Would You Want to be a Student in Korea?

I doubt it. Or, why “Rigor” sucks.

This is from Schools Matter:


New Year’s Resolution: Eliminate “Rigor” from Education Lexicon

Posted: 09 Jan 2022 02:27 PM PST

If there is a single word that comes close to capturing the zeitgeist of corporate education austerity policies that have metastasized since the Reagan era (among both Democrats and Republicans), it would be a five-letter signifier that has done more damage to effective and humane schooling than any one word in the English language: “rigor.” 

If you can believe the education efficiency zealots of the last two generations, the answer to most questions about schooling have the same answer: more “rigor.” Whether we’re talking about curriculum, teacher quality, teacher education, leadership, or assessment, what we need is more “rigor.”

I went to Webster’s online looking for a word that might serve as an adequate replacement.  Here’s some of what I found for the word “rigor:”

Synonyms & Antonyms of rigor

2. the quality or state of being demanding or unyielding (as in discipline or criticism)

  • after being coddled by his former coach, the swimmer was shocked by the rigor of the new training program

Synonyms for rigor

Words Related to rigor

Near Antonyms for rigor

Antonyms for rigor

And, yet, there seems to be no end to the use of this code word for segregated “no excuses” KIPP Model schools, “zero tolerance” straight jacket discipline, and racist standardized testing regimes that effectively keep marginalized populations on the margins.

Today I came across an interview with Amanda Ripley, who has become one of the pretty masks placed on the corporate education Frankenstein that continues to wreak havoc with any efforts to transform schools into substantive learning communities aimed at opening and integrating the world for children in challenging and supportive ways.

In the summary provided for her interview, Amanda praises the “rigorous learning” of Korean students.  What does Amanda know about Korean education? Well, she interviewed a student who lived in both Korea and the U. S.:

Kids rise to the level of their peer culture when it comes to how important they think rigorous learning is. Especially adolescents are extremely focused on what their peers are doing. There’s a great example of a girl I met in Korea named Jenny, who had lived half of her life in the U.S. and then moved back to Korea. And what she talked about was how different she was in each place. In Korea, everybody worked really hard and took school really seriously, so she did too. And then in [America], school was much lower on her priority list.

No, Amanda, students in Korea try to rise to the level of the monstrous system created by a steroidal version of American capitalism, which has created a dystopian regime whereby parents sacrifice the health and well-being of their children for the “rigorous” demands of a soul-crushing system of schooling based on memorization and recitation.   

This is from a former teacher in one of Korea’s hagwons, or cram schools:

Cram schools like the one I taught in — known as hagwons in Korean — are a mainstay of the South Korean education system and a symbol of parental yearning to see their children succeed at all costs. Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas. Students typically stay after regular school hours until 10 p.m. or later.

Herded to various educational outlets and programs by parents, the average South Korean student works up to 13 hours a day, while the average high school student sleeps only 5.5 hours a night to ensure there is sufficient time for studying. Hagwons consume more than half of spending on private education.

Any Ripley hit job wouldn’t be complete without an attack on teacher education programs in the U. S. While she decries the continued existence of non-rigorous “mediocre teacher training colleges,” she has nothing to say about the micro-preparation provided to Teach for America beginner missionaries who are placed into schools with children who need the most experienced and best prepared teachers among us. Nor does she voice any objection to the exploitative non-higher ed alternative certification programs that leave would-be teachers less prepared than accredited university programs. 

Finally, one of Ripley’s conjectures remains truly puzzling to me, even considering her thorough lack of understanding of how schools actually work and how teachers experience their jobs:

Anyone who has seen a great teacher or been a great teacher knows that it is not different from being the CEO of a company; there is a lot that is demanded of you and it requires a lot of support.

Yes, Amanda, “rigorous” teaching is sort of like being a CEO, except for the pay, the prestige, the perks, the lifestyle, and the autonomy. Teachers in the U.S. rank 27th in teacher pay among 32 OECD countries.   I’m still looking for a substitute for “rigor.” Until I find it, I guess I’ll settle for challenging, supportive, substantive, open, and integrative.

Korean vs American Schools as seen by Amanda Ripley

A surprising look at the supposedly wonderful schools in South Korea in Amanda Ripley’s fairly recent book “The Smartest Kids in the World” makes you appreciate American public AND private schools.*

Why? According to Ripley, the American exchange student who began attending a Korean high school in Busan (Pusan) SK  was surprised to find that about a third of his classmates openly, “flat-out slept” through classes and that many paid no attention in class, chatting quietly.*** It was easy to see why: they were in class with only a few short breaks from 7 in the morning to 11 at night!

Why did they spend so much time in school? Because Korea has a single end-of-HS exam that would make or break a student’s entire future. No possibility of a do-over or a re-take. If you were in the top 2% (or what we might call the 98th or 99th percentile, in other words, well over two standard deviations above the national mean) or roughly over 720 on the SAT, you were set FOR LIFE – admission to the best universities for free, guaranteed top jobs at top corporations, guaranteed brilliant career and wealth for life. Everybody else in Korea? Not sure – haven’t read that far yet, but it seems that every secondary student in the entire country spends the last two years of high school doing NOTHING except studying for this final exam. Perhaps they rank every single student by their exam score, just as every kid’s scores were publicly displayed and ranked on the single blackboard in every classroom after every single important graded effort in their classes? (Yeah, sure, they used ID numbers instead of names, but the kids all knew each other’s ID#s, according to Ripley.)

