Is Korea’s EFL education failing?

Published March 2013 in Groove Korea


Kelly Choi is an 11-year-old entering fourth grade in Seoul’s Gangnam district. She spends some 10 hours studying in seven English classes every week — more than three-fourths the class time of all her other subjects combined, not counting homework.

Statistically, Kelly (her English name) is behind her classmates. She began studying English in first grade, but half her Gangnam peers started before kindergarten. And when they get to middle and high school, they will spend more than 15,000 hours studying the language.

“I want her to go to university in the U.S.,” said her mother, Kim Hyun-hee. “It looks nice and I want her mind to be expanded, if her ability is acceptable.”

The demand is unmistakable: Parents want the best for their kids, and for Kim, learning English is the “bridge” to success. Some students are driven to study English to experience the world, while others just hope their high English scores will help them get into a famous university and land a job at one of Korea’s big-name chaebol companies.

“The idea of being a salaryman and working for giant conglomerates is pretty ingrained in a lot of people’s minds in Korea,” said Douglas Lee, a native English teacher in Seoul. “Call it the Korean dream. Koreans who are fluent in English are a valuable commodity and they know it. They have an edge in getting a good job.”

That “Korean dream” leads taxpayers and parents to spend more per capita on English than any other country, but despite it all, the country overall ranks middle of the pack globally, and lower in English proficiency levels than countries in much of Asia and Western Europe. And while overall education spending on the subject has hardly abated, the country’s world ranking has even slid over the years.

Policymakers have tried many ways to boost English education: employing Southeast Asians, luring pricey native English teachers from the West and even utilizing robot teachers to fill the role. But in almost a decade of struggles over discrimination, classroom conditions and teacher quality, those projects have begun to backtrack, fizzled out or never gotten off the ground to begin with.

Parents, teachers and education critics alike say that something in the system isn’t working. Now the future of thousands of native English teachers hangs in limbo as schools begin phasing them out, and the enduring battle between public and private education is arguably deepening the “English divide,” which observers say hurts lower-income students’ opportunities to move up the social ladder.

So where did it all go wrong?


Truth in numbers: Is public EFL education set up to fail?


Despite the government spending hundreds of billions of won a year on English education and students spending trillions more at private academies, the country’s global standing in proficiency of the language has fallen: It ranked 13th in 2009 on an independent ranking called the English Proficiency Index, but fell to 21st of the 54 countries assessed in 2011. Another ranking even rated Koreans as the worst communicators in English among 12 Asian countries.

Korea spends more per capita on English education than any other country, according to a study attributed to the Canadian government. Samsung Economic Research Institute estimated that Koreans, who make up nearly 1 in 5 TOEFL test takers worldwide, spent a total of 14.3 trillion won ($13.1 billion) a year on private English tutoring, and another 700 billion won a year applying for English proficiency tests in 2005. Together, this 15 trillion won accounted for 1.9 percent of the country’s GDP that year — compared to the estimated 5 trillion won spent by Japanese students of English.

Moreover, Korean students spend an estimated average of 15,548 hours studying English from middle school to high school alone — not counting elementary school or earlier. That number is comparable to that of Denmark, whose students attain high English proficiency by ninth grade. Half of the students in Gangnam, the wealthiest district in Korea, start studying English before they even reach elementary school, according to the Korea Development Institute, a state-run think tank.

“An over-emphasis on rote learning, relatively low levels of exposure to foreigners in everyday life, and teacher-student norms which impede conversation practice all contribute to the problem,” said a report by Education First, which ranks the English Proficiency Index, adding that the English level among Korean adults is below the average of Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member states.

Critics argue that the public English program is set up to fail. Teachers and parents find textbooks inadequate, class sizes too big, and class times too short to have productive lessons.

Ms. H, a Korean elementary school teacher in Gyeonggi Province for about 14 years, complains that the textbook she uses isn’t good enough. She said that the curriculum doesn’t address all four language-learning essentials: reading, writing, listening and speaking. She believes the program has improved little since her days as a student, partly because the shift in curriculum — from reading and grammar to listening and speaking — is still imbalanced.

“I think these days Korean people say we cannot speak English very well because we just learned about grammar, but I think grammar is also important. They have to teach four skills, not only grammar,” added Ms. H, who teaches classes ranging in size from 30 to 35 students. “I think (the main problem is that) they have no chance to speak English and (teachers) don’t need to speak English.”

Paul Jambor, a Korea University assistant professor specializing in English for academic purposes, believes the Confucian hierarchy of respect that is so ingrained in Korea’s education system is not conducive to communication-based learning — and teachers’ and students’ hesitance to break from this will continue to hinder their abilities. “Teacher-centered classes are very standard in Korea and this is what Korean students and teachers alike are used to. The Confucian hierarchy facilitates the vertical hierarchy which exists in the second-language classroom, placing the student at the bottom of the hierarchy and the teacher at the top,” Jambor said.

“This gives the students little opportunity to voice any concerns and to effectively utilize their linguistic talents since they are not supposed to speak without the teacher’s approval. All in all, this hinders the students’ communicative output and greatly reduces the real-life opportunities in which they can put the language to active use, necessary for acquiring the second language.

