In South Korea, high-achieving family values boost stress in teens

Where Koreans go to school determines marriage and job prospects, too

Credit: Creative Commons Korean Students Face Pressure to Succeed.
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High success rates in Korean schools may be attributed to parents pushing their children to the edge, according to research from an education policy institute.

A study from the National Center of Education and the Economy (NCEE) determined that the value of South Korean education mixed with the pressure of academic success sometimes creates extreme anxiety for elementary, middle and high school students. This eventually resulted in the placement of reforms that are designed to decrease pressure.

Monica Pfister is a policy analyst at NCEE, which reports on trends in international education every year.

“Education has cultural importance in South Korea, both in terms of practical outcomes and social prestige,” Pfister said in an email statement.

The NCEE’s overview report said that a parent’s social standing is dependent on which college their children attend. One reason why pressure from the parents is so intense is that the children are legally required to care for them when they’re elders. Parents want them to have the means to do so.

The NCEE report also said that South Korean students face severe discipline if their academics are not to their parents’ standard.

“Education has cultural importance in South Korea, both in terms of practical outcomes and social prestige”

“One survey showed that three-quarters of middle and high school students consider running away from home or committing suicide because of the pressure to perform at high levels in school,” according to the report.

Diagram of South Korea’s Education System. Credit: National Center on Education and the Economy

South Korea had a 93 percent high school graduation rate in 2014 and almost three-quarters of 25 to 34-year-olds completed tertiary education in 2015, according to the NCEE report.

According to an NPR article, South Korean high schoolers spend up to 14 hours in school because of the extensive study halls or what they call “hagwons.”

The NCEE reported that Confucianism — an ideology that values hard work, a strong family structure and education — is one of the reasons why academic achievement is strongly enforced in South Korea.

Another reason comes from South Korea’s education law from 1949, which states that students must go through six years of compulsory education at age six, followed by three years of middle school and four years of high school — a similar model to the U.S.

“In South Korea, virtually every form of opportunity, from marriage prospects to job prospects, depends on which high school you got into and which college you went to”

Yet extreme academic rigor comes in high school, according to the NCEE.

“In South Korea, virtually every form of opportunity, from marriage prospects to job prospects, depends on which high school you got into and which college you went to,” the NCEE said.

South Korea holds the most amount of stressed out adolescents in all the 30 high-income countries recognized by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Eleven to 15-year-olds commit suicide the most in South Korea. It’s the leading cause of death in the country, according to the report.

Education is often to blame.

“The College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) is a major factor in higher education admissions in South Korea, so there is focus on preparing students for this exam,” Pfister said.

U.S. students also take college admission tests, like the SAT and ACT, but they aren’t as heavily weighted in the admission process like the CSAT or “Suneung,” according to Pfister.

Data from the OECD:

Lester Carver, an American University student who is currently an exchange student at Korea University in Seoul, said Korean middle and high schools are more intense than college. The Dallas native said Korean college students are even known to party a lot, relax more because of less pressure.

Carver has only been in Korea for about a month. He said he’s already noticed educational differences in Korea and the exchange program.

He said the classes are easier at KU, however, he prefers the structure at American. The Korean classes are based more on lecture and tend to stray from in-class discussions. He also described the program as “weak” and “frustrating.”

“I did not have the kind of support that I expected before coming here from either end and so far, I have had a lot of trouble getting my courses approved by AU because some of the information needed to evaluate courses is not given upfront by my professors at KU,” he said.

In spite of the class structure, Carver said Seoul is an amazing place and Korea University has a solid foundation for education.

Pfister said reforms were recently put in place to reduce exam-related pressure while maintaining the rigor of South Korean education.

Pfister said the Exam-Free Semester was placed in lower secondary schools, which is designed for students to explore new courses and participate in more “hands-on learning.” She said they also made changes in university admission policies.

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