Center on International Education Benchmarking

South Korea: Teacher and Principal Quality

Overview | Learning Systems | Teacher and Principal Quality

Teacher Recruitment and Compensation

Teaching is a high status and well-paid job in South Korea. Recruitment of teachers is very different for primary and secondary teachers, however. South Korea has regulated the supply of primary school teachers, who are trained in only 13 institutions in the country, whereas it has not closely regulated the supply of secondary school teachers who are trained at a much broader set of institutions and programs. This has resulted in very competitive admission to primary school teaching programs and high job placement rates and less competitive (and more varied) admission to secondary teaching programs and a much lower job placement rate. Indeed, only about one in five trained secondary school teachers work as teachers. In addition to the oversupply of secondary school teachers, the licensing exams for secondary school teachers are very difficult, making licensing a key selection point rather than admission to initial training.

Lower secondary school teachers can expect a starting salary of about US$28,000, with the potential to make over US$78,000 by the end of their careers. While the starting salary is slightly below the OECD average of US$32,202, the top of the salary scale is much higher than the OECD average of US$55,122. Salaries of teachers with fifteen years of experience exceed those of other similarly-educated workers, and even mid-career salaries are higher than the GDP per capita.

Teacher Initial Education and Training

Primary teacher candidates in South Korea are trained in undergraduate programs at ten national universities of education, two public universities, and one private university. Secondary teacher candidates have more training options: undergraduate programs in a broader range of colleges and universities or at graduate schools of education. Most are prepared in undergraduate programs. The South Korean government has set up an accreditation system for teacher preparation programs to try to maintain quality across the system. As part of this system, it has required all programs to adhere to national curriculum standards and conducts periodic program evaluations of these programs, tied to program funding.

Every teacher in South Korea is required to have a subject major, which is listed on his or her teaching certificate. Teachers must earn about two-thirds of their credits in their subject majors and one-third of their credits in the teaching profession. Subject major courses include content knowledge and content-specific pedagogy, while courses in the teaching profession include educational theory and courses tailored to current social issues, as well as a practicum requirement. For primary teacher candidates, the practicum component is typically nine to ten weeks long and includes observation practice, participation practice, teaching practice, and administrative work practice. For secondary teachers, the practicum requirement length varies, but undergraduate programs typically include four week practicums. Once teachers have completed training programs, they receive a Grade II certificate, which allows a teacher to be hired by a school.

Teachers then must take a national employment exam before applying for a teaching position. This is very competitive exam, which functions as a screening tool for teaching. Teachers are ranked based on their scores. Once teachers are hired, there are three stages of school-based induction: pre-employment training, post-employment training, and follow-up training. The Ministry announced a plan in 2016 to reduce new teachers’ teaching hours to provide more time for this induction support. Pre-employment training typically lasts for two weeks and focuses on the practical elements of job preparation, like classroom management. This is followed by six months of post-employment training, which is typically provided by principals, vice principals, and teacher mentors and involves instructional guidance and evaluation, classroom supervision and instruction on clerical work and student guidance. Finally, during two weeks of follow-up training, new teachers share what they have learned through presentations, reports, or discussion with peers. Teachers can be upgraded to Grade I certificates after three years of experience and required in-service qualification training. A Grade I certificate allows them to apply for more advanced positions, such as principal or Master Teacher.

Teacher Career Ladders

Teachers in South Korea have three types of opportunities for promotion: becoming a Master Teacher, becoming a principal, or becoming an “education specialist”, such as a school inspector or a research specialist. Teacher promotion in all of these areas depends on a point system which awards points for years of teaching experience, performance on annual evaluations, and pursuit of professional development opportunities, including required qualification training programs. Teachers can also earn points for things like teaching in remote areas or in special education schools.

