Where Teachers Make Money Like Rock Stars

Kim Ki-Hoon
Kim Ki-Hoon

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.


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7 responses to “Where Teachers Make Money Like Rock Stars”

  1. So why are so many Korean families moving to Fairfax County to send their kids to top notch high schools, such as Langley, McLean, Oakton, and Madison, for example?

    We have one such former student staying with us this summer. A number of years ago, the student and his mother moved to Fairfax County so the boy could attend Langley High School. His father stayed in Korea. After graduating, the student enrolled at Georgia Tech. His mother moved to a less expensive place in NoVA. He has an internship in Maryland and is staying with us because we live much closer to his place of work than does his mother.

  2. Chinese and Korean parents send their kids to U.S. high schools so they can get a leg up applying to prestigious U.S. universities.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    God bless the Asians who have come to Fairfax County. Smart, hard working people who do everything in their power to assimilate into American society. If Northern Virginia survives the inevitable federal government cutbacks it will be in large part due to the thousands of entrepreneurial Asians who have come here.

    On another matter, I’ve always wondered why conservatives don’t make more of the Asian experience in America. The liberal talking points hold that mean old white men hate everybody different from themselves and use their immense political power to keep all women and minorities down. Then along comes the Asian immigrants. They’re starting businesses, getting rich, dominating the honor rolls of local high schools and sending their kids to the best colleges and universities because their kids are the best qualified applicants – not based on some sort of affirmative action. What happened to the liberal talking points? Is it really a white men and Asians conspiracy.

    Or, maybe people who work hard, obey the law and value education really do get ahead in America.

  4. Our public schools should restrict their focus to CORE ACADEMIC needs and let the parents decide what more they want their kids to have.

    some will want their kids to get even more advanced core academics.

    others will want their kids to learn business principles or how to play a musical instrument

    or how to play sports

    what the Koreans show us is that they know that it’s their responsibility to NOT just rely on public school for their kids education.

    the only jobs that schools are justified in using taxpayers dollars for is core academics. the rest of it really is the parents responsibility.

    I’d agree to taxpayers funding the wants to a limited degree of those kids on reduced or free lunch – focused on the areas where there are jobs available for those who have the education.

    we have screwed the pooch on public education ourselves. we want it to be all things to all people and anything that is remotely connected to “education” is fair game for taxpayers taxes.

    the kerfuffle down in Henrico is an example of how our public schools have grown to the point where they drive tax policy .. but …

    but.. we blame teachers and county executives.

  5. we talk about how our schools have failed to keep pace with 21st century economics and globalization.

    I would assert that it is WE who have failed to recognize that the world has changed in fundamental ways and we are still trying to educate our kids in the ways that we were – and in doing so – we are failing…

    but we ourselves won’t take responsibility for this..we have to find someone else to blame.

    the biggest threat that we have right now to all of us is our insistence as parents and grandparents that our schools continue to be pre-college resume factories.

    We fear the hard subjects. We warn the kids to avoid them. We focus on grades not whether the kids actually know how to use their education to solve real world problems.

    and when the schools fail – we don’t blame the schools that we have demanded, we blame the teachers – as if, as individuals, they determine policies.

    we cannot win like this.

    The Koreans and Asians know this essential truth. they KNOW that the parents job cannot be just about good intentions.. that the true verdict is over – the results… what your kid ends up doing… in the real world..

    we have become a nation of wussies… we should put the Asians in charge of our schools…

  6. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    AS a former teacher I read this piece with a good deal of interest.The purpose of schools is to educate. In the US students time and focus is often driven to various types of either academic or athletic competition. In my years at Governor’s School some students did not do as well as they should have because the AP test conflicted with the Battle of the Brains or some other “important” out of class nonsense. One year, when I coached a team that won a national champion in an economics competition, one of the participants scored lower on an AP exam than all of his teachers thought he would. In Korea they go to school twice a day, in America some days not at all.As we switch to a system of teacher evaluation that relies in test scores teachers have every right to demand butts in seats every day.

  7. For me, the fundamental purpose of education paid for by taxpayers is to produce an employable workforce – that will pay taxes and not need entitlements.

    but we have come to expect K-12 to be all things to all people and taxpayers are expected to also pay for Suzies’s cheerleading and Johnnie’s clarinet learning while at the same time urging kids to avoid the courses that may pull down their QCA and limit their college choices.

    At the same time – as schools missions kept expanding, we needed more and more instructors – not for core subjects – and the proof of this is that the SOQs only pay for SOL positions yet most school systems have budgets twice that size – and that half is totally local funding for things the state will not pay for.

    We need to refocus our schools.

    we have a bunch of people advocating for “choice” for Charter, etc but how many of these ‘alternative’ schools offer the width and breadth of curriculum found in our public schools?

    if we took a public school and slimmed it down to what many Charter’s look like mostly core academics – what would it look like and how well would it compare on cost and academic performance?

    We have a hard time admitting it but we LIKE our full-feature k-12 curriculums even as they cost out the wazoo and stumble on academics compared to our OECD competitors including Asia.

    we fee we are ‘entitled’ to that rich curriculum but then we want to blame teachers for the results of mile-wide, inch-deep educations.

    this continues into higher ed. we feel “entitled” to the “college” experience even if we have to borrow up to our eye balls to do it – and even if it requires the govt to subsidize the loans and the educational entities become educational piranhas to our pocketbooks.

    In this country, we truly are not interested in academics. We are interested in HS and college sports.. photo journalism rather than differential equations and VCU Ram stickers on our SUVs rather than MIT.

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