Preschool programs in Korea serve children ages 3-5. Participation is nearly universal, with about 95 percent of three- to five-year-olds enrolled in preschool as of 2017. About half of preschools are public and half are private.
Since 2012, all Korean preschool programs have followed the national preschool curriculum, known as the Nuri Curriculum, whether they are offered in kindergartens (which only serve children ages 3-5 and are overseen by the Ministry of Education) or childcare centers (which serve children ages 0-5 and are overseen by the Ministry of Health and Welfare). The Nuri Curriculum replaced separate curricula for childcare centers and kindergartens, with the goal of ensuring a common educational experience for all children ages 3-5. The Nuri Curriculum emphasizes experiential and play-based learning in five learning areas: physical activities, health, and safety; communication; social relationships; arts experience; and inquiries into nature. It was designed to align to both the National Standard Child Care Curriculum, which applies to programs for children up to age 2, and the primary school curriculum.
Under what is known as the Nuri Initiative, since 2012-13 the Korean government has provided substantial subsidies to cover early childhood education for all children up to age 5, regardless of household income or background. Children ages 3-5 are entitled to a subsidy of US$170 (200,000 KRW) per month, intended to cover half-day preschool. However, preschool providers often charge fees for additional services, such as after-school care; these fees are capped for most types of preschool providers, but not for private kindergartens.
Primary and Secondary Education
Children between the ages of 6 and 15 are required to attend school in Korea. There are six years of primary school, three years of lower secondary school, and three years of upper secondary school, which is either general or vocational in focus.
Most students attend their local primary school. Since the 1970s, Korea has had an equalization policy, which aims to reduce competition for admission to prestigious secondary schools. Students in “equalization zones” are admitted to school by lottery rather than using entrance exams. These zones cover all lower secondary schools and about 60 percent of upper secondary schools. In these areas, there is no entrance exam for lower secondary school and upper secondary schools can only use entrance exams to set a minimum competency level rather than to rank students for admission. Students who meet the minimum standards on the exams are admitted by lottery. Some parents have perceived these reforms as a lowering of standards and a set of alternative upper secondary schools—specialty schools and autonomous schools—has developed partially in response. Specialty schools focus on a particular area, such as foreign language, science, or the arts, and autonomous schools adhere to the national curriculum but have flexibility to design their instructional program. Neither specialty nor autonomous schools are part of the equalization policy so they set their own entry criteria and are generally more competitive than other upper secondary schools. In 2019, the Ministry announced plans to convert about one-third of autonomous schools and all specialty schools focused on certain subjects into regular upper secondary schools by 2025 to promote equity and reduce competition. The equalization policy applies to all schools in major metropolitan areas but smaller cities and rural areas can choose whether to participate.
Ninety-five percent of students complete upper secondary school in Korea. About 75 percent of these students attend academic upper secondary schools, The remaining 25 percent attend vocational upper secondary schools. In the late 1990s, roughly 40 percent of students attended vocational schools, so this represents a significant decline.
Standards and Curriculum
Korean schools follow a national curriculum developed by the Ministry of Education and revised every five to 10 years. The 2015 revision will be fully implemented during the 2020-21 school year. It adds both general and subject-specific key competencies to the curriculum. There are six general competencies (self-management; knowledge information; creative thinking; socio-emotional; communications; and civics) and additional subject competencies. For example, creative thinking is a general competency, while the ability to analyze and interpret historical materials is a history-specific competency. The 2015 revision also granted schools more autonomy to add curricular content that addresses the specific needs and interests of their students, such as arts classes or additional language classes. In addition to its focus on key competencies, the 2015 curriculum for both primary and secondary schools includes Creative Experiential Learning (CEL) activities, which are hands-on activities such as participation in clubs, volunteering, and career exploration. CEL activities account for about 10-15 percent of curriculum time, depending on grade level.
In grades 1 and 2 of primary school, the curriculum includes Korean and mathematics, as well as subjects called “Good Life,” “Wise Life,” and “Happy Life.” These subjects focus on the transition to school life and include basic study skills, problem-solving, creativity, and learning through play. Science, social studies/moral education, English, physical education, and music and the arts are added for the upper primary school grades.
