South Korea is an example of rapid economic growth and excellent results in education. In 1960, Korea had one of the lowest Gross Economic Products in the world, and until the early 1980s, its standings ranked very similarly to those of Latin American countries. However, following a sustained annual growth of 6 percent, South Korea today is not only one of the world’s most developed countries, but also among those with the least inequality.
In education, South Korea has had consistently improved its results. In the last PISA test (2009) it achieved top rankings among participating countries. Consider that in the mid-1970s, only 7 percent of the country’s students had reached higher education; some 70 percent do so now.
This is doubly interesting considering that South Korea is a small country of less than 100 square miles and limited access to natural resources. A key factor in its success has been investment in education and strengthening human capital, areas in which educational technologies have played a very important role.
For Latin America, three factors stand out from the South Korean experience:
1. Education has a high social and cultural value. The consensus of society on the importance of education is universal. All believe unequivocally in giving education attention, a high priority, and resources.
2. Education plays a central, long-term role in designing public policies. National development strategies and education are inextricably intertwined, and the education master plans, developed every five years, align and update initiatives, each with a thorough internal integration of components.
3. Education, and particularly teaching, is a highly respected calling with a professional standing, and is therefore well paid. Only students graduating in the top 5 percent of their high school classes can enter the teaching profession, and salaries reflect this high quality and level of professionalism. Starting teachers receive a salary nearly three times that of their counterparts in Chile, which pays the highest salaries to teachers in Latin America. On average, after 15 years in the classroom, during which their performance is closely monitored and evaluated, Korean teachers see their incomes increase by 80 percent.
An important aspect of South Korea’s efforts in education has been making use of educational technologies. Annual five-year plans carefully define the use of available technology. For example, the 1996-2000 Master Plan emphasized infrastructure for Internet connectivity and teacher training; the 2001-2005 plan focused on the development of educational content (digital textbooks and help at home) and the scholastic information system (NEIS); the 2006-2010 plan focused on the use of cell phones for mass education and reforms in teacher education needed to respond to new educational practices.
South Korea recently, announced its new master plan, which calls for replacing printed textbooks with digital texts, content-rich multimedia, and interactive activities that students will access through tablets permanently linked to the Internet. It is clear that these initiatives are not the result of last-minute improvisation, a concession to fashion, or an effort to sway voters. Rather, they represent a new phase, part of a natural, sustained, and systematic effort.
South Korea’s success in education as a whole is the result of such a sustained, coherent, and long-term effort in which technologies play a role, not as the desperate effort of solitary protagonists in a lonely struggle, but with the support needed to produce desired results. It is true that our region faces other challenges presented by different experiences and cultures. But there are some things we must learn from South Korea.
(Text written in collaboration with Christine Capota)