The Associated Press ran another story today about education in South Korea and parents desperate to give their children a competitive edge in our global economy.
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — As American teenagers go, Sally Kim is pretty typical. She's crazy about singer Bruno Mars and the Plain White T's rock band, spends way too much time on Facebook and can't wait to start college in the fall.
Yet when it comes to that familiar bane of her fellow high school seniors — uncool parents — Kim has few worries. Hers are nearly 7,000 miles away in Seoul, South Korea. They sent their only child to live with relatives in Missouri a decade ago, when she was just 8.
The three keep in touch over Skype, but Kim craves personal contact even more than when she first arrived.
"As I get older, it definitely gets harder," said Kim, who lives with an aunt and uncle, a college professor, and returns to her native country in the summer. "I look back, and I think I've missed out on so many years of being with my mom and dad."
Such relocations, known as early study abroad, have surged in popularity in South Korea, where a rigid, test-driven education system, combined with intense social pressure to succeed in an English-first global economy, often means breaking up families for the sake of school.
Some children, like Kim, live with relatives or family friends. Others move with their mothers and siblings while the fathers remain alone in Asia to work. Among Koreans, the families are known as kirogi, or "wild geese," because they visit home briefly once or twice a year before returning to their overseas outposts.
The Korean Educational Development Institute reports that the number of pre-college students who left the country solely to study abroad increased from just over 2,000 in 1995 to a peak of nearly 30,000 in 2006. And that number did not include students whose parents work or study overseas.I teach several classes of Korean elementary homeroom teachers each semester. Once a semester we have a lesson discussion about the Korean education system and its hyper competitive nature. I usually ask them all with a show of hands how many of them would be willing to send their children abroad to receive an education in America instead of here in Korea if money was not a problem and it cost nothing (a simple alternative to Korean schools), and usually more than half raise their hands. Korean elementary school teachers do not want their own children going to the school systems they work in because they think it is too difficult (competitive) to be a child in the South Korean education system
The number has since declined to more than 18,000 in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Unlike American students who usually wait until high school or college to study abroad — and generally limit the experience to a semester or two — 77 percent of Korean students in the U.S. in 2009 were in elementary or middle school, a time when they are seen as best able to learn English.
Wild geese families are particularly common in college towns such as Columbia and Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where researchers are studying the effects on family life, culture and the economy in both countries.
And status-conscious American parents who proudly display their children's college choices on bumper stickers have nothing on their Asian counterparts, Lee and others said. In South Korea, a prestigious college is seen as even more vital to prosperity, social standing and marital prospects. That message is driven home early.
"If you are not a very good student, they treat you like you're nothing," Lee said. "That kind of pressure gives too much stress to children. They are not happy."
Kim, a senior at Columbia Independent School who's been accepted to the University of Illinois' honors program but hopes to attend Brown, recounts a similar experience as a young student in Seoul, where her father is a marketing executive and her mother owns an Italian restaurant.
In high school, she's been able to study martial arts, join the orchestra, work on the yearbook, play varsity tennis and participate in the model United Nations club.
Back in Korea, she said, she would have far fewer extracurricular choices.
Many American parents would struggle with sending away their children so young or leaving a spouse behind. But Rick Williams, a former dean of students at a private Christian school in Champaign, cautioned against making judgments based on U.S. attitudes.
At Judah Christian School, the number of high school students from Korea increased tenfold from 2000 to 2007.
"That was a hard call for us, as an evangelical school," Williams said. "I had my students and families take me to task for not being able to understand the fabric and structure of Korean families. We were often called to task for having too much of a Western perspective."High schools are not fun places in South Korea. Students go to school or have to study 12 to 16 hours a day usually six days a week. There are no extra-curricular clubs, no school dances, no fun events. anything outside of preparing for the college entrance exam is seen as a waste of time.
Here is an excellent news piece from Al Jazeera English last year.