One Shot South Korea

And some people think American standardized tests are too high stakes.

It could be worse. It could be like South Korea. According to a to recent article in The Economist:

On November 10th South Korea went silent. Aircraft were grounded. Offices opened late. Commuters stayed off the roads. The police stood by to deal with emergencies among the students who were taking their university entrance exams that day.

Every year the country comes to a halt on the day of the exams, for it is the most important day in most South Koreans’ lives. The single set of multiple-choice tests that students take that day determines their future. Those who score well can enter one of Korea’s best universities, which has traditionally guaranteed them a job-for-life as a high-flying bureaucrat or desk warrior at a chaebol (conglomerate). Those who score poorly are doomed to attend a lesser university, or no university at all. They will then have to join a less prestigious firm and, since switching employers is frowned upon, may be stuck there for the rest of their lives. Ticking a few wrong boxes, then, may mean that they are permanently locked out of the upper tier of Korean society.

The advantage of this system is that it’s very efficient. Students work very hard. Their parents push them to achieve and they perform. South Korea has one of the highest percentages of adults with bachelor’s degrees in the world (63 percent of South Koreans between 25 and 34 have completed college).

The problem is the country appears to be miserable. Because everyone wants to go to college, almost everyone does, and once one does, well, the pressure to succeed is very rough. Some 40 percent of recent college graduates couldn’t find a job within months of graduating. The suicide rate among teenagers is high. Women delay having children because they’re got to succeed at those jobs they prepared so hard to get. Families have fewer children because they’re just so committed to work.

Parents who have fewer children can also spend money on preparing their children for the examinations. This means that the essentially fair test-based society actually very much favors the affluent, who are much more likely to get the slots into the exclusive universities.

None of these problems, of course, is really serious enough to destroy a society but if people get uncomfortable enough with the situation they’re in, they’ll try to change it.

As the article puts it, many young South Koreans with experience abroad are, when they return to Korea, much more likely to rebel or promote new ideas. Those educated abroad are more likely to start their own businesses or go into the arts.

That might be just what South Korea needs. As the article explained:

It cannot remain dynamic with an ageing, shrinking workforce. It cannot become creative with a school system that stresses rote learning above thinking. And its people cannot realise their full potential in a society where they get only one shot at doing well in life, and it comes when they are still teenagers. To remain what one writer called “The Land of Miracles”, Korea will have to loosen up, and allow many routes to success.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer