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South Korean Teachers Reach for the SKY
By Bill Costello
Education Columnist
The main entrance of the Seoul National University in South Korea

Within South Korea, the three most prestigious universities are Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Collectively, they are referred to by the acronym SKY.

Graduating from a SKY university often leads to a prestigious job with a high salary—especially if the graduate is in the field of education. Opinion polls show that South Koreans view teachers as high-status professionals who make greater contributions to society than any other profession. I recently visited the SKY universities to learn why South Koreans feel this way.

“In Korea, we have a Confucian tradition of respecting teachers,” said Lim Cheolil, associate professor of education at Seoul National University.

Beyond tradition, South Korea actively raises the status of teaching as a profession by doing two things. First, it makes entry to teacher training very selective. Teachers are recruited from the top 5 percent of each high school graduate class. Second, teachers are paid generous starting salaries of 141 percent of GDP per capita, which is significantly above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 95 percent.

Making teacher training selective and paying teachers high starting salaries attracts the strongest candidates to the teaching profession, which is important because teacher quality significantly impacts student outcomes.

South Korea is able to pay teachers high starting salaries because it employs relatively fewer teachers than other nations. As a result, the student-teacher ratio in South Korea is 30:1, compared to the OECD average of 17:1.

It’s a smart tradeoff because studies show that teacher quality has significantly more impact on student outcomes than class size. Dollar for dollar, it’s better to attract a small number of outstanding teachers with high starting salaries than to attract a large number of mediocre teachers with lower starting salaries—even if that means having a high
student-teacher ratio.

In education-obsessed South Korea, the potential for earning a lot of money as a teacher is great. For example, 46-year-old math instructor and cram school tutor Woo Hyeong-cheol makes $4 million a year teaching Web-based classes. His salary is higher than most of the top professional baseball players in South Korea. And he’s just as famous.

Teaching is more than just a high-status profession with a high starting salary in South Korea; it’s also one of the most stable careers. Lee Sang Min, assistant professor of education at Korea University, said: “After the economic crisis in 1997, most Koreans considered stability as the most
important thing when choosing a job. Therefore, many university students pursue teaching positions in elementary, middle, and high school.”

Lee Sungho H., professor of education at Yonsei University, agreed: “The most critical reason for being a teacher is job stability. Teachers are guaranteed retirement at age 62. In addition, teaching provides fringe benefits such as summer and winter vacations, a fixed daily time schedule,
and a good pension.”

South Korea’s high level of respect for teachers is an exemplar for other nations that want to improve student outcomes.



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Bill Costello, M.Ed., is a U.S.-based education columnist, blogger, and author of Awaken Your Birdbrain: Using Creativity to Get What You Want. He can be reached at www.makingmindsmatter.com

 

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