, or tutoring academies, that flout a law banning test-prep after 10 pm. The irony, of course, is that South Korea is turning away from a testing-obsessed educational culture just as the United States is doubling down on test-focused reforms, in an effort to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student achievement data. These policies are leading to the creation of many more standardized tests in some school districts.

In August, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech in which he recounted South Korean President Lee Myung-bak complaining to President Obama that South Korean parents are “too demanding.” Duncan quipped, “We wish we had those challenges here!”


Ripley’s report paints a dispiriting picture of an educational culture that depresses children and seriously disadvantages the poor: 74 percent of South Korean high school students engage in private test-cram tutoring, at an average annual cost of $2,600 per student. “You Americans see a bright side of the Korean system, but Koreans are not happy with it,” Education Minister Lee Ju-ho tells Ripley. Indeed, concerned that South Korean children are being trained more as memorization machines than as creative innovators, President Lee promised reform at his 2008 inauguration, saying, “One-size-fits-all, government-led uniform curriculums and an education system that is locked only onto the college-entrance examination are not acceptable.”

There’s a lot of work to be done on upping the rigor of the American educational system, in terms of better preparing students for college and the workplace. But it’s important that we not overlearn the lessons of our international peers.