“Students should instead be placed in learner-centered classroom settings,” he added. “However, both teachers and students in Korea believe that this is unnatural, and are reluctant to step out of their accepted comfort zones.”

Ms. L, a Myanmar tutor, says she has a tough time helping her students learn English because of their reluctance to embrace it.

“I think the most important thing is, what is their goal? What is the purpose of learning English?” she said. “Sometimes they just want to get a good job; that’s why they learn English. But I think it is not very effective. They have to love English in order for them to learn. If they love it, they can learn it faster. If they don’t love it, they cannot learn.”

However, an integral challenge in improving the system is the lack of hard evidence assessing the effectiveness of different programs, says Oh Jun-il, professor of Pukyong National University and president of the Korea Association of Teachers of English.

“It is worth noting that there are no perfect teachers anywhere in the world,” he said. “In the absence of empirical evidence, it is hard to pinpoint effective and ineffective attempts by policymakers.

“Many policies, however, don’t seem to have been very effective in improving the overall quality of ELT in Korea,” he added. “I think that the English language program has been internally assessed at sporadic intervals. Unfortunately, however, it has not been very thoroughly assessed by external agencies or experts.”


The English divide: Can the government close it?


Kim Hyun-hee spends 330,000 won a month for Kelly Choi to attend an English academy, and that’s below average for what other moms pay for hagwon in her affluent Daechi-dong neighborhood, she says. On top of that, she sent her son to a private English kindergarten and is ready to put him through 12 more years of hagwon.

Her family’s expenses are not uncommon: Parents spend an average 200,000 won monthly on each child’s English classes, a survey by Yoon’s English School found, and public data says nearly 70 percent of students went to hagwon last year.

The demand has led to a boom in the private education industry, prompting the number of language hagwon to more than double to 17,053 schools in 2009 from 2005. And as hagwon franchises become bigger and more corporate, their revenue has risen even faster, by 26.1 percent annually, according to a report by KB Kookmin Bank.

With the wealthiest families spending 10 times more on private education than those in the lowest income bracket, according to the Korea Development Institute, critics worry that the divide will limit lower-income students’ abilities to compete with their upper-class peers.

Professor Oh notes that there is only so much the government can do to tackle the socio-economic divide in English education. He says that while the government is willing to improve the public English education program, investments into it have to take a backseat to other social programs. “National-level drastic ELT improvement projects would need significantly greater financial resources than now, which the government doesn’t seem to be able to afford,” he said. “There are other areas that require investment, such as social welfare for the less privileged and the elderly.”

To level the playing field, the government has taken up policies to curb private education growth, in part by supporting the nearly free after-school programs at public schools for low-income students since mid-2009. Oh said that the quality of public and private English education is not much different, but that private schools allow for more exposure to English.

Because of the public programs, spending on overall private education then started to decline, which in effect began to lower hagwon profitability in an already oversaturated market, the KB report said. Nonetheless, the Education Ministry revealed recently that Korean parents spent 19 trillion won last year on all private education for their children, down 5.4 percent from a year earlier. Of that, they spent the most on English.

“Of course, lower-income students have fewer opportunities to learn English in the private sector. This can widen the English divide and adversely affect their later income mobility,” Oh said. “Will it ever be possible in the Korean context to get rid of the private sector entirely? Many parents are still willing to invest money in their children’s education at hagwon because they want their kids to beat the competition, and English has played a vital role.”


A bright future


One of Korea’s earliest and most influential attempts to boost English education was to import it. The year was 1995, the president was democratic activist Kim Young-sam, and Korea’s emerging, outward-looking economy was in bloom with a 9.2 percent growth rate. Politicians recognized English as the key to their country’s successful globalization, and launched the English Program in Korea (EPIK) to invite native English speakers to teach in the country. Its official aims were to improve the English communication skills of teachers and students, improve the English education system, and increase Koreans’ cultural understanding of the world as well as foreigners’ understanding of Korea.

The launch of the program was aided by the Peace Corps and the Fulbright Korean-American Educational Commission’s volunteer project and international exchange program, bringing 59 native English speakers from six countries — the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand — to Korea as the first official native English teachers and holders of the E-2 teaching visa. The government budget for the new program was about 2.36 billion won — less than 1 percent of what it is today, according to government estimates. The number of teachers inched up to 60 the next year and exploded to 856 teachers in 1997.

At the time, Ms. L, the Myanmar immigrant, was scrambling for ways to make money. In 1997 her church in Yeongdeungpo, Seoul, gave her an English Bible school class to teach for about $1,000 a month, and she picked up another job at a church friend’s hagwon and some tutoring gigs.

Even back then, the demand for English was bustling, she said. She witnessed a small influx of native English speakers as well as English-proficient Filipinos coming to make money teaching the language, mostly for hagwon or under-the-table tutoring jobs as she was doing.

