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Context

The Republic of Korea has ranked among the top-performing nations throughout PISA’s administration, despite small dips in 2009 and 2012.  Korea’s performance is also among the most equitable of OECD countries, although 2018 saw a slight increase in the gap between high- and low-performing students, due to a drop in scores of the lowest performers.  Still, Korea’s academic prowess represents a remarkable achievement for a country that essentially built a brand-new education system at the end of the 20th century.

Following the Korean War, the Korean government shifted authority for education from local school boards to the Ministry of Education. The 1949 Basic Education Law established six years of primary school, beginning at age 6, followed by three years of lower secondary school and then three years of upper secondary school. By the mid-1960s, 90 percent of children ages 6 to 12 were attending school, which eliminated what had been widespread illiteracy. By 1979, children were enrolled in lower secondary schools at the same rates, and by 2018, some 98 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds had completed upper secondary education—the highest rate among OECD countries. By that same year, 70 percent of this age group had also completed postsecondary education, again the highest rate among OECD countries, and that rate continues to grow. 

Korea’s education system was and remains highly test-driven, despite recent efforts to change. In Korea, most education and career opportunities depend on which upper secondary school and college or university students attend, and admissions decisions are still based largely on test scores. As of 2018, more than 70 percent of Korean primary and secondary school students worked with private tutors, often at after-school tutoring centers (hagwons). The prevalence of private tutoring has raised concerns about inequality and student stress, and the government has taken steps to reduce test pressure and the demand for hagwons. The government instituted an exam-free semester—recently expanded to a full year—in lower secondary schools, and some regions have imposed limitations on hagwon operating hours. In addition, the government has attempted to expand admissions criteria for higher education beyond exam results. It is not clear if these measures have worked. Top tier universities still hold the promise of prestigious and high paying jobs to students and their families.

Teacher quality is a factor in Korean success. In response to severe secondary school teacher shortages in the 1960s and 1970s, Korea took steps toward building a strong, highly-qualified teaching force, including establishing four-year colleges and universities dedicated to teacher preparation; developing a system for forecasting and responding to teacher supply and demand; and increasing the salaries of teachers. The passage of the Special Act on the Improvement of Teachers’ Status in 1991 enhanced the status of the teaching profession by guaranteeing job protections, competitive salaries, and authority and input into educational matters. Today, teachers in Korea enjoy high social status, job stability, and high pay, and more than 80 percent report that teaching was their first-choice profession, compared to the OECD average of 67 percent. Applicants accepted into primary school teacher education programs generally come from the top 10 percent of their secondary school cohort, and all teachers must pass a rigorous employment exam in order to work in public schools. The proportion of all Korean teachers who are fully certified and hold bachelor’s degrees is among the highest in the world.  

During the past decade, Korea has embarked on reforms to update its already successful education system to better prepare students for a fast-changing global economy. The government revamped its curriculum to focus on the development of 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 support for high-need students, developed leadership paths and expanded training for teachers, and restructured vocational education and training to better meet labor market needs. 

Quick Facts

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Population

Population: 51,715,000

Population growth rate: 0.26%

Demographic makeup: Homogenous

Source: CIA World Factbook 2021

GDP

GDP: $2,211 billion

GDP per capita: $42,765 (2019 estimate in 2010 dollars)

Source: CIA World Factbook 2021

Employment

Unemployment rate: 3.94% 

Youth unemployment rate: 10.2%

Source: OECD 2020, CIA World Factbook 2021

Economy

Services-dominated economy

Key services industries: retail, transportation, financial services, education, health care 

Key manufacturing areas: consumer electronics, household goods, automobiles, steel

Source: CIA World Factbook 2021

Postsecondary Attainment

Ages 25-34: 70%

Ages 25-64: 50%

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2020

Governance

Governance Structure

The central Ministry of Education oversees Korea’s education system and is responsible for setting national education policy for primary and secondary schools, including the national curriculum. The Ministry of Health and Welfare shares responsibility for children up to age 5 with the Ministry of Education. 

The Ministry of Education’s Policy Advisory Council, an advisory body with more than 100 members, gathers information and opinions on education policy, both domestic and international, to advise the Ministry. Council members are appointed to three-year terms and can include regional superintendents of education, university presidents, and representatives of education organizations and other non-governmental organizations. Korea also has a set of government-supported research institutes that focus on specific policy areas: the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE); the Korean Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training (KRIVET); the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education (KICCE); the Korean Education and Research Information Service (KERIS); and The Korean Education Development Institute (KEDI). 

