School system in Korea

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Korea has a single-track 6-3-3-4 system, which denotes six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, three years of high school, and four years of college or university which also offer graduate courses leading to master's degrees and doctoral degrees.

The Education System

The Korean public education structure is divided into three parts: six years of primary school, followed by three years of middle school and then three years of high school. In 1996 only about five percent of Korea's high schools were coeducational. The proportion of coeducational schools has increased by almost ten percent. However, classes in many coeducational high schools are still divided along gender lines. The curriculum is standardized so now both boys and girls study technology and domestic science.

The primary curriculum consists of nine principal subjects: moral education, Korean language, social studies, mathematics, science, physical education, music, fine arts, and practical arts. English-language instruction now begins in the third grade, so that children can start learning English in a relaxed atmosphere through conversational exchange, rather than through rote learning of grammatical rules as is still the practice in many middle and high schools. The major objectives, as stated in a 1996 background report by the Ministry of Education, are "to improve basic abilities, skills and attitudes; to develop language ability and civic morality needed to live in society; to increase the spirit of cooperation; to foster basic arithmetic skills and scientific observation skills; and to promote the understanding of healthy life and the harmonious development of body and mind.” The seventh annual curriculum, which began implementation in March 2000, kept these basic goals but updated many elements to reflect changes in Korean society.

Upon completion of primary school, students advance to middle school, which comprises grades seven through nine. The curriculum consists of 12 basic or required subjects, electives, and extracurricular activities. While elementary school instructors teach all subjects, middle school teachers, like their colleagues in the United States, are content specialists.

High schools are divided into academic and vocational schools. In 1995, some 62 percent of students were enrolled in academic high schools and 38 percent in vocational high schools. A small number attended specialized high schools concentrating in science, the arts, foreign languages, and other specialized fields. This is still the case.

The aims of education at the high school level are stated as "to foster each student's personality and ability needed to preserve and strengthen the backbone of the nation; to develop students' knowledge and skills to prepare them for jobs needed in society; to promote each student's autonomy, emotional development, and critical thinking abilities to be brought to bear in and out of school; and to improve physical strength and foster a sound mind."

The School Calendar and School Days

The school calendar has two semesters, the first extending from March through July and the second from September through February. There are summer and winter breaks, but 10 optional half days at the beginning and end of each break¾which are attended by practically all students¾reduce each of these biennial vacations to the remaining 10 days.

A typical day finds high schoolers studying before school begins at about 8:00 A.M. Classes run for 50 minutes each, with a morning break and a 50-minute lunch period. The afternoon session resumes at about 1:00 P.M., and classes continue until about 4:00 or 4:30, followed by the cleaning of the classroom. Students may then take a short dinner break at home, or they may eat at school. Teachers typically move from room to room, while students stay in one place.

Students return to the school library to study or attend private schools or tutoring sessions until between 10:00 P.M. and midnight. They return home where they may have a snack, listen to music, or watch television before going to bed. Elementary and middle school students have similar but somewhat less rigorous days with shorter hours and more recreational activities.

Attendance requirements call for a minimum of 220 days at all three levels. The curriculum is prescribed by law, as are the criteria for the development of textbooks and instructional materials. There have been periodic curriculum revisions, most recently in March 2000, and the trend is definitely toward decentralization in determining, diversifying, and implementing the curriculum.

The well-educated person—according to the curriculum and perhaps shedding further light on what is valued in Korean society—is healthy, independent, creative, and moral.

Social Studies and the Curriculum

Social studies education begins in the first and second grades with a course combined with science and titled "Intelligent Life." During their 34 weeks of schooling, first-grade students receive 120 hours, and second-grade students 136 hours, of this instruction. Third- and fourth-grade students receive 102 hours of social studies instruction and fifth- and sixth-graders are given 136 hours per year. At the middle school level, seventh-grade students have 102 hours, and eighth- and ninth-graders receive 136 hours of social studies instruction.

In high school, first-year students take a program of required courses. By their second year, students can select from among three tracks: humanities and social studies, a natural science track, and a vocational track. However, this is likely to change. The social studies track includes courses in Korean history, politics, economics, society, and culture as well as world history, world geography, and social studies.

Korea has a national curriculum developed and monitored by the Ministry of Education. It is revised every five to ten years; implementation of the seventh national curriculum began in 2000. This curriculum seeks to develop democratic citizens who have strong moral and civic convictions.

Humanity Education

There have been proposals to change the nature of the educational process—from focusing on preparation for college and entrance into schools that will ensure economic success and intellectual development, over the cultivation of attitudes and abilities needed to become responsible citizens. Toward this end a practice-based approach to humanity education has been implemented, with the goals of instilling values of etiquette, public order, and democratic citizenship through experiential activities.

Elements of this curriculum are introduced throughout the school program. From kindergarten through third grade, the focus is on etiquette, the observing of social rules, and the development of a sense of community. Fourth through ninth grade emphasizes democratic citizenship, including rules, processes, and reasonable decision-making. At the high school level, attention is given to global citizenship, including understanding other cultures and peace education.

A 1995 government report on Korean education, titled “Korea’s Vision for the Twenty-First Century,” stated that the curriculum must encourage students “to be global citizens, which includes openness to diversity, broad perspectives, an understanding of the various traditions and cultures of other countries, and sensitivity to environmental issues and conflicts among regions and races. Accordingly, there should be greater emphasis on tolerant and open-minded attitudes toward diversity and differences.” The seventh curriculum builds on this document and fosters the development of character education as well as community service.

Some Tentative Conclusions

Education has contributed to the growth of Korea's democratic government. It has produced hardworking, skilled employees who have brought about an economic miracle within a single generation. It has reaffirmed traditional values while maintaining its commitment to modernization, citizenship, and global involvement. The ambitious and comprehensive reform plans developed in 1995 by the Ministry of Education still appear to enjoy widespread public and professional support. A broad spectrum of the society recognizes the need for lifelong learning as a precept for social and economic improvement.

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