But not long after, the “miracle on the Han” came crashing down with the onset of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 — sweeping the burgeoning English education demand along with it. “Everyone stopped learning English. Every institute couldn’t get students anymore. … Everybody lost their job, and I was one of them,” said Ms. L. “At that time, many foreign teachers left the country because it wasn’t easy to get students.”

Ms. L was left unemployed for a year, and the Korean government cut its native English employment by 68 percent to 274 in 1998, according to government figures. The number continued to decline for the rest of the decade. As the Korean economy recovered, the hiring of native English teachers picked up in 2002, with 500 new teachers.


‘All about business’: How much growth is too much?


The new millennium marked a new start for Korea’s growth, as construction, trade and investment found renewed momentum. Also boosting the economy early on was a wave of excitement leading to the World Cup in Korea and Japan in mid-2002.

Riding that wave of excitement was American James Gilbey, who found it opportune to teach English for a year as a way to stay in the country for the soccer tournament. “When I first moved to Mokpo it was very easy to find a job in Korea due to the lack of teachers that were willing to work in that region of the country,” said Gilbey, who came to Korea in 2002 with no previous teaching experience or certification. “All you needed was a degree to get the job.”

Meanwhile, new academies quickly began cropping up throughout the country, with the industry taking off particularly around mid-decade. Public and private schools alike began hiring en masse, with public schools breaking the 1,000 mark in 2005 with 1,178 teachers, the same year Seoul City and Gyeonggi Province established their own NET programs. Compared to 2005, the number doubled the next year, tripled in 2007 and grew nearly fivefold in 2008 to 5,553 native English teachers. The law was amended in 2007 to allow teachers from South Africa to join the fray.

But amid the boom of new schools that often had little experience with native English teachers or even English education in general, many incoming teachers realized their bosses would do whatever it took for the money.

Candice Boulton quickly found her role at her school to be little more than a show. Upon arriving in Yeongtong-dong near Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, in 2000, she was thrown into the classroom to teach without any training or prior experience, she said. Many teachers, both Korean and native, came and went.

“The director was not the best in being honest and I was often the last to know anything that was happening around me,” she recalled. “I wouldn’t say that we were perceived as useful for much more than boosting the image of the school we were at. I tended to seek out schools that did not see me as a white face in the room.”

New Zealander Leigh Heaney arrived in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, to work at a small school owned by a couple who spoke no English and had her working a split shift from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. “The owners expected so much from these little kids,” she recalled. “The materials were really dry and I improvised a lot, but was told just told to stick to the book. … There was absolutely no discipline in the hagwon.”

She said the owners were nice at first, but had trouble paying teacher salaries. She later found they deducted health insurance and pension from her paycheck without paying it to the government. “It was all about business,” she said.

The going salary at the time was 1.8 million won a month for native English teachers including Heaney, but has risen by half the pace of inflation since then. Consumer prices have increased by 31 percent since when she arrived in 2003, according to OECD figures. But the native English teacher’s base salary — now about 2.1 million won per month — rose by less than 17 percent in that time.

“Living back then was so simple. Everything was cheap and affordable,” said Heaney. “I have noticed that the prices of things have risen, but the pay scale has stayed the same.”


Background checks, HIV, drug tests: Raising the bar, or the barriers?


With the rapid influx of foreigners to the traditionally homogenous country, a wave of xenophobia was sparked in the late 2000s with discoveries that a convicted child molester was found teaching in Korea, some teachers were applying for jobs with forged college documents, and native English teachers were caught smuggling drugs into the country through the mail. The events coincided with larger issues such as the temporary ban on U.S. beef imports amid a mad cow disease scare. In the commotion, a group of Koreans calling themselves the Anti-English Spectrum lobbied to the government with claims that certain foreigners were prone to spreading AIDS, dealing drugs or committing crimes.

The government reacted by tightening requirements for E-2 visa holders: drug and AIDS tests every year, and apostilled diploma copies and federal criminal record checks upon visa application.

“I saw a huge shift in the majority of skeptics around 2007 when the infamous Christopher Paul Neil (child molester from Canada) was discovered to be in Korea. The next year there was a story of an NET telling students how to use a bong for smoking marijuana. Somewhere in there we had to start taking HIV tests and get apostilled documents of all kinds,” said Candice Boulton. “The sudden influx of foreigners caused humongous clashes of culture and this led to Koreans thinking foreigners were stubborn and foreigners thinking of Koreans as naïve.”

Meanwhile, with taxpayers sinking hundreds of billions of won a year into the native English teacher program to employ teachers who sometimes had little more qualification than a bachelor’s degree, and the demand for the jobs continuously on the rise, the government recently made an effort to raise standards by requiring TEFL or other teaching certifications for teachers in public schools.

Reuben Zuidof, a recruiter, has noticed incremental increases in the requirements that most schools have for foreign teachers. “For private schools, over the past five years we have schools that now require a B.A. in education, whereas they used to hire teachers with any degree,” he said. “We have schools requesting very particular teachers based on race, age and looks, when five years ago that same school would hire teachers who were committed, flexible and outgoing no matter what their race, age or looks were.”

