In June, the South Korean government recommended that schools eliminate Saturday classes: Since the 1950s, students have had four-hour classes on two Saturdays a month. President Lee Myung Bak has said that he wants to “wean the school system off its obsession with standardized tests” and give South Koreans more “family time.” But a number of mothers have objected to the change, saying that, rather than allowing children more “playtime,” no more Saturday classes will mean that parents spend more on private tutoring at “cram school” operators with names like MegaStudy, says Business Week:
“If private institutions expand Saturday classes, I’ll definitely send my son,” says Kim Hyeran, who pays $2,800 per month for out-of-school classes for her 13-year-old, including as much as 20 hours of math. The Kim family, like the Chungs, live in Seoul’s Gangnam district, renowned in Korea for its specialized schools and private academies.
Three out of four South Korean parents send their children to cram schools or pay for private tutoring or online courses.
It’s all part of a drive to get ahead and stay on top that may have created the “least happy children in the developed world” as Al Jazeera puts it, but has produced results: Students from East Asia hold the top five slots in the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development’s assessment of reading, math and science skills. US students are ranked 30th in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. Business Week points out that President Barack Obama has particularly noted “South Koreans’ zeal as an example of the need for American kids to study harder to compete.”
The South Korean mothers’ push for more having their children in class longer is in striking contrast to what’s going on now in the US.
In California, a number of public schools, including in my home town of Oakland, have started the school year on a nervous note, unsure of exactly how long the school year might be. Says InsideBayArea:
If the state’s wallet doesn’t fatten with enough tax revenues by December, automatic budget cuts could force some K-12 school districts to shorten the school year by one or two weeks — or more. And that would come on top of a teaching year already truncated in some districts.
Teachers could find themselves cramming more material into less time, students struggling harder to master the basics in fewer hours, and parents scrambling for day care in mid-May. The so-called state trigger cuts could force some school districts to negotiate with employee unions to shorten this school year.
Classes begin this week in 10 of Santa Clara County’s school districts, and next week in 17 more. Most districts in Alameda and Contra Costa counties start later this month. But in many districts, when classes end could come as a surprise.
“I’m going to try to get as much subject matter done by early May as possible,” said Santa Clara High math teacher Christine Drago.
An April article in California Watch described fears that school districts, trying to make ends meet in the state’s budget crisis, had been considering shrinking the school year to 150 or 155 days from the current minimum of 175 days set by the state in 2009. Indeed, a California Watch survey of California’s 30 largest school districts last year revealed that 16 school districts intended to reduce their school year during the previous school year. However, as Michael Kirst, Stanford emeritus professor of education and president of the State Board of Education, points out, research shows that a longer school year has a “demonstrable impact on academic achievement.”
South Koreans point to what happened in Japan after Saturday classes were eliminated there in 2002. Between 2000 and 2006, Japanese high school students went from 1st to 10th in math in OECD rankings, 2nd to 6th in science, and 8th to 15th in reading comprehension. Business Week notes that Japan has added 278 hours back to the elementary school year and 105 hours to junior high school. Meanwhile, it looks like the US is going in the reverse direction. As schools seek cost-cutting measures such as shortening the school year, how will US students fare in the OECD rankings and in the world marketplace this year and in years to come?
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