Center on International Education Benchmarking

In the 2009 PISA assessments, South Korea ranked second in reading, fourth in mathematics and sixth in science.  This is a remarkable achievement. South Korea spends not much more than half what the United States spends on education as a proportion of gross national product. Mathematics and science were never terribly important in Korean culture through its long history.  During much of that history, education was restricted to a small elite.  During the almost 50 years of the Japanese occupation, there was a pretty good education system in Korea, but, with few exceptions, only the Japanese were allowed to teach and only the Japanese were allowed to attend the secondary schools and higher education institutions.  The Koreans had been shut out of their own education system.  So, when the Japanese left at the end of the war, the Koreans had no teachers and no one with the level of education required to become teachers. When the Japanese went home, 78% of the Korean population was illiterate.  But the Koreans did the best they could to jump start their education system, only to see the emerging system devastated by the war between North and South Korea in the early 1950s.  In these circumstances, it should surprise no one that, as recently as 1970, South Korea’s annual per capita income was only about $200.

From these inauspicious beginnings only a few decades ago, South Korea now fields one of the most highly educated and skilled workforces in the world, a workforce that now staffs at every level some of the world’s leading consumer electronics companies, automobile manufacturers and builders of giant supertankers and container ships.

No doubt South Korea’s brand of Confucianism, with its values of hard work, reverence for education, frugality and strong family structure helped, but those values had been part of the culture for a couple of millennia and cannot by themselves explain what happened.

Clark Sorensen describes the construction of the modern Korean education system as part of the Korean “national project,” by which he appears to mean that it was successful less because of the particular features of the system than because of the sheer determination of the Koreans to build a world class country, and the commitment of every citizen to do his or her part in the grand design.  Education was, in the minds of the Korean people, a central part of that grand design from the start.

The Koreans saw the Japanese decision to prevent the Koreans from acquiring education and the skills they needed to be independent as a key feature of the colonial occupation strategy, and the independence movement that started in 1919 made the construction of a strong Korean education system a key part of the Korean strategy for rebuilding their country.

When the Koreans were finally in a position to build their own education system, they were determined to avoid any features that replicated the multi-tiered Japanese system (in which the Koreans had been confined to the bottom tier).  They opted instead for an uncompromisingly egalitarian system that would be as un-tracked as possible, even though that was at odds with the Confucian structure of inherited status and separate educations for students from each rung of the status hierarchy.

Following the war in Korea, the government took control of education from local school boards and concentrated it in the ministry of education, where it has been ever since.  The Basic Education Law, passed in 1949, still provides the core structure of the system.  Six years of free compulsory education, beginning at age six, is followed by three years of middle school, followed by three years of high school, followed by four years of college.  This system, at least through high school, was in place by 1951.

Widespread illiteracy was eliminated by the mid-60s. Ninety percent of the elementary school cohort was in school by the same time.  The same was true for middle schools by 1979.  Some 98% of the cohort now completes upper secondary education—the highest rate in the OECD— and 63% of 25-34 year-olds now complete tertiary education, again the highest rate among all the OECD countries, and that rate continues to grow.  Only five countries in the world have a higher proportion of the world’s total number of adults with a tertiary education, and most are far larger than South Korea.  So, in a few short decades, South Korea has managed to go from massive illiteracy to topping the global charts in both quantity of education and quality of education

This was not easy to do.  Before the economy started generating enough money to train and hire lots of teachers, South Korean class size often topped 100, facilities were primitive and schools often ran two or three shifts.

The system became highly test-driven.  The middle school entrance exams were abolished in 1969, but the high school entrance exams and the college entrance exams remain. In South Korea, virtually every form of opportunity, from marriage prospects to job prospects, depends on which high school you got into and which college you went to.  Employees are not even considered for management positions unless they have college degrees, and promotion in the management ranks depends more on which college you went to than on your business experience.  The social prestige of college graduates is very much a function of the ranking of the college attended. Parents’ status in the society depends importantly on which high schools and colleges their children are able to get into.  Children’s failure to achieve high education goals reflects not just on the child, but on their parents as well.  And, not least, in this society, children are obligated by law and custom to provide for their parents in their old age, and so, when parents look at their children, they are also looking at their retirement fund, and the ability of that retirement fund to take care of them in their old age depends more than in any other country on success on their high school and college entrance exams.  For all these reasons, parents work very hard to assure their children’s success in school and children work hard in school to please their parents.

Much of what has just been said is true of other “chopstick” cultures, too.  But they have particular bite in South Korea.  The demand for education is stronger.  The pressure on students to perform is greater.  The number of hours spent by students studying every day and every week is longer (longer, in fact, than in any other OECD country).  It is said that students who do not meet parents’ expectations in school are often severely punished.  One survey showed that three-quarters of middle and high school students consider running away from home or committing suicide because of the pressure to perform at high levels in school.

All these factors combine to produce a drive for students to achieve (on their exams) and for the adults in their lives to help then in that drive that may be unparalleled in the world.  Not only do students study longer than students anywhere else, but parents are willing to pay more for the education of their students than parents anywhere else.  Though the South Korean government’s support for education is about average, parents pay enough in school fees to bring the total school spending up to 15% of gross national product, and that is without counting the enormous sums that parents also spend on private tutoring.  Some observers believe that this willingness of Koreans to dig very deeply into their pockets for the education of their children accounts in large measure for the remarkable rise of the South Korean economy.