Critics debate whether the new bar is effective in increasing the quality of teachers. Brian Deutsch, writer of the popular local blog Brian in Jeollanam-do and longtime observer of Korea’s EFL industry, argues that the requirements are little more than a nominal effort to improve the system.

“Even a decade ago Korean teachers were writing about their anxiety with the shift toward the goal of ‘communicative competence’ and the resulting influx of foreign English teachers. There was a lot of publicity about the need to hire ‘qualified’ teachers. However, that didn’t bear itself out,” said Deutsch. “By 2010 public schools were actively pursuing young, inexperienced and cheap teachers. EPIK now requires teachers to possess a TEFL certificate, but these can be done online quickly, are of little real value, and are basically a nominal attempt at instituting an advanced ‘qualification.’”

With more than a decade of experience teaching in Korea, Candice Boulton believes that instead of certifications, a solution for improving the quality of teachers is to test their ability and train them before they hit the classroom. It’s still a fraction of the requirements for regular Korean English teachers, she says, but might help ease tensions between Korean and native-speaking teachers.

“It should not be assumed that if you speak a language you can teach it, nor should it be assumed that if you learned about teaching that you can teach,” said Boulton, who came to Korea with no experience but said was later motivated to complete teaching credentials as well as a master’s course in linguistics. “I think that this ‘training’ may alleviate some feelings of resentment from Korean teachers who had to study very hard to become a teacher.”

Photo by Romin Lee Johnson
Photo by Romin Lee Johnson


The new teacher: How can Korea meet demand?


Despite the conflicts, the need for English teachers prevailed. To keep up with the skyrocketing demand for English-speaking teachers, the government in 2008 floated the idea of hiring teachers from countries with English as an official language and that share a free trade agreement with South Korea — namely, the Philippines, India, Malaysia and Singapore, the latter two having the highest English proficiency in Asia.

Teachers from those countries would be held to a higher standard, having to prove English-speaking proficiency and hold a teaching or English degree. The Education Ministry said that in 2008, the E-2 visa requirements were expanded in the first step to allow guest English teachers from those countries to work in Korea.

But progress to bring in regular Filipino teachers remains at a standstill, a Philippine diplomat told Groove Korea. Since a deal for teachers wasn’t inked in Korea’s free trade agreement with ASEAN, which the Philippines is part of, the ball is in Korea’s court if it wants to move forward, said Philippine Embassy labor attaché Felicitas Bay.

Meanwhile, two years after the amendment of the E-2 visa law, the first Indian teacher was hired in September 2010.

The program hasn’t expanded much since then: Two Indian teachers were employed in Korea in 2012, the Education Ministry said, noting that they receive the same pay and benefits as Western English teachers.

An Indian official, who sat down with Groove Korea, called the preference in Korea for native English teachers a “craze” — a belief that their native understanding of the language is inherently better for learning conversation. He requested anonymity.

India — which placed 13th on the English Proficiency Index, compared to Korea at 21st — does not seek out guest English teachers as Korea does. All English teachers are Indian or expats who already live in India. India, a former British colony, had the “benefit of being colonized,” as the official put it.

In his opinion, Indians are successful with learning English because they see it as an international language that helps them engage with the outside world. Meanwhile, Koreans, very proud of their culture, are conservative and even protective of their own language: They see only the commercial benefit of learning English and don’t embrace the cultural aspect of learning a new language, he said.

Asked about the slow expansion of the program, an Education Ministry official pointed to a lack of demand. To hire a foreign English teacher from a specific country, there must first be a demand for one from the school or the office of education. Then specific working-level agreements regarding teacher recruitment must be reached between the two countries, which takes a substantial amount of time, he said.

Meanwhile, Korean parents and teachers have mixed opinions about hiring Indian and Southeast Asian teachers. Some believe that they should be paid less because of their non-Western origin and thus non-Western accent, and for the same reason, some are wary of hiring them at all.

“You know, the pronunciation and accent (of non-Western English speakers) is very strange,” said Ms. H, the elementary school teacher, and mother of two elementary-aged girls. “If I choose my daughters’ teacher, I cannot choose one from the Philippines or India. I want a native English speaker from America or Canada.” She thinks most Korean parents would agree.

Ms. K, the middle school teacher, said the bias against such teachers is because Koreans are afraid of learning non-Western or non-native English.

“I learned how to speak English in a private institute where I had a Filipino teacher. … My English speaking ability improved a lot, so I don’t care,” she said. “As time goes by, the prejudice will disappear.”

Professor Oh echoed that the association between quality English education and Western native speaking English teachers is what keeps the employment demographics the way they are. “Many school administrators, teachers, parents and students still tend to think that native teachers of English should match their stereotype of ‘a native speaker of English’ — people only from certain ethnic backgrounds,” said Oh.

“However, race doesn’t seem to be the only culprit. Many people tend to think that expat teachers with accents other than standard American and British ones don’t provide the right model for Korean learners of English. I believe, however, that as Korea becomes more multicultural over the years, expat teachers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds will be welcomed into the public and private sectors.”

