Will abolishing private schools fix public education?
Private high schools in Korea are facing gradual abolition as part of the Moon Jae-in administration’s policy to expand equal educational opportunity. Education reform efforts will strip more than 70 private high schools of their status by 2025.
But the decision to abolish private schools has drawn strong protests, with some critics calling it “unconstitutional”.
“Abolishing private schools undermines the diversity and autonomy of education – a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution – and forces students to follow a uniform educational system without regard to individual academic needs,” read a statement. published by a syndicate of private schools.
The push to turn private schools into regular regular schools is already compromising the quality of lessons, according to an English teacher at a foreign language high school just outside Seoul.
She said the elimination of her school’s admissions screening process, one of the policy changes aimed at making the place fairer, was “slowly eroding what was special about the school.” To some extent, she said, the administration’s crackdown on private schools was at fault.
“We used to offer courses like Advanced English Literature, which we had to get rid of because students couldn’t follow or weren’t interested,” she said. Instead, the English faculty now resorts to “the monotony of standard Korean education” and focuses on preparing students for the national university exam, the Suneung.
“The abolition of private high schools in Korea does not harm wealthy students – they can go to preparatory schools elsewhere in the world. It screws up students from middle-class families with academic ambitions,” she said.
“(Educational equity policies) do not improve public schools. They only make private schools, which are doing well on their own, worse.
A 10-year-old public high school teacher in Nowon, northern Seoul, said measures to improve public schools are missing from current conversations about making the education system more equitable.
“I agree with the overall goal of bridging the gap between public and private schools. But the approach taken seems to ignore the reality of public education,” she said.
She said teaching in public school classrooms was forced to be more or less textbook-centric due to the wide gap in student performance.
In English classes, where the achievement gap tends to be “larger”, for example, “kids who excel are so well read and even quite fluent, which is probably the result of years of investments. On the other hand, some children struggle to get through the classroom material,” she said. “So it doesn’t serve high-achieving students.”
Once private schools are gone, it will be difficult for public schools to fill their shoes. “The type of programs offered in private schools are almost impossible for public schools to imitate,” she said.
“I don’t think closing private schools – without improving public schools – is the answer.”
Park Joo-ho, professor of educational studies at Hanyang University, said the abolition of private schools – including “independent” high schools and international schools – was intended to “change the way these schools admit students”. “In other words, it’s about removing selectivity,” he said.
“And it’s also about whether we should let students choose the schools or educational services that meet their needs.”
He said the downside of getting rid of private schools was “less diversity”. It also risked going against the Framework Education Act, which states that schools will have autonomy in their administrations, he said. Some private schools took the abolition orders to court and won.
“You could argue that universities should take the same long-term standardization path.”
Sung Ki-sun, who headed the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Assessment under the prime minister’s office for more than two years until February, said the problem with selective high schools was “the gap in ‘access”. “Their existence fuels inequality.”
He said public high schools will soon offer a credit system allowing students to choose the subjects they choose. “The credit system will have the best of both worlds – the accessibility of public schools and the diverse curriculum of private schools,” he said.
Ultimately, he admitted that the transformation would not be complete without a major reform of Suneung itself, which was also to be implemented six to seven school years later.
“Private schools exist for about 10% of the school-age population. Educational opportunities should be universal at least through high school,” he said.
By Kim Arin ([email protected])