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

For South Korean teachers like Kim Ki-hoon, education is a rich man’s game.

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

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.

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“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.

Given this investment of time and resources, it’s not surprising that many see South Korea’s education system was a major success story. The WSJ report attests to this with a number of key indicators. The nation routinely outperforms the U.S. and most countries – laggards by comparison – on standardized tests. Half of South Koreans were illiterate just 60 years ago. Today, the nation’s 15-year olds are the second most literate on the planet – after the Shanghainese. While the U.S. education system has a 77 percent high school graduation rate, South Korea is rocking and rolling at 93 percent.

However, there is a darker side to the tale. For one thing, the cutthroat free market approach to education gives children from richer families a higher chance of success. It also opens the door to vast disparities in the quality of instruction.

Quality varies wildly among foreign hagwon instructors. While Kim has himself become a brand, on the other end of the spectrum are fresh-faced foreigners with no credentials or competence in the classroom – accidental teachers so to speak. And they come to South Korea (and Japan) in droves.

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DeGrasse explained that many foreign instructors who arrive in South Korea “only have a university degree, no teaching experience, and no training…These ‘celebrity’ teachers could be teaching anything from math to science to Korean language. Most of the performance based evaluations are reserved for Korean nationals or gyopo teachers, not usually native English teachers.”

DeGrasse explained that, by contrast, most foreign hagwon instructors earn between 2.1 million and 2.4 million won each month. For an idea of how widespread these gigs are, a popular job listings board featuring such jobs in Korea can be seen here.

“There is almost always no evaluation done on the teacher,” DeGrasse said. “If they show up every day and do a decent job pretending they know how to teach, then they get paid.” To sweeten the pot, schools normally throw in an apartment, a round-trip flight, and a one-month completion bonus. “The deal is pretty sweet.”

He added that, regardless of quality, parents “pour tons of money each month into sending their kids to these hagwons because there’s a native teacher there.”

And what of the poor overworked students? Will they have time to have lives and develop in their formative years with such an overwhelming amount of homework on their plates?

“Depending on how much money their parents have, kids could be going to as many as four hagwons every day after school,” DeGrasse said. “The kids have a ton of homework, always. If the hagwons don't give it out, then they're not doing their job, and the parents might complain.”

While many of the kids are drained by the time they slump into their chairs late in the evening, DeGrasse noted that “for the most part, they had great attitudes, were fun to teach, talk to and listen to, and seemed to enjoy being at my school…(although) I used to hear a lot of complaining to their Korean teacher.”

In the end, they have little choice but grin and bear it.

“Most young Koreans don't want to work in the street markets, the rice fields, or on a boat,” DeGrasse said. “These days they are all fighting for the top jobs, at Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo. The only way to get there is through years and years of intense schooling. This costs money and/or requires connections.”

He added, “The kids know they have to study. It's virtually engrained into the culture now. There's not really any other choice.”