Debate on Equalization Policy (3)
The School Equalization Policy of Korea: Past Failures and Proposed Measure for Reform
This paper argues that Korea's educational equalization policy
has failed to achieve its major policy goals, which are to improve
educational equality and to reduce the economic burden of private
tutoring and minimize the negative side effects of exam-oriented
education. We also suggest that the equalization policy has lowered
levels of academic achievement by limiting students and parents'
choice of schools, and by strengthening the government's control
over schools. We also explain the political-economic reasons why
the equalization policy has been maintained over the last 30 years,
despite its evident negative effects. We conclude that the equalization
policy should be overhauled through a number of reform measures,
such as providing school choice, disclosing the differences between
schools, increasing the autonomy of school units, and strengthening
governmental support for students with lower academic achievement.
Keywords: equalization policy, school choice, private tutoring,
The education equalization policy, which focuses on providing
both equal and expanded educational opportunities, has been at the
core of Korean secondary education policy since the 1970s. However,
though such education equalization policies did in fact play a positive
role during Korea's era of rapid industrialization, it has become
apparent that such policies have failed to keep pace with the educational
needs of today.
The two main strategies of equalization policies have been: (1)
to limit school choice by assigning students to schools, regardless
of whether the school is public or private; and (2) to strengthen
government control over schools in order to maintain educational
uniformity across all schools. These two strategies reinforce each
other. On the one hand, if the government assigns students to school
units offering markedly differing levels of educational quality,
it is only natural that students who have been assigned to low-level
schools and their parents would strongly oppose the government's
approach. Such students and parents would then push for greater
government intervention over schools in order to equalize educational
quality across schools. On the other hand, if the government allows
students and parents some degree of free choice in the selection
of schools, the government would have less justification for intervening
in the educational system, since there would be far fewer complaints
from students and parents.
When students and parents are not allowed to choose their schools,
schools have little incentive to improve the quality of their education
because they do not have to worry about competing for students.
And the government's control buttressed by the equalization policy
has severely reduced school autonomy and local initiatives. Thus,
the absence of school choice and the prevalence of government control
have exacerbated many of the deep-seated educational problems in
Korea, including the mushrooming of private tutoring and rote learning.
The organization of this paper is as follows. Section 2 of this
paper includes a more detailed evaluation of the equalization policy.
Section 3 analyzes the reasons why the equalization policy has been
maintained, despite the many problems it has caused. Finally, Section
4 introduces measures designed to reform the equalization policy.
Failure of Equalization Policy
The Effect of the Equalization Policy on Students' Academic Achievement
Those who assert that the equalization policy has not lowered
students' levels of academic achievement often point to the results
of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) conducted
by the OECD in 2000. In that particular assessment, the Korean students
came in sixth in reading literacy, second in mathematical literacy,
and first in science literacy.
However, such high scores in mathematical and scientific literacy
mask more fundamental problems of the Korean secondary education.
Since parents' spending on private tutoring has been escalated to
the level that is almost equivalent to that of public spending on
schools in the late 1990s, it is probable that the excellent test
scores of Korean students in the PISA could be mainly driven by
private tutoring rather than by public education.
A close look at the results of the PISA reveals many more problems
concerning Korea's school education system. The percent of Korean
students whose scores reached the highest level (Level 5) in reading
literacy was only 5.7, thus placing Korea in the lowest grouping
along with Greece, Portugal, and Spain. Considering that the average
for OECD members was 9.5%, it is clear that the Korean education
system is not doing well in educating students with high academic
Moreover, the result of a PISA survey on students' sense of involvement
with their school was even more shocking. The survey asked the following
questions: Do you enjoy going to school? Do you feel a sense of
belonging to your school? Students in Korea scored the lowest on
these questions, along with Poland. The ratio of Korean students
with a low sense of belonging to their school was 41.4%, while the
average for OECD members was 24.5%.
In order to understand fluctuations in students' levels of academic
achievement, an annual evaluation of students' academic achievements
should be carried out, and these results must be made public. However,
the Ministry of Education & Human Resources Development has
refused to publish any related information for fear of revealing
the fact that wide gaps between schools persist despite the equalization
Nevertheless, a few research projects comparing students' levels
of academic achievement in the equalized and the non-equalized areas
have been carried out, despite the limited data. Some studies have
concluded that, with the exception of elite students, there is no
evidence that students' levels of academic achievement in equalized
districts has been lower than those in non-equalized districts.