Since 2008, there has been a shift toward greater autonomy for Korea’s 17 regional education offices, which oversee the education system in large metropolitan areas and provinces. These offices are now responsible for school budgets and school inspection, although the central Ministry retains control over national policy. Regional superintendents and school board members are elected positions. Superintendents must have at least three years’ experience in education or educational administration, and more than 50 percent of board members must have at least 10 years’ experience in education. Local education offices (numbering 176 at the county level) oversee local schools and implement national and regional policies. Each school has its own school council, which includes parents, educators, and other stakeholders. The school council has input into decisions around promotion, professional development, and other matters. 

Planning and Goals

Korea’s Ministry of Education prepares annual reports outlining education policy goals for the coming year. The reports also analyze broad challenges facing Korea. For example, the Ministry’s 2020 report analyzes the impact of artificial intelligence and related technologies on the economy and recommends the development of draft artificial intelligence education standards for primary and secondary schools to help students be better prepared for a changing economy. 

Each annual report also provides an evaluation of recently implemented education policies and initiatives. Results are generally presented in terms of progress against a quantitative indicator, such as employment rates of secondary school graduates. 

Education Finance

The Ministry of Education provides regional and local governments more than 75 percent of funding for schools. Among other costs, these national subsidies cover the salaries for teachers in compulsory education.  The remaining quarter of education spending comes from regional funds and school fees for academic upper secondary education, which is not compulsory.  Most allocation of this funding is done at the local level.

About 15 percent of primary and secondary schools in Korea are private, most at the secondary school level. Private schools receive public funding. In return, they do not charge school fees for compulsory education and cannot charge higher fees for upper secondary education than public schools charge. Private schools adhere to the national curriculum, and teachers are required to meet the same standards for teacher certification as in public schools. The key difference is that teachers are employed directly by the school rather than by the Ministry, which means that they are not required to rotate among schools, as are public school teachers. In 2009, the government granted increased autonomy for curriculum and student selection to a small group of private upper secondary schools referred to as autonomous schools, which can charge higher tuition fees and do not receive government subsidies. 

Until 2021, families paid upper secondary schools fees to cover expenses like admission fees and textbooks. In 2021, the government eliminated school fees for all but a small set of the most elite upper secondary schools and will eliminate fees for all upper secondary schools by 2025. This includes vocational secondary schools.  

Accountability 

School Accountability

Regional education offices evaluate schools every one to three years. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires inspectors to focus on teaching and learning methods, implementation of the curriculum, educational activities, and achievement. The Minister or the regional superintendent can add other focus areas if they choose. Since 2012, regional education offices have had greater autonomy in school evaluation, part of a broader trend toward increased local control. Regional education offices are responsible for organizing inspections and selecting teams of inspectors (usually composed of experienced teachers and school leaders) with the option to seek additional support from the Ministry. Regional offices do not use school reviews punitively; instead, they give struggling schools advice on how to improve. The results of school evaluations are reported publicly.

Teacher Accountability

Principals evaluate all teachers annually within guidelines set at the national level. Schools use the results of these evaluations to guide promotion decisions (for example, to Master Teacher, a leadership role), award performance-based pay, and help identify appropriate professional learning opportunities. Evaluations also inform decisions about periodic rotation of teachers among schools, which is required for all teachers in public schools. In addition to feedback from the principal, teachers receive evaluation feedback from other teachers, students, and parents. This feedback informs the development of teacher professional learning plans but is not used punitively.

Foundation of Supports

Supports for Young Children and Their Families

Korea has struggled with declining fertility rates in recent years: the average number of children per woman fell below one in 2018, a record low since the government began collecting data in 1970 and well below the OECD average of 1.7. In response, the government has dramatically expanded supports for young children and their families. 

Korea provides new parents with 90 days of maternity leave, fully paid by employers for the first 60 days and then subsidized by the government, and 10 days of employer-paid paternity leave (increased from three days in 2019). In addition, each parent is entitled to one year of government-subsidized parental leave, paid at 80 percent of salary for the first nine months and 40 percent for the last three months. In 2019, the government introduced a new benefit allowing each parent to work reduced hours for an additional year after a child’s birth while receiving 80 percent of their full salary. Parents can take off one to five hours each day, for which the government subsidizes employers.