Paul Jambor, the Korea University assistant professor, says Korea is stuck with a dilemma. As salaries for qualified teachers are higher in countries in the West and more recently the Middle East, qualified Western English speakers are less prone to eye the Korean education market, he suggested. “This is not to say that all ‘white’ teachers in South Korea are unqualified, but rather to say that there is certainly a significant number of unqualified teachers teaching English in Korea as of this day.”

Discrimination hinders the employment of Indian and Southeast Asian teachers, but if Korea wants to increase its pool of qualified teachers, it has no choice but to break down those barriers, he said. “Taken as a whole, the choice for Koreans is simple: learn to accept substandard ‘white’/Western teachers, or recognize the value of being taught by ‘qualified teachers’ of other races from various Asian countries, since they are more than willing to work for the pay currently on offer.”


The robot teacher


Notably, a few Southeast Asians, particularly from the Philippines, have been increasingly employed at hagwon and rural schools or through distance learning programs. Those Filipinos who do land legal jobs within the country are either F-visa holders (spouses or permanent residents) or naturalized, noted Bay of the Philippine Embassy.

So in December 2010 Daegu City tried out an unconventional way to get Southeast Asian teachers into the classroom — by putting a different face on them.

Twenty-nine egg-shaped robots named EngKey descended upon 21 elementary schools in the metropolis through a pilot project reportedly to foster the country’s nascent robot industry. The 1-meter-tall machine (picture Eva from “Wall-E,” on wheels), created by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, could communicate to students, read to them and dance to songs by moving its arms and head.

And topping it off, on an LCD screen where the robot’s head should be was the face of a blonde Caucasian woman — an avatar for an instructor in the Philippines who could see and hear the students and whose facial movements could be detected and transmitted instantaneously to the character on screen.

“Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea,” Sagong Seong-dae, a senior scientist at KIST, told AFP at the time. “Plus, they won’t complain about health insurance, sick leave and severance package, or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan. … All you need is a repair and upgrade every once in a while.”

The Ministry of Knowledge Economy, which together with Daegu Metropolitan City invested 1.58 billion won into the four-month pilot program, announced that it planned to install one robot, each costing 10 million won, in all 8,400 elementary schools in Korea by 2013, according to news reports.

The project was short-lived and didn’t make it past the pilot phase, stopping in March 2011, according to the Center for Intelligent Robotics, which organized the project. An official said the program was not continued because it was “not feasible” and “lacked practicality.”

This wasn’t the first robot to be deployed in Korean classrooms, with an earlier version of EngKey — sans blonde avatar — even earning a nod from Time magazine on its 50 Best Inventions of 2010 list, and other robots reportedly introduced as early as 2005.

“They are a gimmick, and a poorly implemented one at that, with results ranging from ineffective to embarrassing,” Deutsch said about the robots, which he had lambasted in 2010 when they first made news. “I think they were created to show it could be done, that manufacturers had the technology to produce them, with no real thought to whether they would have a real effect in the classroom.

“There is definitely potential in other types of distance education, and if these are thoughtfully implemented by policymakers who know what they’re doing, these methods will be infinitely more effective than a computer program on wheels.”

In fact, companies have flooded into the local satellite learning market with cost-effective alternatives to live native English teachers, particularly for students in more remote areas. One early entrant was Wyoming-based company Eleutian Technology in 2006, teaching students at Seoul Digital University, then expanding to Incheon public schools the next year. By late 2008 it claimed to teach more than 15,000 students in Korea, and currently boasts some 30,000 tutoring sessions per month.

However, an executive at Eleutian told Groove Korea that because the Korean market is so saturated with cheap distance-learning programs, the company is looking elsewhere in Asia for further growth. Its biggest market in Asia was Japan last year and it expects to gain a major foothold in China this year.

“Many Koreans believe that price is most important, but when learning English, much like any other subject, the quality of instruction is critical,” she said. “As long as the Korean market and Korean businessmen try to learn English based purely on low cost, they will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in learning English.”


Switching gears: Who makes the better teacher?


Former President Lee Myung-bak saw English as an essential tool for brightening his country’s future, and in his ambitious pre-office plans, his transition team in 2008 proposed that every school subject would be taught in English by 2010, according to The Hankyoreh newspaper.

But that pledge didn’t pan out: Facing heavy backlash from teachers, parents and education experts, the team settled on hiring 23,000 new Korean teachers over three years to teach EFL classes in English and establishing a teacher-training program for 3,000 Korean teachers a year.

So as Lee stepped into office that year, with nearly 8,000 native English teachers in the country costing an estimated 320 billion won, several education offices decided it was time to shift the focus of public English education, and turn towards hiring Koreans to do the native English speaker’s job.

English-proficient Koreans can be hired as English Conversation Instructors without undergoing regular Korean teacher training. Requirements vary by school, but the conversation teachers can have as little training and experience as are required of a native English teacher — a degree from a university in an English-speaking country, a TEFL or TESOL certificate, and a proven ability in English, as demonstrated by their test score. An entry-level English conversation instructor can earn the same starting salary as a native English teacher as well — some 25.2 million won per year for an elementary school position in Seoul. However, they are less expensive to hire than NETs, who each cost more than 40 million won per year in salary, housing, round-trip airfare, year-end bonuses and other benefits.