However, the shortcoming of these studies is that they did not fully
take into consideration the fact that, while non-equalized areas
are concentrated in small and mid-sized cities and rural districts,
equalized districts are mostly concentrated in the large metropolitan
cities, including Seoul. The levels of academic achievement of students
from equalized districts may in fact be the result of the higher
education level of their parents, their higher income levels, and
their larger investments in private tutoring.
Kim T. et al. (2004), which was based on the Korean National
Assessment of Educational Achievement, limited its scope to students
from small and mid-sized cities in order to minimize the above-mentioned
problems. The study found that the equalization policy lowers the
test scores of students by roughly a 0.3 standard deviation. And
they showed that the equalization policy harmed students' performance
by similar points of test scores across ability distribution.
The Equalization Policy and Private Tutoring
Private tutoring has expanded as a result of the combination
of the weakening of school-based education and increasing pressure
to enter a better university. As the competition to enter better
university has reached extreme proportions, the demands for private
tutoring geared to this end have also increased. Since the supply
of the quality education cannot keep up with the demand for education,
parents and students have had no choice but to turn to private tutoring.
Through the application of a uniform set of regulations over schools,
the equalization policy has lowered the quality of school education.
School education has lagged behind in its competition with private
tutoring, and the financial burden associated with private tutoring
has rapidly increased.
Of course, there are problems associated with the education system,
characterized by excessive and wasteful competition to enter university.
While the Korean government has made efforts to reform the entrance
exam-oriented education system, it is important to note that the
more fundamental reason for the failure of this effort has been
the equalization policy. Although the government has attempted to
diversify the rules and standards of the entrance exam, im-provements
to the monolithic entrance exam system cannot be brought about without
reforms to the equalization policy itself. Universities cannot select
students based on diverse criteria such as recommendations by principals
when schools are teaching students under the uniformly controlled
setting. The fact that frequent changes have been made to the entrance
exam, even while the equalization policy has been left intact, has
not helped to ease the problems. In conclusion, the problems stemming
from the equalization policy and the entrance exam-geared education
system should be addressed together in order to reduce parents'
financial burden stemming from private tutoring.
Opposing opinions have emerged regarding the reform of the high
school equalization policy. Some argue that if the equalization
policy were reformed to allow for school choice at the high school
level, this would give rise to increased competition over the high
school entrance exam, thus increasing the demand for private tutoring
even more. However, Kim and Lee (2002a) provided empirical evidence
that students from non-equalized areas spent less on private tutoring
than students from equalized areas. They concluded that students
would continue to strive to enter universities despite any changes
to the high school exam because their ultimate goal is to enter
a better university, not a better high school. On the other hand,
if school choice were allowed, the amount of private tutoring a
student receives during high school would eventually decrease as
the level of satisfaction with the school increased.
Indeed, even in the current system of very limited school choice,
there has been excessive competition to enter independent private
schools and specialized schools where school choice is allowed.
However, the lack of schools with school choice (less than five
percent out of all general high schools) has been the main cause
of these problems. With more schools with school choice, we would
most likely see an increased number of schools that select students
based on their own educational philosophies and curriculums, in
addition to schools that select only elite students. If the number
of schools offering a choice increased as part of equalization policy
reforms, and students were given the option of choosing from a wider
variety of school types, the excessive, wasteful competition to
enter better high schools would be diminished to a great extent
in the long run. Likewise, private tutoring would decrease over
time as well, although maybe not right away, given the addictive
effects of private tutoring. In addition, greater school choice
would be also expected to contribute to the amelioration of the
problems of middle-class parents, who have grown discontent with
the Korean school system, and are increasingly sending their children
overseas to study.
The Effect of the Equalization Policy on Educational Equality
The equalization policy contributed to increasing educational
opportunities during the period when Korea required a rapid expansion
of the school system. However, once the rapid expansion phase stopped,
the equalization policy seems to have worsened educational equality.