The government has made a concerted effort to increase the historically low share of fathers taking leave, in hopes that more evenly distributed childcare responsibilities will encourage more women to have children. Measures include the 2014 increase in the monthly parental leave payment if a second parent takes leave; the 2019 increase in the duration of paid paternity leave; and the 2020 law allowing both parents to take parental leave simultaneously., Korea has seen progress, with the number of fathers taking leave increasing by 26 percent in 2019 compared to the prior year. 

In addition to leave policies, Korea provides ongoing financial support to all families of young children. All expectant parents receive a “Citizen-Happiness Voucher” to cover expenses related to pregnancy and childbirth. In 2018, a monthly child allowance was introduced for children up to age 6 in all but the highest-earning families, and in 2019, the allowance was expanded to cover all families with children up to age 7, regardless of income. 

In 2013-14, the Korean government introduced the Nuri initiative, a set of policies designed to expand access to and increase the quality of childcare and early childhood education. Through the Nuri initiative, every family with children up to age 2 receives an “i(Child)-Happiness” card providing subsidies to pay for full-day care in childcare centers, which are overseen by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The vast majority of childcare centers are privately operated, but the Ministry has set a national cap on fees for both public and private centers in order to ensure affordability. All programs for children up to age 2 follow Korea’s National Standard Child Care Curriculum. About 56 percent of children ages 0-2 are enrolled in childcare in Korea, significantly above the OECD average of 35 percent.  Enrollment in childcare increased significantly from 2000 through 2014 but has levelled off since then.

National Health Insurance, Korea’s mandatory public health insurance, provides health care coverage for nearly all families. In 2019, the government announced that routine health care costs would be reduced and nearly eliminated for infants up to age 1. Among other programs focusing on maternal and child health, the Nutrition Plus project provides nutritional services for pregnant women and young children identified as needing support based on factors like low birth weight.  

Supports for School Aged Children

Students from immigrant families and from North Korea have access to targeted counseling and welfare services, and the government has instituted a “Global Bridge” program for multicultural students, defined in Korea as children with one Korean parent and one foreign parent. There are about 100,000 multicultural students in Korea, or about 1.7 percent of the student population. The Global Bridge program, which selects 100 multicultural students to participate each year, is intended to provide connections between Korea and students’ home countries. The Ministry of Education Support Plan for Multicultural Education details additional strategies for supporting students from diverse backgrounds. Supports include mentorship from university students able to speak students’ first languages; Korean language and culture classes; curriculum development in areas such as foreign language or “global citizenship education”; improved career education and counseling; relevant teacher training in teacher preparation programs and in-service professional learning; and increased support for Local Centers for Multicultural Education to facilitate coordination among community organizations. The government provided US$16 million (19 billion KRW) for support of the plan in 2017.

The government has also aimed to reduce family spending on private tutoring, which is a source of income-based inequality in Korea. Efforts have included limiting hagwon operating hours and subsidizing after-school tutoring in schools as an alternative to hagwons. In addition, in 2014 the government passed the Special Act on the Normalization of Public Education and Regulation of Pre-curriculum Education, which requires that school lessons and assessments cover only what has been taught in school., In addition, the government has increased the amount of no-cost supplementary material available on the Educational Broadcasting System television network and Internet portal. Regional education offices in Seoul and elsewhere have also imposed curfews on hagwons and limited operating. The goal is to ensure that basic education does not require or encourage students to pursue private tutoring. Education spending from private sources as a share of GDP declined by more than 40 percent in Korea from 2005 to 2015.

The “Dream Start” program, operated through the Ministry of Health and Welfare, provides wraparound services—including case management and home visits—for children from birth to age 12 who may need additional supports, such as those from low-income families.

Learning System

Preschool

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 

System Structure

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. 

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.

Learning Supports

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., 

Special Education

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. 

Career and Technical Education

Governance and System Structure

The Ministry of Education oversees almost all aspects of vocational education for secondary school students, including setting policy, authorizing providers and programs, and developing the national curriculum for vocational subjects. Formerly, the Ministry of Education also oversaw development of occupational standards for its vocational education programs, but in 2010 Korea shifted to a unified set of occupational standards—known as the National Competency Standards—across all types of vocational education, including vocational training for adults. The Ministry of Employment and Labor assumed primary responsibility for developing and maintaining these standards, which are used in curriculum development for all vocational program types.  

The Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training (KRIVET) conducts research related to vocational education and training. The Prime Minister’s office oversees the institute, which was founded in 1997. 

