Historical Review of Korea’s Education
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There is an old saying in Korea: “One should not step even on the shadow of one’s teacher.” This proverb relays the degree of respect traditionally accorded to teachers. While there have been many changes to the Korean educational system since its adoption of modern teaching methods, much of the old tradition remains.
Education in Ancient Korea
It generally is taken for granted that Koreans have traditionally attached great importance to education, a view that continues to this day. According to ancient history texts, formal education in Korea began during the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.-A.D.668) under the influence of the Chinese educational system.
It was in 372 that a state-operated institute for higher education known as T’aehak (National Confucian Academy) was established in the Koguryo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D.668). A similar institution for higher education named Kukh’ak (National Confucian College) was set up in 682 during the Shilla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D.935). Shilla also established a unique training system called the hwarangdo (The way of “Flower of Youth Corps”), to educate the elite youth of the aristocratic class. The hwarangdo proved instrumental in unifying the Korean Peninsula in the seventh century. The Paekche Kingdom (18 B.C.-A.D.660) also emphasized education and produced numerous scholars in various academic disciplines, many of whom made important contributions to early Japanese culture.
Higher education in all these kingdoms tended to be focused on the study of Chinese classics. Although the succeeding Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) adopted Buddhism as its state religion, Confucian studies continued to have a major influence on academic circles and the educational system. The institutionalization of the civil service examination in the mid-10th century set the pattern for educational reform, by directing the role of education toward preparing young men for public service. Koryo founded a state institution for higher education called Kukchagam (National University) in 992 in its capital, Kaesong. It was also about that time that the central government began to dispatch scholars to provincial areas to implement education for local residents.
By the late 14th century, however, Buddhism gradually declined. The founders of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) turned to Confucianism instead as the source of basic principles for national politics, ethics and social institutions. The highest educational institution during the Choson period was the Songgyungwan (National Confucian Academy), which also served as the center of Confucian studies. On the secondary level, there were two kinds of schools: haktang in the capital of Hanyang (today’s Seoul) and hyanggyo in villages. Private schools called sodang carried out primary education.
Education during the Choson Dynasty was mainly viewed as a means to prepare young aristocratic men for future public service. Examinations in the Chinese classics were the major criteria for qualification. This tradition has survived as the backbone of Korean education system until the late 19th century, when Korea opened its door to the West.
Advent of Modern Schools in Korea
Korea actually experienced the budding of a strong movement for modernization in the late 17th to 18th century. A group of young scholars came together to search for practical ways to utilize academic knowledge for the purpose of modernizing the country. Their scholarship and thought became known as sirhak or “Practical Learning.”
Those pioneering young scholars had become disillusioned by the impractical theoretical discussion that dominated conservative academic circles at that time. They sought the practical application of knowledge in all disciplines of learning, including history, politics, economics, the natural sciences and humanities, and attempted to utilize them in building a modernized nation. Of special note is the fact that they tried to draw lessons from the experience of Qing China, which had learned a great deal from its contact with the West.
The waves of Western culture and modernization that reached the coast of the “Hermit Kingdom,” as Korea was known to the West, were powerful enough to move King Kojong to issue an edict in 1882 to open the doors of state-run schools to citizens of all classes. Yugyong-kongwon, which was Korea’s first school in a modern sense, was established in 1886. It employed American missionary teachers who taught English with the aid of interpreters.
The schools established by Western Christian missionaries contributed greatly to the early development of modern education in Korea. The first missionary school, Paichai Haktang, was founded in 1886 by a mission group from the North Methodist Church led by Henry G. Appenzeller. A boys’ high school, Kyongshin, was established in 1887 by a Presbyterian group. Ewha Haktang, which was set up in 1886 by a Methodist mission group, was Korea’s first school for girls. Five other missionary schools were founded in major cities in the following years.
The 1900s saw a mushrooming of private secondary schools founded by Koreans, most of whom were wealthy aristocrats who had come to realize the importance of education during the critical period that preceded Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. The most notable of these were the boy’s schools Posong, Yangjong and Whimoon located respectively in Seoul, Osan and P’yongyang, and the girl’s schools Sookmyung, Chinmyong and Dongduck, all located in Seoul.