So both Korean students and parents make a maximum effort.  One could argue that that fact alone might be enough to account for South Korea’s position on the PISA rankings.  And it must certainly claim a lot of the credit.  But it is not alone on a list of plausible explanations of South Korea’s success.

Teacher quality leads that list. In South Korea, it is the Ministry that is responsible for hiring school teachers.  In response to severe secondary school teacher shortages in the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea built a strong, highly qualified teaching force. Today, teaching is the most popular career choice among young South Koreans, due to a combination of high social status, job stability and high pay. Only two out of 32 countries surveyed by the OECD, for example, pay higher salaries to their lower secondary teachers than South Korea. The result is that just 5% of applicants are accepted into elementary school teacher training programs, and the teacher attrition rate is very low, only a little over 1% per year.  The proportion of all South Korean teachers that are fully certified and hold bachelors degrees is among the highest in the world.

Through the history of the PISA assessments, South Korea has scored ever higher in reading, reaching the top of the league tables in the 2009 assessments, and held fairly steady in mathematics, scoring near but not at the top.  But its rank in science has fallen from the top of the league tables in the 2000 assessments to sixth place in the 2009 rankings.  This is probably because instructional time for science was reduced, science subjects became optional in school, the university entrance examinations no longer require students to take exams in science and the science and technology professions have become less attractive to Korean students.

The deemphasis on science and the increased emphasis on reading are consistent with the call in the 1997 report of the President’s Commission on Education Reform, which stated that “Korean education, having registered a marked growth in quantitative terms in the era of industrialization, will no longer be appropriate in the era of information technology and globalization.  It will not able to produce persons who possess high levels of creativity and moral sensitivity, which are required to sharpen the nation’s competitive edge in the coming era.”

The quote summarizes a half century of education reform in Korea.  At the beginning, when South Korea was focused on increasing the proportion of the population that was literate and the proportion of elementary school aged children attending school, the emphasis was in fact on the quantity of education provided.  The strategy the government employed to reach its targets was the Low Cost Approach, which employed very large class sizes, double and even triple shift classrooms and very low teachers’ salaries.  This strategy enabled the country to produce a very rapid decline in illiteracy and an equally rapid increase in the proportion of school-age children in compulsory school in the 1950s.

Similar strategies were used to expand enrollments in lower secondary education in the 1960s, upper secondary education in the 1970s and tertiary education in the 1980s.  These developments in academic education were matched by close attention to increasing enrollments in vocational and technical education.  This trajectory mapped, by design, rather nicely onto the progression in the nation’s economy from light manufacturing, to capital-intensive heavy industries, to advanced manufacturing and related high-technology industries requiring a very highly skilled workforce.

In the 1960s and 70s, South Korea discovered that its hyper-meritocratic system of education and personal advancement, all keyed to its examination system, was narrowing the scope of elementary school education in destructive ways and the press on the part of middle and upper income parents to seek advantages for their children by enrolling them in the most successful  schools was resulting in a system increasingly unfair to students whose parents could not afford homes in the right enrollment areas and who lacked the political clout of those who were better off.  So they eliminated the middle school entrance examination and created a system for the more heavily populated areas in which students were assigned to schools by a lottery and in which officials assigned students to schools in order to achieve a better socio-economic mix than the one that had developed prior to these changes in policy.  It also became clear that parents with more money were using that money to buy additional out-of-school services from the teachers in the regular schools for their children and also hiring university students to tutor their school-age children.  Laws were passed prohibiting these practices, but these laws have proven difficult to enforce.

In 2008, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) introduced a new set of policy initiatives, aimed at closing the gap in student achievement between urban and rural schools and advantaged and disadvantaged students. Among the proposed reforms were an increase in aid for school support fees for all middle school students, as well as subsidies for computer and internet fees for all disadvantaged students; the provision of meals to low-income and rural students; the establishment of K-2 schools in rural areas in order to reduce long commutes, making it easier for children to attend school; the establishment of programs aimed at helping rural, low-income, and at-risk students adjust to school and remain in school, and the expansion of digital services to schools, including providing students with remote access to textbooks.

In 2000, the Seventh National Curriculum was released, which included a philosophical shift to learning that supports creativity. In addition, there is a big emphasis on technology-based learning and a loosening of the strict control MEST had traditionally had over schools.

In the 2011 Major Policies and Plans document, MEST outlined its major reform goals: strengthening and supporting school autonomy, expanding the recruitment of principals in order to hire more competent leaders, boosting creative learning opportunities, and encouraging teachers to undergo professional development so that they may also function as career counselors for students.



Ethnic Makeup



$1.934 trillion; $37,700 per Capita

Major Industries

Services: 59.2%; Industry: 38.6%; Agriculture: 2.2%


Unemployment: 3.7% ; Youth Unemployment: 9.4%

Educational Attainment

Upper Secondary School Graduation Rate: 92%

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