Students first enter vocational education and training (VET) in upper secondary school. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, roughly 50 percent of upper secondary school students enrolled in VET. Today that share has dropped by half, a decline often attributed to the expansion of higher education and the prestige attached to academic study.  In Korea, university degrees have been perceived to offer the most secure pathway to high-paying jobs with major Korean companies. However, an oversupply of university graduates has created employment challenges for degree holders in recent years.  

After graduating from upper secondary VET, students can go directly to work, apply to two- to three-year vocational programs at junior or polytechnic colleges, or apply to university. Junior colleges, which are private, and polytechnic colleges, which are public, offer similar programs, but with different tuition costs. Junior colleges and polytechnics also offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Secondary school students must take the CSAT and apply for admission to any postsecondary option.

CTE Programs

Specialized upper secondary vocational schools account for almost all upper secondary VET enrollment. They offer a three-year program: year one is devoted to academic subjects; year two covers a combination of academic and vocational coursework; and year three focuses on specialized training in a vocational field such as manufacturing, information technology, or agriculture. Students can complete one semester of work-based learning during their third year. Schools determine which components of the national curriculum they will offer based on labor market needs. Teachers at specialized schools must be certified by colleges of education. About 84 percent of teachers are part-time, as most continue to work in their industry.

In 2010, the Ministry began the process of converting 50 specialized schools into Meister schools, modeled on the German Dual System. Meister schools account for about 5 percent of all upper secondary VET enrollment and are designed to prepare highly skilled workers (“masters”) in industries of national or local strategic importance, such as electronics, energy, and robotics. Meister schools work directly with industry partners to develop their own curricula. They have competitive entrance requirements and guarantee employment to their graduates. Graduates are required to go directly into the workforce. After three years they may pursue further educational opportunities without needing to take the CSAT, and many do. 

About 35 percent of upper secondary VET graduates continue to postsecondary education, in most cases in the junior college or polytechnic college system. Korea is concerned about an oversupply of higher education graduates, however, and is actively encouraging upper secondary VET graduates to join the workforce. Under the policy “Employment First, Advancement to University Later,” Korea allows candidates to bypass the CSAT when applying to certain colleges and universities from the workforce. The number of students opting for work experience before continuing to further education almost doubled from 2013 to 2016.

Recent Reforms 

During the past decade, Korea has sought to boost student interest in VET and better align VET programs and labor market needs. The Ministry wants to increase the share of students in vocational schools to 29 percent by 2022 and has put in place a series of reforms toward that end. 

First, Korea increased the emphasis on career exploration in the primary and lower secondary curriculum to prepare students for the choice of VET in upper secondary school. For example, the 2013 Exam-Free Semester initiative specified that lower secondary schools can devote part of their free time to career exploration. Second, the Ministry of Employment and Labor developed National Competency Standards (NCS) in 24 broad industry areas. The NCS defined the competencies, from basic literacy to advanced expertise, for employment in those industries. The Ministry of Education has integrated the NCS into national curricula in vocational fields. Third, the government has worked to expand apprenticeship opportunities for students enrolled in specialized schools. A pilot “work and study” apprenticeship program for students in grades 11 and 12, introduced in 2014, had expanded to about 40 percent of all specialized schools by 2017. Korea is focused on lowering the cost to companies of apprenticeships and on building coordination between specialized schools and junior colleges so that students have clear pathways to continue their training within specific industry areas. 

Teachers and Principals

Teacher Recruitment

Teaching is a high-status and well-paid job in Korea. Recruitment of teachers is very different for primary and secondary school teachers, however. Korea closely regulates the supply of primary school teachers, who are trained in only 13 institutions in the country; secondary school teachers are trained at a much broader set of institutions and programs. This has resulted in very competitive admission to primary school teaching programs with high job placement rates, and less competitive admission to secondary school teaching programs with much lower job placement rates. All teachers must pass an employment exam in order to work in public schools. Because of the oversupply of secondary school teachers, they must score very well on the employment exam to qualify for one of the limited spots, making hiring rather than school admission the key selection point. Indeed, only about one in five trained secondary school teachers work as teachers.

Teacher Preparation and Induction

Primary school teacher candidates in Korea are trained in undergraduate programs at 11 national universities of education, one public university, and one private university. Secondary school teacher candidates have more training options: undergraduate programs in a broader range of colleges and universities or programs at graduate schools of education. Most students enroll in undergraduate programs. The Korean government has set up an accreditation system for teacher preparation programs to try to maintain quality across institutions. As part of this system, it has required all programs to adhere to national curriculum standards and conducts periodic evaluations of these programs, tied to program funding. 