American Christian missionaries also established the Choson Christian College (which later developed into Yonsei University) in Seoul in 1905, and Soongsil College in P’yongyang in 1906.
The development of modern education was disrupted during the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea (1910-1945). Although the number of public schools increased substantially during the colonial period, the education provided by these schools fell far short of the rising aspirations of Koreans. Educational opportunities were limited to a small number of Koreans. Elementary schools, for example, accommodated only 30 percent of all school-age children; only one out of 20 or so enrolled in secondary schools, and very few Koreans were able to attend college.
Korea’s School System
The school system in Korea follows a 6-3-3-4 ladder pattern which consists of elementary school (1st to 6th grades), middle school (7th to 9th grades), high school (10th to 12th grades) and junior college, college and university. Elementary school provides six years of compulsory elementary education to children between the ages of 6 and 11. Middle school offers three years of lower secondary education to those aged 12 to 14. High school offers three years of higher secondary education to students aged 15 to 17. High school graduates can choose to apply to a junior college or a college or university to receive higher education.
High schools are generally divided into two categories, general and vocational. Air & correspondence high schools are included in the former, while agricultural, commercial, fishery and technical high schools are included in the latter. There are a limited number of schools of the so-called “comprehensive” type which offer both general and vocational training. There are also science high schools and other speciality high schools, including foreign language high schools, art high schools and athletic schools.
Institutes of higher learning include two- or three-year junior vocational colleges and four-year colleges and universities. Both the universities of education and colleges of education offer four-year courses.
In addition to the general school ladder system, there are secondary level trade schools which provide highly specialized vocational training. Civic schools, originally intended to offer literacy courses, now provide elementary and secondary level education mostly for financially underprivileged students. With compulsory education requirements extending to the 6th grade, however, these schools have been gradually disappearing.
There are also special schools offering elementary and secondary education for the deaf, blind and other learning difficulty. Preschool education is provided by kindergartens.
Preschool Education in Korea
Preschool education is not included in the formal school system. However, its importance justifies attention in relation to the formal school system. Kindergarten is the main facility for preschool education in Korea.
As of 1997, there were 9,010 kindergartens enrolling 567,814 children. This accounts for 27.7 percent of preschool children in Korea with ages ranging from 3 to 5 years old. Because of the low enrollment figures, the Ministry of Education has recently instituted the policies in order to increase the availability of kindergarten education.
Kindergarten education aims at providing an appropriate environment for the nurturing and development of children through various pleasant activities and diverse methods of instruction. The curricula consist of five life areas: physical, social, expression, language and inquiry life areas.
Although relevant legislation was enacted in 1948, elementary education for children was not made compulsory until 1953 because of the post-Korean War rehabilitation effort. The Constitution stipulates in Article 31 that it is the responsibility of all parents and guardians to ensure an elementary school education for their children aged 6 to 11 and that this education is free.
Elementary school enrollment showed a sharp increase from 1952, reaching a peak of more than 5 million in 1971. The increase in student enrollment during those years pushed some individual school enrollments as high as 10,000 or more, with more than 90 pupils crammed in one classroom in some schools. Many schools found it necessary to operate classes in two or even three daily shifts. As of 1997, there were 6,623 elementary schools including 902 branch schools throughout the country, with 3,783,986 pupils accommodated in 107,860 classes and staffed by 138,670 teachers. The majority of elementary school teachers are graduates of four-year colleges of education.
Article 93 of the Education Act states that the goal of elementary school education is to teach the fundamentals necessary for a productive civic life. In order to fulfill this objective, the basic curricula for elementary school education are divided into nine principal subjects: moral education, Korean language, social studies, arithmetic, natural science, physical education, music, fine arts and the practical arts. However, subject matters in grade 1 and 2 are integrated in “disciplined life,” “intelligent life” and “pleasant life.”
Secondary education is divided into lower secondary (middle) school and higher secondary (high) school levels.
