What should we make of the South Korean tutoring boom?

There is no doubt that most South Koreans believe in the tutoring system. A 2010 survey of 6,600 high school students found that South Korean students rated their tutors significantly higher than their regular school teachers, and considered their tutors to be “better prepared, more devoted to teaching, and more respectful of students’ opinions.”

It is also true that South Korea has greatly improved its education system over the past several decades and now regularly outperforms the United States. As a matter of fact, South Korea now has a 93-percent high school graduation rate as compared to a 77-percent rate in the U.S. Most South Koreans were illiterate only 60 years ago, but the country now has one of the highest reading levels in the world.

However, it’s difficult to say how much of this progress is a result of the tutoring industry. Nevertheless, many people firmly believe that a free-market bidding war for teaching talent is the only way to attract high-quality teachers. This makes sense when you consider the relatively low wages of public teachers. Maybe a bidding system is the only way to make sure that talented teachers earn as much as they would in other occupations?

Despite its glamour, not everyone is on board with private tutoring. For some, the growing force of tutoring is creating yet another way for the rich to receive preferential education. More money means you can afford to receive the best tutoring—and this bidding war for top tutors is going to keep driving the prices higher and higher.

Another problem is the heavy burden it places on students. Because after-school tutoring is the norm, most students effectively end up going to school twice each day: once for their regular school classes and once with their tutor. The government recognizes these issues and is trying to crack down on certain aspects of the tutoring industry. As former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung states: “The lower-income classes will feel unable to cope with this, and parents will bear larger economic burdens.”

The government has gone so far as to fine and even jail some parents or teachers who have violated tutoring-related laws. Despite these measures, tutoring in South Korea continues to grow at record speeds. The government can try to restrict private tutoring all it likes, but the fact remains that people will continue flocking to private tutors as long as they believe it will give them an edge over classmates.

What do you think? Is the private tutoring explosion in South Korea a model that other countries should try to imitate—or do the downsides of private tutoring outweigh the benefits?

Daniel Marks is the founder and CEO of www.TutorGrams.com. He has been immersed in the tutoring industry for the last three years and spends his time trying to find new ways to teach technology-related skills to students of all ages.

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