South Korea created the Master Teacher designation in 2008 as part of a pilot and instituted it nationally in 2012. Master Teachers continue teaching a reduced class schedule while taking on new responsibilities such as mentoring, providing professional development and curriculum design. To apply to become a Master Teacher, teachers must have a Grade I certificate and 15 years of teaching experience and be recommended by their schools. Screening committees in each Metropolitan/Provincial Office of Education evaluate applicants by reviewing their applications and peer interview results, observing them teaching and conducting an in-depth interview. Master Teachers must also complete qualification training. They are given small research grants in addition to their normal salaries.

Competition to become a principal is quite fierce. Principals are responsible for school management, teacher supervision, and maintaining school facilities; the vice principal assists the principal with these duties. Principals and vice principals generally do not teach in South Korea. The selection process is described below.

Specialist positions, such as school inspector or research specialist, require a minimum of eight years of teaching experience. This is the only pathway that is not school-based, as teachers promoted to these roles go on to work at either the Ministry of Education or local education offices.

South Korea also has performance-based pay. The structure of this system varies from school to school but is developed with guidance from the Ministry of Education and bases pay raises on quality of instruction, time spent on student guidance, administrative contribution, and professional development pursued.

Part of public school teachers’ career progression is periodic rotation among schools. As a result, teachers gain experience teaching in a variety of settings over the course of their careers, and schools gain the expertise of teachers matched to schools’ needs.

Teacher Professional Development

Teacher professional development is a key element of the Teacher Competence Development Assessment, implemented in 2010. Through this system, teachers’ performance is evaluated by teacher peers, school leaders, students, and students’ parents; evaluation results then inform individualized professional development plans. The highest-scoring teachers are eligible for research sabbaticals of up to one year, while struggling teachers may be required to pursue a certain number of hours or type of professional training.

Professional development is offered through both public and private providers, with private courses subject to government approval. Courses include training for specific qualifications, as well as in-service training and special training opportunities that can include research sabbaticals or study abroad. Recently there has been an emphasis on expanding teacher-led professional development. For example, in order to prepare teachers to implement the 2017 revision of the national curriculum, the Ministry of Education trained 13,000 teachers to facilitate professional development sessions at the school level. As of 2017, the government had also budgeted a total of ₩4 billion (US$3.8 million) to support professional learning communities across the country. Because training is worth points for teacher promotion, there is a direct connection between teachers’ participation in professional development and advancement on the career ladder.

The national Professional Development Master Plan, developed in 2015, lays out a comprehensive structure. It recommends specific professional development opportunities for educators according to their stage of career development, from beginning teachers to Master Teachers and school leaders. Principals can also provide teachers with professional development support by recommending particular programs and using school funding to subsidize training.

School Leader Development

School leadership positions are prestigious and in high demand. Future school leaders have traditionally been pre-selected for promotion at the regional level in order to ensure a pool of high-quality candidates. The selection process is rigorous and ranks candidates by points applicants earn through experience, performance, and training. Principals in South Korea accumulate a significant amount of classroom experience – an average of almost 30 years – prior to becoming school leaders.

Once selected, principal candidates are prepared through government-funded training, which leads to a principal qualification. Ministry guidelines specify that these programs should be 180 hours over 30 or more days and that the content is 70-80 percent related to school administration/management, with the remaining courses focused on broader education topics. There is also training for vice-principal qualifications. Vice principal used to be a required stepping stone to being a principal but this is no longer the case.

School leaders are employees of the central government and generally may serve at any one school for a maximum of eight years, after which they have the option to transfer to a new school. Rural and very small schools are given an advantage when requesting eligibility to hire a new principal through this system. Since 2007, flexibility in principal recruitment and reappointment has increased, allowing for competitive recruitment – rather than pre-selection of candidates for promotion – and reappointment for more than two terms.

The National Teacher Professional Development and Evaluation System includes guidelines for professional development for school leaders. Like teachers, principals use their evaluation results (determined through input from teachers and parents) to develop specific training plans.

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2019 (salaries) and OECD (GDP per capita)