Korean Middle Schools
Upon completing elementary school, children between the ages of 12-14 are allowed to enter middle school for the 7th to 9th grade courses. The number of middle school students has shown an impressive rate of growth in recent decades. The percentage of elementary school graduates advancing to middle school increased from 58.4 percent in 1969 to 99.9 percent in 1997. As of 1997, there are 2,720 middle schools across Korea with a total enrollment of 2,180,296.
Since the abolition of the entrance examination in 1969, admission to middle school has been made through lottery assignments administered on a zone-by-zone basis. This measure was adopted with the aim of eradicating distinctions between so-called inferior and superior schools, so that all elementary school graduates could have equal access to all middle schools located in their respective school districts.
The middle school curricula are composed of 11 basic or required subjects, elective subjects and extra curricula activities. Technical and vocational courses are included in the elective subjects to ensure the productive relationship between education and occupation.
High school education aims at providing advanced general and specific education on the basis of middle school education. Middle school graduates or those with equivalent academic background may enter high schools. The period of study is three years and students bear the expenses of the education.
Admission into high school is based primarily upon the grades received on the high school entrance examination, but there has been some changes in the admission process since 1974, when the equalization policy for high school admission was put into practice.
According to the revision of the Education Act of May 31, 1995, there are various new ways of selecting students for admission, including the recent taking into account of the so-called “school activities records” where the three-year life of the middle school students is recorded. For example, in 1997, four metropolitan cities – Seoul, Pusan, Inch’on and Kwangju – selected students according to the school activities records alone. Taegu, Taejon, Kyonggi-do, Kangwon-do, Ch’ungch’nongnam-do, and Kyongsangnam-do areas took into account both school activities records and examination test scores. Ch’ungch’dongbuk-do, Kyongsangbuk-do and Cheju-do areas took into account only examination test scores when screening freshmen students for admission.
Through the introduction of these individualized standards for school admission, small-sized specialized high schools in areas such as music, the arts as well as math and science have been and will continue to be established. For those students returning home from abroad into domestic schools, international school will be also established. And after 1998, “private high schools” that can be sustained with finances from their own resources will be given the right to select students as well as to decide tuition payments.
Higher Education in Korea
There are four categories of institutions for higher learning: (1) colleges and universities with four-year undergraduate programs (six-year in medical colleges), (2) junior colleges, (3) universities of education and colleges of education, and (4) miscellaneous schools like theological colleges and seminaries.
About 80 percent of all Korean institutes of higher education are private. In accordance with the Education Act and the relevant presidential and ministerial decrees, all institutes of higher education, whether public or private, come under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. The Ministry has control over such matters as student quotas, qualifications of teaching staff, curricula, degree requirements, and so on.
Higher education aims at teaching and studying fundamental academic theories and their various application as necessary for the progress and enlightenment of society and the global community, with the aim of nurturing the nation’s future leaders.
The unit for measuring the completion of each course is a credit. Each university oversees the requirements for the completion of each credit, the minimum credits necessary for graduation, and the standard credits and maximum credits required to be taken each semester, the method to obtain special credit, and credits required for the completion of preparatory courses on the basis of school regulations.
The curricula are composed of general and professional courses and each is again divided into required and elective courses. Bachelor’s degrees are offered in 26 areas of study. There were only 19 institutions of higher education in the entire Korean Peninsula at the time of national liberation in 1945. In 1997, the number of these institutions in South Korea has increased to 950 with a total of 2,792,410 students and 69,157 faculty members.
Entrance Examinations in Korea
Colleges and universities in Korea operate under strict enrollment limits. Because of the difference in college admission quotas and the number of applicants, each school year produces a large number of repeat applicants who add to the intensity of competition for college admission. The number of repeat applicants has been declining in recent years due to the expansion of the number of students admitted per year and the increasing number of support systems for repeat students.
The college entrance examination system underwent a drastic reform in 1981. The main entrance examination was abolished and a new system was introduced that combined scholastic achievements in high school with the score obtained in the nationwide qualifying examination to determine the applicant’s eligibility for admission.