In lower secondary school, subjects include Korean, mathematics, social studies/moral education, science/information technology, physical education, English, music and the arts, as well as some elective courses. Since 2013, students have also had an “Exam-Free Semester,” which is designed to give students time each day to study either a non-traditional course or to design their own independent study course. During this semester, there are no traditional paper examinations even for regular classes so as not to distract from the non-traditional activities. In 2017, the government expanded the Free Semester to a full year, typically offered in grade 7. However, starting in 2025, the initiative will only be available for one semester, instead of both semesters, due to concerns this was impacting students’ academic performance. Career-linked education will also be incorporated into the final semester of the middle school curriculum to support students in their transition to high school.
Required subjects in academic upper secondary schools include Korean; mathematics; English; Korean history; social studies/moral education; science; physical education; the arts; and life and liberal arts, which includes technology, home economics, Chinese characters, a second foreign language, and liberal arts. Depending on the subject, students take all or some of their required credits as elective courses. Vocational school students take about 40 percent general subjects and 60 percent vocational subjects, in addition to CEL activities and a set of school-developed courses, which each school designs according to its students’ aptitudes and career plans. In vocational schools, students take a common set of academic courses in their first year, a combination of academic and vocational courses in their second year, and specialized courses in their third year.
Since 2000, Korea has offered extra-curricular advanced courses for eligible students as well as a small number of specialized schools for gifted students.
Assessment and Qualifications
Korea assesses its students at all levels using school-developed tests. The national curriculum specifies that tests should focus on complex tasks, such as essays, rather than multiple-choice questions.
Korea monitors its education system using the National Assessment of Educational Achievement (NAEA). Originally, the government administered the NAEA only to a sample of students, but in 2008 all students in grades 6, 9, and 11 took tests in Korean, mathematics, social studies, science, and English. The government reversed course in 2013, eliminating the grade 6 tests and reducing the number of tested subjects in grades 9 and 11 to Korean, mathematics, and English. In an effort to reduce testing-related pressure, the government scaled back the NAEA again in 2017, returning to sample-based administration. The social studies and science tests have been reintroduced at grade 9.
The government uses NAEA results to direct support to schools and inform policy at the Ministry level. A survey of students, teachers, and principals administered alongside the NAEA is used in conjunction with the test results to inform education policymaking. The survey collects information on variables affecting achievement such as teacher and principal characteristics such as seniority or specialization and how much time students spend reading or using technology outside of school. In addition, about half of schools report using NAEA results for student placement in subjects that are differentiated for different levels.
A second assessment, the Subject Learning Diagnostic Test (SLDT), tests students in grades 3-9 in Korean, mathematics, social studies, science, and English. Regional offices of education administer the test nationwide to help schools identify and support struggling students.
Students from academic or vocational upper secondary schools who want to continue to junior college, polytechnic college, or university must take the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). To prepare, most Korean students take preparatory classes outside of school in hagwons. This intense focus on the CSAT has led to a spate of reforms focused on broadening the range of criteria considered in university admissions. In 2013, the government introduced the University Entrance Simplification Policy, and Korea has since made the CSAT optional for candidates transferring from the workforce to certain colleges and universities; this is part of an effort to encourage students to try work before going directly to higher education. Responding to concerns that expanded criteria for university entrance could make admissions less transparent, the Ministry of Education announced it would increase from 22 percent to a minimum of 30 percent the proportion of students admitted to universities based on the CSAT alone in 2018. Starting in 2022, Korea also plans to lower the number of CSAT subjects graded on a curve in order to reduce competition among students.
With about 70 percent of its students completing some form of postsecondary education, Korea has the highest postsecondary education completion rate in the OECD.
