If America treated its teachers like rock stars, the theory goes, we’d get better, more motivated teachers. And better teachers would lead to superior academic performance.
Well, there is one country in the world where teachers have the potential to make money for nothing, even if they don’t get, in the immortal words of Dire Straits, chicks for free. In South Korea, Kim Hi-Hoom is said to earn $4 million a year as a teacher in one of the country’s tutoring academies, known as hagwons. The omnipresence of hagwons, the rise of celebrity teachers like Kim and the nose-to-the-grindstone culture of South Korea help explain why South Korean students perform among the very highest in international standardized tests and why the country has a 93% graduation rate.
Amanda Ripley profiled Kim in a Saturday Wall Street Journal piece, which is must reading for anyone wondering how the logic of online learning and free markets are reshaping education — at least in countries where rigid institutional barriers don’t stand in the way.
Nearly three out of four South Korean students participate in the after-school hagwons, in effect attending school twice — public school during the day and the hagwons at night. Hagwons scour the country for the best teachers and, in effect, set up them up in business. Many tutors grind out a tolerable existence, paid no more than public school teachers. But a few superstars stand out, attracting thousands of students.
Kim is one of those superstars. As Ripley puts it, “He is a brand name.” An English teacher, he provides personal teaching instruction to about 120 students in person. But he records his lectures on video and sells them for $4 an hour online. He also develops lesson plans and writes textbooks and workbooks. Indeed, he is so prolific that he employs 30 people to help him manage his teaching empire and publish his materials.
The level of experimentation and innovation in South Korea far outpaces that in the United States, where the educational system, encumbered by multiple layers of bureaucracy, is insulated from market forces. Unless vested interests co-opt the coercive power of government to protect the status quo, the hagwons show where the logic of technology, competition and freedom of choice could lead not just South Korea but the United States.