Hard Work, Culture, and Private Education

When it comes to international academic assessments, especially in math and science, a few Asian countries regularly kick world posterior. Many observers chalk this up to these countries having national curricula, but this seems a specious conclusion given that most of the countries that do worse than Asian nations—and sometimes even worse than the U.S.—have national curricula, too.

A couple of additional—and quite likely more accurate—potential secrets of Asian success are touched on in a Saturday Washington Post article about South Korea:

South Koreans are working up a lather over working too much.

They put in far more time on the job than citizens of any other free-market democracy. Compared to Americans, they average 560 more hours at work a year – the equivalent of 70 more eight-hour days. And that is down significantly from the go-go 1990s.

In the OECD, they rank second to last in leisure spending, first in suicide and last in bearing children.

Despite the dearth of children, South Korea leads the OECD in per capita spending on private education, which often includes home tutors, after-school cram sessions and intensive English-language courses.

South Koreans, it seems, rely not primarily on government schooling as we do, but abundant private options, including tutoring companies that appear to be almost ubiquitous in many Asian nations. Indeed, in 2002 Education Week reported that in Japan “more than 50,000 private cram schools are taking in some $12 billion a year by some estimates.”

The massive consumption of private education is not the only likely explanation for outstanding Asian academic performance. So too is the culture that drives that consumption: As the Post highlights, Koreans put more emphasis on work than the citizens of any other industrialized nation. Of course, that appears to be a double-edged sword, probably yielding great testing outcomes but, as the suicide and income data in the article hint, not necessarily outsized success in life—or happiness. And while national academic standards and tests don’t likely create academic success, they could very well exacerbate the ugly side of Korean culture, taking an already work-obsessed mindset and forcing it on those students and families who might find happiness—and long-term success—in other ways.