Supports for Struggling Students
Korea has a variety of supports in place for students who struggle academically. Students who want to drop out of school must first complete a mandatory waiting period. During this time they have access to career counseling and alternative education classes leading to an upper secondary school diploma. In 2016, the Ministry of Education announced a plan to expand access to alternative education classes by nearly 10 percent. The Ministry of Education also shares the academic history of students who have dropped out of school with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which operates a nationwide network of about 200 “K-Dream” youth support centers. K-Dream centers help connect students with personalized supports, including psychological counseling, career counseling, health services, education, and training. The share of Korean students who do not complete upper secondary school declined from 8 percent in 2013 to 4.6 percent in 2017. In 2019, the city of Seoul announced a plan to provide students who have dropped out with a subsidy of US$170 (200,000 KRW) per month that they can use for online courses, meals, and transportation to enable them to finish school.
Korea has also implemented school-level supports aimed specifically at improving student achievement. In 2008, the government announced the “Zero Plan for Below-Basic Students,” an effort to provide targeted support to raise achievement for the lowest-performing students. As part of that plan, the Ministry created the Schools for Improvement program, which began in 2010. The program identified schools with relatively high shares of low-performing students on Korea’s National Assessment of Educational Achievement (NAEA) and provided extra funding, assistant teachers, and an extended academic year to those schools. The share of students performing “Below Basic” declined significantly following the introduction of the “Zero Plan” in 2008. By 2012, the share of students scoring “Below Basic” was less than 1 percent at the primary level and less than 4 percent at the secondary level.
In 2013, amid concerns about an overemphasis on testing, the Ministry revamped its approach to raising student achievement. It eliminated the grade 6 NAEA and created a new program for primary and lower secondary schools, called Do-Dream Schools, to provide more holistic support to students. The Ministry selects Do-Dream Schools using multiple indicators of student achievement, including school-based assessments and teacher recommendations. The Ministry also considers factors such as socioeconomic status and emotional or behavioral needs of the student body. School participation is voluntary., Each Do-Dream School receives funding to provide parent and student counseling, after-school academic or enrichment programming, and other supports. Do-Dream Teams of teachers, school leaders, and other support specialists such as school nurses, work with students to improve their academic performance. As of 2015, there were more than 1,000 Do-Dream Schools in Korea, about 10 percent of all primary and lower secondary schools. While NAEA testing at grades 9 and 11 was scaled back to a sample basis in 2017, NAEA results are still used to identify secondary schools with students in need of enhanced support.,
The Ministry of Education requires at least one special school in each province to serve students with special educational needs. Students with special needs make up roughly one percent of the student population in Korea. Most special schools are comprehensive, serving students of all ages who need the most intensive supports (about 30 percent of all special needs students). Students with mild to moderate needs are encouraged to remain in mainstream schools, either enrolled in special classes or in a combination of special and mainstream classes. The number of special classrooms within mainstream schools has increased by more than 40 percent since 2007. That year, the Ministry of Education instituted a program intended to integrate special needs education into mainstream education as much as possible. This program created additional jobs for special education teachers in mainstream schools and expanded professional learning opportunities for mainstream teachers to prepare them to work with students with special needs.
Digital Platforms and Resources
Korea’s public Educational Broadcasting System (EBS), originally established in the 1950s to provide educational television programming, has since expanded its mission to include online teaching and learning. Today, EBS has multiple online channels broadcasting lessons aligned to the national curriculum across grade levels. EBS also provides free online resources to help students prepare for the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) at the end of upper secondary school. These resources form part of the government’s drive for greater equity around standardized test preparation.
Teachers in Korea also have access to digital resource libraries and other technology tools designed to support online lesson design. These are generally operated by the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS), an organization under the Ministry of Education that promotes the integration of information and communication technologies in education and academic research. They include EduNet T-Clear (“Teacher-Curriculum Learning, Evaluation, and Activity Resources”), a website that provides digital teaching and learning resources, as well as a set of interactive digital textbooks. KERIS also operates two online learning platforms, Wedorang and e-Hakseupteo. Wedorang allows teachers to set up online classrooms and communicate with students, while e-Hakseupteo can be used to share assignments with students and create portfolios and records of student learning progress. In March 2020, in response to coronavirus-related school closures, KERIS launched a new site known as School-On, which allows primary and lower secondary school teachers to share their own digital teaching and learning resources with each other.