Plus, while regular Korean public school teachers can only stay at the same school for five years before having to transfer to another school in the region, English Conversation Instructors are currently allowed to stay at the same school for up to eight years.

The government’s ultimate goal is to have these English conversation teachers eventually replace native English teachers in classrooms, but some teachers and parents express a lukewarm response to this change, saying Korea is not ready.

Brian Meyer, a Seoul public elementary school teacher, suggests it would be a feasible alternative “if the Korean teacher has an excellent command of the language and is a very well-educated or trained teacher who uses a variety of lesson materials and methods; however, I feel that there aren’t many teachers who fall into this category,” he added.

“Korean curriculum teaches memorization so that students can do well on tests. Until they change the basis of their curriculum to language proficiency, they will always have problems teaching English.”

“The purpose of having native teachers was to train Korean teachers to speak in English. They think Korean teachers can teach English in English,” said Ms. K, who is a regular English teacher, not a specialized conversation conversation instructor.

While she has seen Korean teachers’ English abilities improve over the past decade, she argues that they may not fully understand the nuances of the language, and their skill is still insufficient to carry on the classes in English.

“A Korean English teacher will not be effective. Although their ability is really nice, she’s not a native person. She cannot teach culture, the different meanings of expressions,” she said.

“We have to think about why all students have to learn English. If they have to, learning from native teachers is better,” she added, citing the need for consulting on expressions and writing, especially in preparing and grading exams, that Korean conversation instructors might not be familiar with.

Parent and student preferences between Korean and native English teacher-led classes are mixed. In a wide-scale survey by Seoul National University in 2011, 39 percent of parents approved of English classes run by Korean teachers, with about 15 percent disapproving or neutral about them. The survey also showed that 62.2 percent of parents and 53.7 percent of students preferred English-proficient Korean teachers who teach well, whereas 26.9 percent of parents and 29.7 percent of students preferred native speakers.

On the other hand, 62.4 percent of parents said classes with native English teachers were “absolutely” necessary. In the same survey, 34.7 percent of primary and secondary school students said they actively participate in their Korean teacher’s English class, but about twice as many — 76.9 percent — participated in their native English teacher’s class.

But studying English becomes less about communication as students age, and more about acing the next exam, a study by the Seoul Education Research and Information Institute last year suggested.

Researchers found that high school students who took native English teacher classes were less attentive, poorer performing and less satisfied with the classes compared to younger students.

The researchers suggested that because they’re more pressured by exams or college in their near future, high school students care more about classes that will help them prepare for exams — so NETs’ classes focusing on communication and participation take a backseat to classes that highlight memorization, grammar and drilling test questions.

Alex Karpicke, a Seoul public school teacher since August 2011, felt that his role in middle school was “tolerated” by unsupportive co-teachers, whose negative attitudes rubbed off on his students.

“Though my undergraduate degree is in English education and I hold a teaching certificate from my home state of Michigan, I felt like my experience and qualifications weren’t overly appreciated at the middle school I worked for,” said Karpicke, who taught at a model school, or pilot school, in Seobinggo-dong, Seoul.

“It felt like my role there was something to be tolerated. Many of the co-teachers didn’t feel any responsibility for what went on in my classroom. They were preoccupied with their own English classes,” he added. “This set a negative tone that was hard to cope with. The students quickly adopted the attitude of the co-teachers, which made my role fairly obsolete.

“That being said, I don’t feel like middle and high schools are the most useful places for NETs to be working,” he added, since the curriculum focuses on grammar covered on standardized tests. “Most NETs are useless in this area. Middle and high school students know their NETs are useless for this.”

Because of the nature of different age groups’ language learning abilities, he said that NETs would be more effective with elementary students, who are “more absorbent, more active and more willing to interact with a native teacher than older students” — and not focused on test prep.

“My role at my current school, an elementary school, is much more hands-on. Here, the co-teachers are just that — CO-teachers. We plan, revise and implement the lessons together. My ideas are accepted and used. That is a good feeling.”


The beginning of the end

Photo by Romin Lee Johnson
Photo by Romin Lee Johnson


In December 2011, Seoul City announced it would begin to phase out native English teachers, cutting them from all elementary, middle and high schools by 2014.

Under the 2012 school year budget, 4.4 billion won was cut for the funding of native English teachers at most of the city’s 300 high schools, aside from specialty schools such as language schools, thus eliminating 255 jobs. Teachers at those schools were either transferred to elementary schools or their contracts were not renewed after completion, and the classes were taken over by Korean teachers.

Education officials also planned to cut 252 and 200 foreign teachers from elementary and middle schools, respectively, translating to a 57 percent drop in all native English teachers in Seoul from the previous year.

For the 2013 school year the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education said it plans to hire 686 teachers, down 65 from 2012. According to information provided by the SMOE, the SMILE Project was launched in 2008 to allocate NETs to every school by 2012, and the goal was achieved by 2010. Officials planned to reduce the NET program once the “Teaching English in English capacity” of Korean English Conversation instructors was “100 percent guaranteed.” The SMOE said 95.6 percent of English teachers possessed “TEE capacity” by the end of 2011.

