Past, present and future of educating ‘gifted’ in South Korea

By Yoon Min-sik, Asia News Network

The Korea Herald–Last month, 18-year-old Song Yoo-geun retracted his first academic paper “Axisymmetric, Nonstationary Black Hole Magnetospheres: Revisited” — which would have made him the youngest-ever Korean Ph.D. — after he was accused of plagiarism. The shattered legend of a science prodigy once dubbed “boy genius” by media — and showered with government support from 2010 — sent shockwaves across the country and stoked questions over whether Korea was headed in the right path in educating its “gifted” children. Education in Korea generally starts at a young age. Last year’s data by civil group World Without Worries About Private Education showed that parents spent 3.2 trillion won (US$2.6 billion) in a year on private education for their preschool children. When children excel at their given task, many parents send them off to schools for the gifted in the hope that they may be the next child prodigy.

“In addition to academic ability, we look at each children’s ability to motivate themselves, curiosity and creativity,” said Hong Kyeong-hee, an official from Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education who supervises these education centers.

“In order to do so, we’ve implemented a system where the homeroom teacher recommends students to be accepted to education centers based on a year of observation, in addition to the existing interviews and tests.” According to the Education Ministry, there are currently some 2,524 classes for the gifted in schools across the country, and seven high schools which are built for the education of the gifted. In addition, education offices operate the education center for the gifted. But there has been criticism that the so-called gifted schools had deviated from their initial purpose of fostering talented students in their respective areas.

Representative Yoo Ki-hong of the main opposition The Minjoo Party of Korea analyzed the data from four science schools for the gifted, and found that 8.7 percent of their graduates went to study medicine in college. In addition, almost all of the schools for the gifted are based on students’ academic abilities, stoking complaints that they have turned into cookie-cutter elite schools, sitting atop the school pecking order. “The government enacted the law to foster child prodigies excelling in various fields, yet many of its students fall in line in a race to be accepted to prestigious colleges,” said Kim Jeong-yeon, a researcher for the World Without Worries About Private Education. Kim’s group recently divulged that 66.4 percent of the math questions in the entrance exams for gifted high schools were not part of the middle school curriculum, accusing them of prompting students to receive private education in order to be accepted.