S Korea's PISA rankings masking its educational woes

S Korea's PISA rankings masking its educational woes
South Korean students at Bibong Middle School in Hwaseong, South Korea. AP file photo
Test does not assess creativity; high scores a hindrance to reform, says former minister
Published: 10:09 PM, July 23, 2015
Updated: 1:19 AM, July 24, 2015

SINGAPORE — While South Korea’s strong performance in the highly regarded Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been a source of pride for many in the country, it has created a headache of sorts for its former minister tasked with reforming its education system.

Speaking to TODAY in an interview yesterday (July 22), Professor Lee Ju-Ho, who helmed South Korea’s Education, Science and Technology Ministry between August 2010 and March 2013, recalled how United States President Barack Obama lauded South Korean education during his State of the Union speech in 2011. 

“(Mr Obama’s) remarks made me embarrassed. I was in the middle of pushing for a reform — we really think we need to make a change. But PISA somehow is telling (people) that Korea is the best, like Singapore. This is kind of hiding our problems,” said Prof Lee, who was in Singapore to deliver a lecture today on his country’s experience in education policies. 

The PISA test is conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) once every three years. South Korea’s 15-year-olds were ranked sixth in science, fourth in mathematics and second in reading in the 2009 edition. For the 2012 test, the country came in seventh in science, and fifth in both maths and reading.  

Prof Lee, who is an economics academic at KDI School of Public Policy and Management, published a paper last year on South Korea’s education reforms, in which he noted that South Korean students’ high scores in the PISA test had been used as justification by those against reforming the country’s education system, and had created an obstacle for reform advocates. 

He told TODAY that PISA’s focus on cognitive skills does not assess students’ creativity, for example. He added that he believes his country’s booming private-tuition industry could also have boosted its PISA rankings.

He noted that the OECD Survey of Adult Skills, which assessed those aged between 16 and 65 in literacy, numeracy and problem solving, indicated that South Korea’s education system does not prepare its people well for the workplace. South Korea took part in the first round of this survey, which was conducted between 2011 and 2012, and its older participants achieved below average scores. 

Singapore will be taking part in the second round of the survey, with results due to be published next year. 

While an explanation for the disparity in the country’s performance in the two OECD tests may be the improvements in the South Korean education system, Prof Lee said the gap also showed a lack of motivation at the workplace. “Because of rote learning and memorisation, students tend to have less motivation to accumulate skills later in life,” he said. 

Prof Lee noted that Singapore and South Korea have plenty to learn from each other, given that their education systems are facing similar challenges.

However, while interest here in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses has dwindled, Prof Lee noted that his country is blessed with an abundance of engineers to support homegrown big-name brands such as Samsung and Hyundai. “If the education sector provides really well-educated engineers and scientists who help the economy develop these sectors … (they) get better salaries and that provides incentives for students to study in these areas ... parents will also become more interested in these majors.”