Lee and Hong (2001) suggested that private tutoring has become the
main channel through which the children of the wealthy families
can enter elite universities. The reliance on private tutoring has
damaged any previous gains in educational equality. If the equalization
policy cannot stop the expansion of private tutoring--or worse,
actually promotes it--the pursuit of educational equality through
the equalization policy will be offset by an increase in private
tutoring, a result that is the very opposite of what was intended.
In the United States, concerns about school stratification have
often been raised with regard to the question of a wider school
choice. If permitted a wider school choice, students with higher
socioeconomic backgrounds will always choose to go to elite schools.
On the other hand, students who are left behind in the "forgotten"
schools might lose the opportunity to learn from their above-average
peers in the same classroom. Thus, stratification across schools
can contribute to a widening gap in the levels of academic achievement
between different schools. In particular, educational equality would
be further hampered by school stratification to the extent that
parents' income levels and students' levels of academic achievement
are closely related. However, to date there is no general agreement
among scholars whether and to what extent the peer effect can damage
the ideal of educational equality.
Kim Tae-jong et al. (2004) have introduced three conclusions
out of their empirical analysis regarding the equalization policy.
First, the equalization policy, allocating students of widely different
academic levels to the same classrooms, has raised serious problems
in terms of interactions between teachers and students. This has
made teachers' instruction more difficult and less effective. Second,
the peer effect, in which above-average students are expected to
have a positive effect on students with lower levels of academic
achievement, has not been significant. Third, schools in non-equalized
districts face intensified competition to attract better students,
making their educational effectiveness much higher than that of
schools in equalized areas.
Kim Tae-jong et al. (2004) who based their analysis on the last
30-year distribution of students who entered the College of Social
Sciences in Seoul National University, one of the most prestigious
universities in Korea, argued that educational inequality has actually
gotten worse. Their empirical findings suggest that educational
inequality has been worsened because of the proliferation of private
tutoring. While students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds have
been able to enter Seoul National University through the help of
expensive private tutoring, opportunities for students with lower
socioeconomic backgrounds have shrunk because they lack financial
access to quality private tutoring and quality education in the
regular school system is nonexistent.
Political Economy of the Equalization Policy
By limiting school choice and strengthening the government's
control over schools, the equalization policy has failed to curb
the escalation of private tutoring costs and has even lowered students'
academic achievement and the level of educational equality. Thus,
the question is, why has the government maintained this policy for
the last 30 years?
First of all, reform efforts have focused on the symptoms rather
than the deep-seated roots of the problems. Frequent changes in
the university entrance exam system and various measures to regulate
private education have been tried without reforming the equalization
policy. Aside from the fundamental problems associated with the
equalization policy, efforts to ease the problems related to the
entrance exam, which have focused on diversifying the types of tests
offered, have not brought any real changes to the entrance exam
itself. Nevertheless, entrance exam reform has been given top priority,
at the expense of reforms to the equalization policy.
Every new government has identified the need to decrease private
tutoring as the top priority of educational reform. As Kim and Lee
(2002b) point out, the government's strong control over schools
was justified as part of its effort to ease the problems of private
tutoring. However, contrary to its goals, the policy lowered the
diversity and quality of school education, thus resulting in increased
discontent of parents and students over the school system, and brought
about even more private tutoring.
