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Korean mathematics in crisis

Posted February. 27, 2017 07:10,   

Updated February. 27, 2017 07:22


The legend of “brain powerhouse Korea” is faltering. It was this exact same country that caught global attention with the Miracle on the Han River and was benchmarked by other nations when it was ranked the first in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Korea hit the record-low when the PISA 2015 announced in December last year. All subjects hit the bottom since 2000 when the first survey was conducted, with the most noticeable drop found in mathematics. For the past three years, Korea has seen a 30-point rapid fall when other OECD member nations fell by an average of 4 points. Percentage of high performers was the lowest when low performers hit a record-high. While regarded as the most important subject in Korean schools and college entrance examination, mathematics is on the steepest downward spiral.

Many people view the current “faltering mathematics” as an “inevitable outcome.” No wonder nine out of 10 regular high school students sleep or never pay attention during mathematics class. This is also common in middle schools and even in elementary schools as well, as many youngsters simply “gave up studying mathematics.”

Experts point out that the fundamental cause of the faltering Korean mathematics as the current eval‎uation is extremely distorted and designed as an "impregnable castle," which ordinary students with logical thinking and learning from school classes cannot conquer. For the past 10 years, the educational authorities downgraded mathematics curriculum and class levels to lessen the burdens of private education fees and students. However, eval‎uations such as school tests and college entrance examinations did not change. As a result, students who learned mathematics only from school classes and never attended private institutions become more and more difficult to earn scores.

In many cases, economic hardship was the most common cause for unavailable access to private education, and the disparity continues to widen in school GPAs and SAT as well. According to an analysis on the 2015 Statistics Korea data, 42.5 percent of Korean households spent on private mathematics institutions in average. Moreover, the figure rose according to the rise in household incomes, with the maximum gap per income reaching at 4.3 folds.

“The current curriculum and eval‎uation is entirely designed to benefit only the kids from the wealthiest families, and the educational system itself is churning out mathematics losers,” criticized Professor Kim Myung-hwan of the mathematical science department at Seoul National University. “The Korean education is currently suffering ‘terminal cancer,’ and it is not our children who gave up mathematics; it is the country which gave up educating," said Professor Kim Jeong-han of the computational science department at the Korea Institute for Advanced Study.

Woo-Sun Lim imsun@donga.com · Ji-Won Noh zone@donga.com