SMOE supervisor Lee Hyang-ah said there was no substantial difference between NET and Korean instructors, but that students participated more and used more English in Korean teacher-led classes than in NET-led classes.

“Parents and students answered that their most ideal English teacher is ‘a Korean teacher with outstanding command over English,’” she added, citing the SNU survey. “Similarly, participants showed three times more preference for Korean teachers over NETs.”

Because the high school curriculum is geared toward college entrance exams, NETs are less utilized among older grades, she noted. “The effect of NETs is most pronounced in students’ development in speaking, listening, pronunciation, cultural understanding, motivation and reduction of the fear of foreigners.”

Similarly, the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education — overseeing public programs in the province with the most native English teachers — told its teachers in August 2011 that it would initiate a hiring freeze from October that year to February 2012, during which time it did not hire any new native English teachers or renew any teachers’ contracts, to stabilize the budget and resume hiring en masse in March 2012.

Hiring numbers for the Gyeonggi English Program in Korea, which operates under the GPOE, peaked in 2011 with 1,119 teachers before the freeze. The program slid in 2012 when the number of teachers was cut to 819. However, counting the teachers within the province who were funded by city councils, there were 1,543 teachers as of December 2012 — the highest count among all provinces nationwide, GEPIK told Groove Korea.

GEPIK said that for the 2013 school year, 1,207 native English teachers were to be hired — a drop of 336 teachers from 2012 — with 483 funded by the GPOE and 724 by city councils.

Funding is cut for native teachers in all middle and high schools in cities, while rural area teachers have been retained, as students in those regions have limited access to native English teachers, GEPIK said, adding that the employment of elementary school teachers was not affected by this year’s budget cut.

The native English teacher program was always intended to be temporary, GEPIK officials emphasized, as a way to help train Korean English teachers. The viability and budget of the program, they added, is up to politicians and the provincial and central governments. “It’s really their call,” a coordinator commented.

“As for the budget for 2013, (it) is still under evaluation and we are waiting for the decisions to come through,” the program officials told Groove Korea. “And we are aware there are various assumptions regarding the future of the NET program. The budget cut or resizing of NET program was already planned out, but the question was when and how gradually.

“When we first started GEPIK in 2005, our primary purpose of the NET program was to provide not only academic but cultural English education for our students as well as for our Korean English teachers in Korea. Now we are entering the second phase of the plan, which involves giving more opportunity back to Korean English teachers with improved English ability.

“So are we facing the end of GEPIK? Our answer is ‘no.’ GEPIK is reducing its size but increasing in its quality.”

Longtime native English teachers observed the bubble and saw what was coming.

“I have been with GEPIK since January of 2007 — six years. I saw it hit its apex and now see it dwindling and being handed over to English-speaking Koreans,” said Boulton, who has taught in Korea since 2000. “I knew it would come to that. It is the logical end and way better for the Korean taxpayer. This is what is driving me back to teaching in a private school at the beginning of March 2013.”

She added that with the various teaching certificates and other qualifications she’s acquired over the years, public schools can no longer afford her, hence her return to the private sector.

“The writing has been on the wall for years, and it can be assumed that NETs will ultimately be phased out of public school classrooms in the next decade,” said Deutsch. “The structure of the public school curriculum simply doesn’t leave any room for an NET who holds class a couple times a month, teaches outside the tests, and doesn’t have meaningful interaction with the several other English teachers at his or her school.

“Removing native English speakers eliminates a valuable point of contact for most Korean students,” he added. “They will spend their formative years studying English — albeit as a subject, not a language — but will never have any meaningful contact with a native English speaker and no authentic insight into the culture(s) from whence the languages come.”

Officials at the Education Ministry and the English Program in Korea — which oversees the public English programs nationwide except in Gyeonggi and South Jeolla provinces, and those funded by city councils — say that there is no composite data showing which provinces and cities are implementing full phaseouts. An EPIK supervisor noted that Seoul will keep its native English teachers in elementary schools, but the plans past the current spring semester, which depend highly on the government budget, are still up in the air.

The numbers of native English teachers in Daejeon, Korea’s fifth-largest metropolis, have been rising. From 117 NETs in 2008, the number more than doubled to 250 teachers in 2012, and the Daejeon Metropolitan Office of Education said that it plans to keep the same number of teachers in public schools in 2013.

“For the upcoming years, DMOE is planning to keep the current budget for the guest English teachers and will hire a similar number of GETs (guest English teachers, or NETs) for our public school system,” a DMOE official said. “At this moment, we are not planning to cut budgets or phase out the GET program.”

The DMOE is currently working to enhance the teachers’ expertise by requiring 60 hours of training, including on designing engaging lesson plans, building relationships with co-teachers, and co-teaching successfully, the official said.

Elsewhere in the country, Busan said it plans to drop 62 teachers; Incheon 50 over the year, Daegu 22, South Gyeongsang Province eight, Jeju six and Ulsan four. Gwangju City and South Jeolla and North Chungcheong provinces said they will keep the same number of teachers, and other offices of education could not provide a number by press time.