There is also a need to note that no real improvements have been
made to the equalization policy, since certain groups have a vested
interest in maintaining it. Because of the equalization policy's
tendency to strengthen the government's authoritative control over
schools, the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education and Human
Resources have been dragging their feet in implementing reform policies,
and have even gone as far as to exercise their power to prevent
any changes to the policy. The teachers' union has also supported
the equalization policy. As Hoxby (2003b) points out, the labor
market for teachers can be regarded as the upstream market that
supplies the inputs to the education output of schools. As such,
school choice and school autonomy can influence the labor market
for teachers. The application of school choice and school autonomy
heightens competition among teachers, and this competition has a
positive effect on parents and students alike. However, in the short
run, the implementation of these two measures may threaten some
of the advantages currently enjoyed by teachers. As such, this can
be understood as the reason why the teachers' union is in favor
of maintaining the equalization policy in its current form. Also,
founders of private schools as well as school foundations can also
be regarded as having benefited from the equalization policy. They
have been able to receive financial support from the government
without competitive pressures, and instead have been subjected to
strong control from the government. Moreover, alumni of public schools
have strongly opposed the introduction of an "independent"
private education system from the very beginning, perhaps because
the alumni of the prestigious public high schools wish not to see
its good reputation falling behind new private schools that are
Nevertheless, we argue that the benefits of the equalization
policy, if any, are temporary, and that only a select number of
groups have benefited thus far--something that will change once
the equalization policy is successfully reformed. A well-designed
and carefully-implemented reform of equalization policy can satisfy
all parties concerned, including school principals, teachers, and
school founders, as well as students and parents--the biggest victims
of the equalization policy. This paper maintains that the main reason
the equalization policy has not been reformed successfully stems
from the unbalanced and ill-defined reform agenda set by the previous
governments. More emphasis should be put on school choice and school
Equalization Policy Reform
Equalization policy reforms should move beyond simply trying
to expand school choice, to employing an approach that incorporates
such steps as the information disclosure of the differences between
schools, the extension of school autonomy, and the strengthening
of the government's financial support for students with lower levels
of academic ability.
First, school choice should be introduced gradually. School choice
should be allowed to independent private schools first. Once this
is achieved, school choice should be introduced into regular public
schools and private schools that are not independent. This does
not imply a return to pre-equalization policy days, when school
choices were allowed to every school regardless of their public
or private status. However, the implementation of school choice
should be carried out at a much faster pace, and to a wider segment
of schools, than the measures the Ministry of Education and Human
Resources Development is implementing presently.
Second, in addition to granting more autonomy in the selection
of students, it is necessary to increase schools' ability to select
their teachers, form their own curriculums, and manage their schools.
School autonomy should be first extended to schools that can be
selected by students or parents. Next, autonomous school management
of teachers, curriculums, and administrative matters should be introduced,
even in schools that cannot be freely chosen. A school autonomy
system should be introduced to make various school choices possible,
and to allow schools to keep up with ever-expanding educational
demands. The effectiveness of school choice should not be decreased
by, as is currently done in non-equalized areas, simply granting
this right, while maintaining uniform regulation over schools.
Third, the quality differences between schools could be reflected
in the entrance exam by individual university. If this does not
happen, those schools that attempt to raise students' levels of
academic achievement might be disadvantaged when it comes to the
entrance exam. To promote competition among schools, individual
universities should be allowed to have autonomy in weighing quality
differences between schools in selecting students. Even if school
choice and school autonomy are introduced, if university are still
prohibited from considering the quality differences between the
high schools of their applicants, a competitive environment between
schools will be unable to take root.
Fourth, important information about school performance should
be disclosed in a transparent manner to enable both students and
parents to fully exercise their rights to school choice, and to
promote desirable competition among schools. The government should
push harder for information disclosure on school performance. The
information disclosure on school performance should be the first
step in reforms of the equalization policy.
Lastly, the government should strive to decrease the gap between
schools, to increase financial support for students with lower levels
of academic ability, and to strengthen the responsibilities of schools
in educating below-average students. The government should assure
school autonomy by introducing the charter school system, as has
been done with charter schools in the United States. Thus, the benefits
to be gleaned from the improvement of the high school equalization
policy should be shared by all students.
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Lee Ju-Ho (Yi, Ju-ho) is Professor at the Korea Development Institute
(KDI) School of Public Policy and Management and Director of the
Center for Education Policy Research and Initiatives. He received
his Ph.D. in Economics from Cornell University (1990). His
articles include "Private Tutoring and Demand for Education
in South Korea" (coauthored, 2002). E-mail: email@example.com.
1. Bak et al. (2002) reassess
the equalization policy only in terms of issues relating to school
choice, despite the strong correlation between school choice and
authoritative control by the government.
2. See Kang and Seong (2001),
Kim Y. et al. (1995), Kim Y. et al. (1978, 1979), Kim (1998).
3. Their results imply that
the students who are included in the top 20% can reach the top 10%
within a year.
4. With regards to the various
discussions on the reform of the equalization policy, refer to Bak
et al. (2002).