Every teacher in 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 education. Subject major courses include content knowledge and content-specific pedagogy, while courses in education include educational theory and courses tailored to current social issues, as well as a practicum requirement. For primary school teacher candidates, the practicum component is typically nine to 10 weeks and includes observation practice, participation practice, teaching practice, and administrative work practice. For secondary school teachers, the practicum length varies, but undergraduate programs typically include four-week practicums. Once teachers have completed their training programs they receive a Grade II certificate, which qualifies them to work in a school.

Before applying for a teaching position, however, candidates must take a national employment exam. The exam has two parts: a written test that includes multiple-choice and essay questions, and an interview and demonstration lesson. The exam is highly competitive, and teachers are ranked based on their scores. Many teacher candidates hire private tutors to prepare for the exam.

Once teachers are hired, they go through three stages of school-based induction: pre-employment training, post-employment training, and follow-up training. The Ministry introduced 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 on the job 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 a Grade I certificate after three years of experience and 180 hours of required in-service qualification training. A Grade I certificate allows teachers to apply for leadership positions, such as principal or Master Teacher.

Preschool teacher preparation requirements vary depending on whether a childcare center or a kindergarten administers the program. Kindergarten teachers must complete at least a two-year college degree specializing in early childhood education, which leads to a Grade II teaching certificate. Preschool teachers working in childcare centers must complete a one-year training program after graduation from high school, which leads to a Grade III teaching certificate.

Teacher Career Progression

Teachers in 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 on all tracks depends on a point system, with points accrued for years of teaching experience, performance on annual evaluations, and pursuit of professional learning opportunities, including required qualification training programs. Teachers can also earn points for specific forms of service, such as teaching in remote areas or in special education schools.

Korea piloted the Master Teacher designation in 2008 and implemented it nationwide in 2012. As of 2019, about 25 percent of primary and secondary school teachers in Korea were Master Teachers. Master Teachers continue teaching a reduced class schedule while taking on new responsibilities such as mentoring, leading professional learning experiences, and designing curriculum. To apply to become a Master Teacher, teachers must have a Grade I certificate,15 years of teaching experience and be recommended by their schools. Screening committees in each regional education office evaluate applicants by observing them teaching, reviewing their peer interview results, and conducting an in-depth interview. Master Teachers must also complete qualification training. 

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 in these duties. Principals and vice principals generally do not teach in 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. Teachers promoted to these roles go on to work at either the Ministry of Education or regional education offices.

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

Part of the career progression for teachers in public schools  is periodic rotation among schools. Every five years, a teacher must rotate to another school in the same region. As a result, teachers gain experience in a variety of settings over the course of their careers, and schools gain the expertise of teachers matched to their needs.

Teacher Development

In 2010 Korea implemented the Teacher Evaluation for Professional Development system. In this system, peers, school leaders, students, and parents all evaluate teacher performance; the results are then used to inform individualized professional learning 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 learning. 

Professional learning opportunities are 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 learning. For example, in order to prepare teachers to implement the 2015 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 US$3.8 million (4 billion KRW) to support professional learning communities across the country. Because professional learning is worth points toward teacher promotion, there is a direct connection between teachers’ participation in professional learning experiences and career advancement. 

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

Principal Recruitment, Preparation and Development

School leadership positions are prestigious and in high demand. Traditionally, regional education officials pre-select future school leaders for promotion in order to ensure a pool of high-quality candidates, although this is changing. The selection process is shifting towards competitive recruitment of candidates who are ranked by points earned through experience, performance, and training. Principals in Korea accumulate a significant amount of classroom experience—an average of almost 30 years—prior to becoming school leaders.

Once selected, principal candidates participate in a government-funded training program, which leads to a principal qualification. Ministry guidelines specify a program length of 180 hours over 30 or more days. Seventy to 80 percent of program content must be related to school administration/management, with the remaining courses focused on broader education topics. The government also provides training for vice principal qualifications. Vice principal used to be a required step toward becoming a principal, but this is no longer the case.

School leaders are employees of the central government and generally may serve two terms at any one school for a maximum of eight years, after which they can request a transfer to a new school or are assigned to one. Rural and very small schools are given priority when requesting a new principal through this transfer system.  Some regions are beginning to allow principals to serve for more than two terms. 

The National Teacher Evaluation for Professional Development 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 personal professional learning plans.