In an effort to broaden the autonomy of colleges and universities and to normalize high school examination-bound education, a new entrance examination was introduced in April 1991. In this new system, the students’ high school records accorded for 40 percent of the overall admissions decision. It also gave individual colleges the right to decide how to weigh the applicants’ college scholastic achievement test scores with those administered by the colleges themselves.
In almost all colleges and universities, applicants are also allowed to apply for special screening. Students from farming and fishing villages and handicapped students may be selected through this process. Although the dates for these exams are set by the Ministry of Education, each university can select specific dates at its convenience. Students are allowed to apply for as many universities as they choose only if they are offered exams on different dates.
Korean Junior Vocational Colleges
Junior vocational colleges are post-secondary programs and are the direct outgrowth of the increasing demand for technical manpower attendant to rapid industrialization. They are the product of a merger between 2-year junior colleges and 2-3 year professional high schools. Since this establishment in 1979, the number of junior vocational colleges has grown to 155 as of 1997 with an enrollment of about 500,000.
They are now playing a major role in the attainment of short-term higher education. The purpose of junior vocational education is to produce mid-level technicians who can devote themselves to a national development through the dissemination of technical knowledge in every field of society. Their specialized courses are grouped into technical, agricultural, fishery, nursing, sanitation, home economics, social practice, the arts and athletics, with two or three year programs depending on the course of introduction. The nursing, clinical pathology, radiation, fishing, navigation and engine courses require 3 years of education. The communication course requires two and a half years; the rest require two years of education.
For the effective achievement of its educational goals, junior vocational colleges develop and operate a practical curriculum through a school-industry collaborative. Speciality is stressed as preparation for the National Certification Examination. Liberal arts subjects consist of a minimum of general subjects; the number of credits required in the subjects is decided by school regulations. On-the-job training is given 1-3 credits.
Although junior vocational colleges put an emphasis on practical education aimed at producing mid-level technicians, it is not necessarily a terminal point of education. They also keep doors open for students who would like to continue their education at the university level. For employed youths, they also provides avenues for continued education. As efforts are being intensified to ensure the relevance of junior college education, the percentage of the employed among graduates is increasing.
College and Universities in Korea
College and university offer four or six-year courses, the latter including medical and dental colleges. College education aims to promote the proliferation of knowledge for the betterment of the nation and society as well as to prepare students for leadership roles. Colleges and universities have shown a great deal of quantitative and qualitative growth in the present decade. As of 1997, there are 150 colleges and universities attended by a total of 1,368,461 students.
A student who has completed 130-140 credit units or more is awarded a bachelor’s degree (except in medicine and dentistry). There are over 600 fields of study, including literature, theology, fine arts, music, law, political science, economics, business administration, commerce, physical science, home economics, physical education, engineering, medicine, dentistry, Korean medicine, public health and nursing, pharmacology, agricultural science, veterinary medicine, and fisheries. However, course selection varies according to the institution.
The college curricula consist of required courses and electives. One course credit is given to a lecture/class course meeting one hour per week for more than 15 weeks. International students and foreign students of Korean origin are welcome and may be admitted at any level and at any school. All those who have a high school diploma or its equivalent are eligible for admission to the undergraduate program.
Korean Graduate Schools
The Education Act stipulates that a university must have one or more graduate schools offering research-oriented courses for graduate students who aspire to pursue academic or professional careers. As of 1997, there were 116 general graduate schools attached to general universities and 476 professional graduate schools, including six graduate schools established at open-admission universities. As of 1997, the total enrollment in graduate courses provided by universities across Korea was 151,358, including 128,097 the master’s degree level students.
In general, the minimum requirement for a master’s degree is 24 credits, normally achieved in four semesters by day students and five semesters by night students. The minimum requirement for a doctorate is 60 credits including 24 credits for gaining a master’s degree, which usually takes three years to earn. Those who complete the required credits and who pass two foreign language examinations as well as a comprehensive examination for doctoral degree are entitled to write dissertations.