In the 2015 PISA assessments, South Korea ranked seventh in reading and mathematics and eleventh in science, consistent with its performance near the top of the charts since the first PISA administration in 2000. This is a remarkable achievement for a country that essentially had to build a brand new education system at the end of the 20th century.
In the first half of the 20th century, Japan occupied Korea and only allowed the Japanese to teach in and attend the secondary schools and higher education institutions. When the Japanese left at the end of World War II, the Koreans had no teachers, no one with the level of education required to become teachers, and a population that was almost 80 percent illiterate. Efforts to build a new education system were quickly derailed by the war between North and South Korea in the early 1950s. 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.
Following the Korean War, 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, put in place six years of primary school, beginning at age six, followed by three years of lower secondary school and then three years of upper secondary school. Widespread illiteracy was eliminated by the mid-60s. Ninety percent of the primary school cohort was in school by the same time. The same was true for lower secondary schools by 1979. As of 2015, some 98 percent of 25-to 34-year-olds had completed upper secondary education – the highest rate in the OECD – and 69 percent of this same age group had completed post-secondary education, again the highest rate among all the OECD countries, and that rate continues to grow. Only three countries in the world have a higher proportion of adults with a post-secondary education. 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.
The system was and still remains highly test-driven. While lower secondary school entrance exams were abolished in 1969 and the ministry of education has loosened up the system of competitive test-based upper secondary school and college admission, there is still considerable focus on exams. In South Korea, virtually every form of opportunity, from marriage prospects to job prospects, depends on which upper secondary school and college students attend. Parents work very hard to assure their children’s success in school and children work hard in school to please their parents. This results in a drive for students to achieve and for the adults in their lives to help them achieve that may be unparalleled in the world.
Teacher quality is another factor in South Korean success. 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, with high social status, job stability and high pay. Just five percent of applicants are accepted into primary school teacher training programs, and the teacher attrition rate is only a little over one percent per year. The proportion of all South Korean teachers who are fully certified and hold bachelor’s degrees is among the highest in the world.
The South Koreans have not stood still. In addition to exam reforms, South Koreans has redone its curriculum to focus on creativity and character building along with “key competencies” across all subject areas. It has also dramatically expanded the early childhood education and care system, increased financial and academic supports for high-need students, developed leadership paths and expanded training for teachers, and restructured vocational education and training to better meet labor market needs. South Korea has also made efforts to address the high level of private spending on tutoring, to both ensure equity for all students and reduce the level of stress among students.
PISA 2015 Mean Scores by Country for Reading, Mathematics, and Science
$1.934 trillion; $37,700 per Capita
Services: 59.2%; Industry: 38.6%; Agriculture: 2.2%
Unemployment: 3.7% ; Youth Unemployment: 9.4%
Upper Secondary School Graduation Rate: 92%
The World Bank. (2002). Education Policy in the Republic of Korea: Building Block or Stumbling Block? (PDF) | Sorensen, Clark. (1994). “Success and Education in South Korea,” Comparative Education Review 38, no. 1. (PDF)