Kim Ki-hoon: South Korea’s Cram School King
Image Credit: Flickr (marcella bona)

Kim Ki-hoon: South Korea’s Cram School King

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The Wall Street Journal recently told the story of Kim Ki-hoon, a South Korean “rock-star” teacher who rakes in an eye-popping $4 million annually to tutor kids after school. This exorbitant salary is made possible by a performance-based system that rewards instructors who command the highest demand among pupils.

And demand is high in South Korea, hands-down one of the most education-obsessed countries on the planet. Welcome to the world of South Korean’s hagwons – a system of school-after-school.

As the report notes, the South Korean government has been trying to reign in this educational excess for years, issuing curfews for hagwons and even banning them for a time in the 1980s while the nation was under military rule. But the cram schools continue to come back stronger than ever. Last year South Korean parents dropped $17 billion on hagwon tuition – a figure so high it even attracts investments from Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group and A.I.G.

Some, Kim among them, believe a laissez faire approach to education may be the answer to improving the nation’s public school system as well by paying teachers more across the board. Others have expressed doubts that students are really learning anything more by hitting the books after the last school bell rings. They may become standardized test superstars, but are they learning to think?

This debate is now playing out in the U.S. media, including the WSJ report in question, which has elicited a deluge of feedback from readers. The Huffington Post has added video and written reports. While it’s up for debate whether South Korea’s hagwon model is transferable, in the country of its origin the system is deeply entrenched.

“In South Korea, they’re absolutely nuts about education – learning English especially,” Geoff DeGrasse, a former hagwon instructor who now teaches at a cram school in Tokyo (where they are known as juku), told The Diplomat.

This sits just fine with Kim, a practical man. He works hard – and smart – for his coin. “The harder I work, the more I make,” he told WSJ. “I like that.”

“A yearly salary of $4 million dollars for a hagwon teacher is a somewhat shocking number, but I can believe it,” DeGrasse said. He explained that during his stint at a chain of hagwons called Pagoda the teachers were split, with native English teachers in one big office, and Korean teachers in a second one.

“Anytime I would chat with the Korean teachers, they almost always told me they were extremely tired and busy,” he recalled. “There wasn't time to set up any post work drinks because these teachers didn't have the time or energy for it. They were working very hard, and they were almost always dressed very well.”

He continued, “There were a few stories about how much some of these teachers were making, the numbers I can't really remember now but something around a few hundred thousand dollars a year for the best guy….His face was all over the school, definitely a pretty good looking guy, so it seemed to me that it was just a popularity contest.”

At the top of the hagwon food chain, the appropriately dapper Kim – seen lounging on a leather chair wearing a chic suit with professionally sculpted hairdo in the WSJ profile – puts in an estimated 60 hours each week. Of this time, only three hours are spent lecturing. He records his classes on video before beaming them out to virtual pupils online at the rate of $4 per hour.

The rest of his time goes to responding to students’ online requests for help, churning out lesson plans and writing textbooks and workbooks that compliment his lessons. With around 200 published to date, he is building a virtual education empire. Further, some 150,000 students view his lectures each year via the appropriately named online academy, Megastudy.

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