Thursday, August 14, 2008

South Korea’s Cram Schools

“Min-ju, do your best! Fighting!” Mr. Chung shouted as his daughter disappeared into the building. Min-ju turned around and raised a clenched fist. “Fighting!” she shouted back.

South Koreans say their obsession to get their children into top-notch universities is nothing short of “a war
.” Nowhere is that zeal better illustrated than in cram schools like Jongro Yongin Campus, located in a sparsely populated suburb of Yongin, 25 miles south of Seoul.

Most Jongro students are “jaesoo sang,” or “study-again students.” Having failed to get into the university of their choice, they are preparing relentlessly for next year’s entrance examination. Some try and try again, for three years running after graduating from high school.

The Jongro school pursues a strategy of isolation, cut off from competing temptations of any sort. Its curriculum is so tightly regulated and the distractions so few that students say they have no option but to study.

“Sending Min-ju here was not an ideal, but an inevitable choice,” said Mr. Chung, a 50-year-old accountant. “In our country, college entrance exams determine 70 to 80 percent of a person’s future. It’s a sad reality. But you have to acknowledge it; otherwise you hurt your children’s future.”

Admission to the right university can make or break an ambitious young South Korean. The university that students attend in their 20s can determine the jobs they get and the money they make in their 50s. The top-tier schools — Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei Universities, collectively known as SKY— may hardly register on global lists of the best in higher education. But here, their diplomas are a ticket of admission, an envied status symbol and a badge of pride for graduates and parents.

The life of a South Korean child, from kindergarten to high school, is dominated by the need to excel in standardized entrance examinations for college. The system is so demanding that it is credited with fueling the nation’s outstanding economic success. It is also widely criticized for the psychological price it exacts from young people. Among young people 10 to 19, suicide is the second most common cause of death, after traffic accidents.

-A Taste of Failure Fuels an Appetite for Success at South Korea’s Cram Schools

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