I met Korea’s education minister, Lee Ju-Ho, at his office in Seoul. He had a boyish cowlick and a default expression of mild amusement, both of which artfully masked the ambition that had powered his career up to this point.
Lee was a product of the Korean pressure cooker. He had attended an elite high school and Seoul National University, one of the country’s top three universities. Then he’d earned his PhD in economics at Cornell. He’d risen swiftly up the Korean hierarchy, becoming a professor, then a politician. But when he became the Minister of Education, he did so with the goal of dismantling the pressure cooker, piece by piece.
We drank tea around a large table with his entourage of advisers, none of whom spoke. When I asked if he agreed with President Obama’s glowing rhetoric about the Korean education system, he smiled a tired smile. It’s a question he got asked often, usually by Korean reporters who could not understand what the U.S. president—or anyone—would find to like about Korea’s system.
“You Americans see a bright side of the Korean education system,” he said. “But Koreans are not happy with it.”
In some ways, Korea was an extreme manifestation of a very old Asian tradition. Chinese families had been hiring test-prep tutors since the seventh century. Civil-service exams dated back before the printing press. In tenth-century Korea, ambitious young men had to pass an exam to get a government job. The high-stakes test was, in practice, accessible only to the sons of the elite, who could afford the ancient version of test prep.
Over the next fifty years, Korea became what Lee called a “talent power.” The country had no natural resources, so it cultivated its people instead, turning education into currency. This period of frenetic economic growth created a kind of lottery for Korean parents: If their children got into the best middle schools, which put them on track for the best high schools, which gave them a chance at getting into the top universities, then they would get prestigious, well-paying jobs, which would elevate the entire family.
This competition followed very explicit rules: Score above a certain number on the college exam, and you were automatically admit- ted to a top university. Forever after, you would be paid more than others, even for doing the same work. The system was as predictable as it was brutal. It sent a very clear message to children about what mattered: University admissions were based on students’ skills as measured by the test. Full stop. Nobody got accepted because he was good at sports or because his parents had gone there. It was, in a way, more meritocratic than many U.S. colleges had ever been.
Without this education obsession, South Korea could not have become the economic powerhouse that it was in 2011. (Since 1962, the nation’s GDP had risen about 40,000 percent, making it the world’s thirteenth largest economy.) Education acted like an anti- poverty vaccine in Korea, rendering family background less and less relevant to kids’ life chances over time.
But there weren’t enough of those university slots or coveted jobs, so the lottery morphed into a kind of Iron Child competition that parents and kids resented, even as they perpetuated it. It was an extreme meritocracy for children that hardened into a caste system for adults. Even when more universities opened, the public continued to fixate on the top three. There was a warning for the rest of the world. Competition had become an end unto itself, not the learning it was supposed to motivate.
The country had created a monster, Lee told me. The system had become overly competitive, leading to an unhealthy preoccupation with test scores and a dependence on private tutoring academies. Even over summer break, libraries got so crowded that kids had to get tickets to get a space. Many paid $4 to rent a small air-conditioned carrel in the city’s plentiful supply of for-profit self-study libraries.
Korea’s sky-high PISA scores were mostly a function of students’ tireless efforts, Lee believed, not the country’s schools. Kids and their families drove the results. Motivation explained Korea’s PISA scores more than curriculum, in other words.
Per student, Korean taxpayers spent half as much money as American taxpayers on schools, but Korean families made up much of the difference out of their own pockets. In addition to hagwon fees, they had to pay for public school, since the government subsidy didn’t cover all the expenses. American exchange student Eric’s school was not the most elite public school in Busan, but it still cost about fifteen hundred dollars per year.
On paper, Eric’s high schools in Minnesota and Korea had some things in common. Both Minnetonka and Namsan boasted dropout rates of less than 1 percent, and both schools paid their teachers similarly high salaries. However, while Minnetonka kids performed in musicals, Namsan kids studied and studied some more. The problem was not that Korean kids weren’t learning enough or working hard enough; it was that they weren’t working smart.
The Iron Child culture was contagious; it was hard for kids and parents to resist the pressure to study more and more. But all the while, they complained that the fixation on rankings and test scores was crushing their spirit, depriving them not just of sleep but of sanity.
Adapted from the book The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. Excerpted by arrangement from Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2013.
Amanda Ripley is a journalist and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way and an Emerson Senior Fellow in Washington, D.C.