What lessons could public schools take from South Korean cram schools?

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article on South Korea's hagwons, the for-profit cram schools that nearly three out of four South Korean students attend. What can American public schools learn from a country where top tutors can earn up to $4 million a year?

Update: This is one of those posts where the best nuggets, in my opinion, are in the comments. There are some great discussions going on from people with experience in both the US and South Korean educational systems.

It's interesting to compare this world of private tutoring, where parents shell out more to have their students taught by top-performing tutors, with Finland's entirely public education system, in which schools provide education as well as food, counseling, and medical care. Two very different educational cultures, both marked by highly motivated teachers—at least according to the WSJ piece on the South Korean side.

The thesis of the Wall Street Journal piece isn't that Americans should start relying on private educational services like so many in South Korea do. Rather, it asks what aspects of the South Korean tutoring market Americans might adopt in public schools. Hagwons are businesses and they operate as such. Each student is a client and the hagwons are concerned with both the students' performance on tests and their satisfaction with their instructors; 60 percent of teacher's performance is determined by student evaluations. High performing teachers receive higher salaries, while lower performing teachers are fired. Parents receive text messages when their children arrive at the hagwon and have regular phone calls with the teachers about their children's progress.

Few tutors earn as much as "rock star" teacher and educational entrepreneur Kim Ki-Hoon, who earns $4 million a year. In fact, most hagwon teachers earn less than public school teachers. Still, the WSJ describes these private teachers as highly motivated and creative, often earning better reviews from students than public school teachers.

The article suggests that public schools could take some cues from hagwons to improve teacher performance and parental engagement: have schools regularly communicate with parents, the way businesses do with customers; use student feedback to evaluate teachers; exercise transparency in standardized test scores, while explaining clearly what those scores mean; make teacher-training programs more selective. (It doesn't suggest that public schools should be just like hagwons, which are specifically designed to raise scores on standardized tests.)

Of course, this all starts with paying public school teachers more. Kim notes that his income is tied to his performance, and wishes that successful public school teachers could reap similar financial rewards.

Photo by knittymarie.

The $4 Million Teacher [WSJ]