Talented Teachers in South Korea Earning Millions

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South Korea is education crazy, and Cha Kil-yong is an “education star.”

He isn’t a movie star, nor is he a famous pop singer. Cha is a top-ranked math teacher who runs an online “hagwon”, or cram school, called SevenEdu. His school focuses on preparing students to take the college entrance exam in mathematics, and Cha is one of a host of education entrepreneurs cashing in on the country’s education culture.

In South Korea, being a great teachers pays off – Cha earned $8 million last year. His office is in Gangnam, an area in Seoul known for its wealthy citizens and the song and dance named after it, “Gangnam Style.”  The Washington Post‘s Anna Fifield writes that describing South Korea’s obsession with education is difficult. The country puts a premium on getting into the right kindergarten, then the right elementary school, then the right middle school and high school. Finally comes the pinnacle: the right college.

Naturally, if all this rightness comes together as it should, the right job and spouse will follow, too. This education obsession means that the SAT is the most monumental event in a student’s life. To prepare, students go to normal classes during the day and to a hagwon in the evening. Online hagwons are becoming more popular than on-site cram schools, and hagwons have become a $20 billion industry.

This commitment has ranked South Korean students at the top of the developed world in reading, math, and science. However, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development‘s latest rankings, Korean students are at the bottom of the list when asked if they are happy in school. South Korea also has the highest rate of suicide in the developed world, which may or may not relate to the high-stress education program. Because students complain to their parents that they cannot keep up , the hagwon is flourishing. Cha started teaching at a hagwon to pay for his PhD program. He now has 300,000 students taking his classes.

Another South Korean millionaire tutor is Kim Ki-hoon, the country’s highest-earning English teacher. Last year Kim made about $4 million on his courses and $10 million from his educational publishing company. In the past 12 years, 1.5 million South Korean students have taken his classes, in part because of his personality and teaching style, and also because of his genius marketing.

Kim picks his television gigs carefully, and has released a pop song that attempts to calm worried university applicants. Still, Kim believes that the scale of spending on education is wrong, adding, “There should be no need for private education.” Reporting for the Financial Times, Simon Mundy writes that many in the country are concerned that the widespread use of private education can have unhealthy consequences. In one city, Seocho-gu, a wealthy Seoul district, one in seven school children have been diagnosed with curvature of the spine, more than double the number of cases 10 years earlier. Three quarters of Seoul high school students are myopic, and more students are being spotted by physicians for “turtleneck syndrome”, when a child’s neck hunches forward anxiously.

Amanda Ripley, an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation and reporting for The Wall Street Journal, traveled to South Korea and other countries to look at what the US can learn from the world’s education superpowers. She says that private tutoring services have sprung up in many countries and are sometimes called shadow education, but always for a fee. None are as pervasive and sophisticated as the hagwons in South Korea, where now there are more tutors than schoolteachers.

Ripley says that while the system is exciting, it is expensive, making the wealthy the only socioeconomic group able to obtain the services. The cram classes are also like going to school twice a day. Still, there are some lessons for the US educators to learn in South Korea. Ripley says there are lessons on motivating teachers, captivating parents and students, and how to adapt to an ever-changing world.

Another paradigm in the country that is worth copying, according to Ripley, is the idea that if parents are not engaged in their children’s education, that is a failure of the educators, not the family. But, the question is, are the students learning more in hagwons?

“The only solution is to improve public education,” says Mr. Kim, the millionaire teacher, echoing what the country’s education minister and dozens of other Korean educators told me. If parents trusted the system, the theory goes, they wouldn’t resort to paying high fees for extra tutoring.