The central government insisted that the regional phaseouts do not spell the end for the native English teacher program.

“Currently, Seoul City is phasing out its native English assistant teacher program. However, each provincial and municipal office of education is responsible for preparing its own budget for the native assistant English teacher program,” an Education Ministry official told a local newspaper.

“English-speaking Korean teachers have been placed in schools beginning in 2009. This is not part of a plan to gradually phase out native English assistant teachers, but an effort to reduce the number of students per class as the current size is too large to operate an English class focused on communication. As native teachers and Korean teachers are allocated for different purposes, it is our hope that both the programs will continue.”


Back to school: What next?


Millions of students pile back into classrooms this month at the start of another school year. At Ms. K’s middle school, no one has taught in the English Zone classroom since the last native English teacher left nearly a year ago. Projects and decorations still hang on the walls, gathering dust and colors fading, and a welcome letter still sits unread on a computer’s desktop for the replacement teacher who never came.

“We locked the door, and we don’t use it. Until now we haven’t used it,” she said.

There were some occasions, she said, when she needed the help of a native speaker. But aside from the dark, vacant room at the end of the hall, over the year “nothing special” has changed; after all, she noted, students used to have just one class a week with the native English teacher. “We (did) not use the native teachers very well,” she said.

The school applied for a Korean conversation instructor, but Ms. K said their request was denied. “We asked for a conversation teacher to the school office, but they don’t have any money for that, so we can’t have that kind of teacher,” she said.

Nowadays, educators are caught between government policies to narrow the English divide — by boosting public programs and reining in the private education industry — and balance the budget to provide for other welfare projects. Oh emphasizes that while educators are attempting to enhance English education through various methods, politics will continue to get in the way of major changes.

Ultimately, professors Jambor and Oh both echo Ms. K: Even if native speakers are phased out of public schools, Korea will move on, and in the medium run, the status quo will remain. Demand for English education will continue to propel the hagwon industry regardless of any policies by the government to curb it; if anything, the lack of native English teachers in public schools may even boost demand for private education, Jambor suggested.

“Many policymakers, I think, are aware that phasing out expat teachers might weaken ELT in the public sector and stimulate more students to turn to hagwon,” said professor Oh, suggesting that the new government, led by President Park Geun-hye, places a lower priority on improving English education than that of Lee Myung-bak, who handed over power last month. “In the next five years, I suspect that no major changes will take place within the public and private ELT sectors.”

Kim, Kelly Choi’s mother, doesn’t agree with the experts, and says improvements are being made, such as the new tests geared toward communication skills. However, because she is still dissatisfied with the public school system, she’s decided that hagwon schooling is a must for her children. Nonetheless, she believes it’s still important not to give up on the public English program to give every child a shot at a solid foundation. Learning English helps children gain confidence and get a taste of the outside world at an early age, she says.

“I want everybody to have the chance to learn English,” she said. “If they have the talent to speak English, they can improve their own English ability by themselves. But we should give them the chance to start.

“If they have the skill to speak English well, it’s easier to get their goals or their dreams,” she said, suggesting that if they’re motivated, there are plenty of free opportunities to keep learning for those who can’t afford hagwon, such as radio or TV programs.

But beyond motivation, the root of the problem, as parents, teachers and observers alike have said, lies at the heart of the recurring debate: Why are Koreans learning English?

“English study used to be a means of national advancement through personal improvement, but Korea’s certainly not the same country it was in 1993 and doesn’t have to play catch-up,” noted Deutsch.

Now that the original objective of English education to propel Korea into developed-world growth is no longer as imminent, he says, part of the challenge is to change people’s perceptions about learning English as a language -— rather than as a subject, test score or resume builder.

“In a sense it would involve changing a mindset, by questioning what exactly all this English is for and if it’s worth it,” he said. He finds some optimism in small pockets of the population, particularly the younger generation who have had real-world experience with English.

Coupled with a new mentality, Deutsch says that to advance toward effective education for functional, communication-based English, policymakers must make clear, thoughtful objectives for the education system along with the steps to achieve them.

“The NET experiment was fraught with lack of planning, false starts and contradictions,” he said. “Nobody knew what they were supposed to do or why, districts hired anyone who applied, and colleagues were resentful of the NETs brought in to help. For the most part no real curriculum was in place for NETs and there was no real way to measure their effectiveness. And now, years later, it’s the NETs who have shouldered the blame for bad policy and poor implementation.”

It’s not an easy task and there are no easy solutions, but he suggests that moving away from teaching purely for tests, and removing the requirement for job applicants and students to take English tests for local companies and schools, could be the first steps to help change the tide.

“Korea can achieve long-term improvement best if it sets real goals and works toward them,” he added. “If the goal today is still ‘communicative competence,’ there needs to be thoughtful planning and discussion on what this means, who can best help to achieve it, and how to work toward it during one year, five years, 10 years and a generation.”


Parts of this article were updated from the print edition to provide the most recent data. — Ed.

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