By the way, according to Ripley, just about all Koreans HATE and DESPISE their supposedly wonderful educational system. They would much rather have a system that valued and promoted creativity and teamwork.

Is that the sort of education we want for most of our kids? It certainly seems like some folks do want that. I’m referring to the  hedge-fund or high-tech billionaires or just plain con artists (remember Michael Millken? He’s one of the biggest edupreneurs today, fresh out of prison for multibilliondollar fraud…) or former sports stars; all of whom who went to progressive and elite private schools and who are running the policies of American education today – do want that, but not for their own privileged children. Only for the children of poor, black or hispanic kids attending public or charter schools. No, if you go to Lakeside or Sidwell or Georgetown Day or Chicago Lab school, you get to be on interscholastic sports teams, go kayaking, volunteer on farms or stables, and learn foreign languages and art and music and so on and so forth.

But these pious fraudsters sure do seem to be on way towards instituting that. Using the language of the civil rights movement, they somehow, and in a very Owellian way, institute a very oppressive and stultifying regime in many of their schools. For example, I visited a supposedly highly-ranked, large, charter school here in DC (not a KIPP) 100% black and latino IIRC, where the kids were in the very same classroom from 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM, all day, and were only let out to go to the bathroom and to pick up their breakfast and lunch bags from a cart in the hallway. Unless there was a fire drill. I am not exaggerating in the least. Teachers moved, not students. No wonder the kids were off the hook much of the time, giving their very young and mostly inexperienced teachers a hard time with no possibility of administrative support. For the kids, the only way to get some excitement was to be bad and act out, which they did. (They were not even allowed to make any noise or talk to each other while one teacher left and the other entered!)**

I thought and said at the time that one way to improve things would be to take kids on walks up and down the stairs or go outside and and make it into a math activity somehow so you could slip it past the administration. The teacher could get real buy-in from the students by convincing them that if they were “good” on these expeditions, they could continue, but if kids acted up, they’d be back int he classroom again… because the admin would cancel the walks – remember, the only times the kids would get out of the classroom until 4:30 pm… And no art, no music, no PE most days. I think they had one period of one of these once a week, but I could be wrong.

But in any case, this is not how I was raised, nor my parents or other older relatives I know anything about, nor my own kids, and I hope not my grandkids will be raised. Kids need time to go outside, run around, climb, build things, knock them down, chase each other in various games, socialize, scream, play-act, and so on. You go nuts if you don’t. We do not belong inside all the time cramming for an exam!

Chinese students of mine and a Chinese colleagues have described to me told me that American teachers worked so much harder than Chinese teachers, more hours a day and more students and many more onerous tasks and responsibilities for the entirety of their students’ lives: supervising in hallways and cafeterias and playgrounds, meetings with parents, endless meetings with other administrators, filling out myriads of highly complex yet meaningless forms both in hard-copy and on-line in various media and platforms… exactly none of which is required of Chinese teachers. They teach their three or so classes per day, and that’s it. They even have graduate assistants to do all the grading! No parents demanding that little Wang or Miao-Miao deserves a 95% on a test and a good recommendation or an apology from the teacher for not braiding the child’s hair correctly… If there is a meeting with parents, the teacher is more likely to be given deep reverence and large presents… No interactive, engaging lessons there. Just lectures.

Why is it that American teachers are held in such ill-repute? They try harder and work harder than teachers in any country that I’m aware of, and I’ve lived and gone to school overseas for nearly four years, learning the local languages fairly well.


I would appreciate any comments from other folks who have visited schools in the US and abroad — what comparisons would you like to make?


*I’m reading several books simultaneously, all of them interesting. I won’t finish this one for a while, but I ran across something interesting and I thought I’d share this. I had previously thought Ripley was much too worshipful of Michelle Rhee, but so far, this looks pretty factual.

** Even though I think 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM such as at that DC charter school is a long day, it’s “only” nine hours. Pity the poor South Korean kids who are in school for EIGHTEEN hours a day, minus a few recesses and meal breaks, and who are also expected to do all of the janitorial duties at their schools!! New Gingrich would approve, as long as they are poor people’s children, and not his own…

*** A few paragraphs from Ripley’s book:

“A few minutes later, he glanced backwards at the rows of students behind him. Then he looked again, eyes wide. A third of the class was asleep. Not nodding off, but flat-out, no-apology sleeping, with their heads down on their desks. One girl actually had her head on a special pillow that slipped over her forearm. This was pre-meditated napping.

“How could this be? Eric had all about the hard-working Koreans who trounced the Americans in math, reading and science. He hadn’t read anything about shamelessly sleeping through class. As if to compensate for his classmates, he sat up even straighter and waited to see what happened next.

” The teacher lectured on, unfazed.

“At the end of class, the kids woke up. They had a ten-minute break and made every second count. Girls sat on top of their desks… chatting with each other and texting on their phones. A few of the boys started drumming on ther desks with their pencils…

“Next was science class. Once again, at least a third of the class went to sleep. It was almost farcical. How did Korean kids get those record-setting test scores if they spent so much of their time asleep in class?” (pp 52-53)

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