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Combat inequality in education

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By Sho Chang-young

All schools in South Korea have started the second semester of their 2021 school year, and their learning systems are rapidly transitioning from remote classes, caused by COVID-19, to in-person ones.

In September, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon unveiled a master plan for the capital. In that proposal, he stressed that the Seoul Metropolitan Government would continue to expand the city-run free online education program called "Seoul Learn" in order to bridge the widening learning gap amid the coronavirus pandemic. Seoul Learn aims to provide underprivileged students with online lectures from well-known private crammers (known as "hagwon" in Korean) for free. There is some dispute over this policy among interested groups.

I have worked as a teacher, principal and educational supervisor for over three decades. There have been two big challenges I faced during that long period. One was to improve the overall efficiency of classes and the other was to shorten the interpersonal gap in educational results. The former had to do with improving the level of professionalism of teachers and the latter required an educational policy approach.

Discussions about teachers' professionalism in class have been ongoing. There may be some disagreements, but it can be said that the efficiency of teaching in the field has generally increased.

However, we still have a long way to go when it comes to resolving the gap in education. It has a deep relationship with educational policy, which has fluctuated according to the political ideology of the ruling powers over the years.

At the time of the ruling conservative party I've been through, the "excellence in education" concept predominated with the idea of bridging the educational gap, while the view of equality was neglected. The phrase that was often quoted at that time was that "the top 2 percent of talent feeds the remaining 98 percent."

To the contrary, when progressive administrations were in control, equality in education overwhelmed any focus on excellence. The foreign proverb that goes, "If you go alone, you go fast, but if you all go together, you go far," was frequently mentioned.

Nonetheless, the rule of thumb was that humans are fundamentally selfish. We always want to stay ahead of others as long as conditions allow. I have seen a countless number of cases where influential parents who publicly emphasized equality in education were privately investing heavily to ensure the educational excellence of their children.

As such desires cannot be ignored in reality, the state-funded "gifted education" programs led by the central government have been active in each ordinary school, even in an era when educational equality has been emphasized. The term "gifted education" gained universal support to become a kind of buzzword.

During my tenure, I have experienced several central or local government policies similar to the Seoul city government's policy aimed at alleviating the inequality in education. Each time I practiced those policies on the front lines. Of course, there were other policies for the opposite purpose and I practiced them too. In my view, most of the arguments felt more like representing the opinions of interested parties than principles.

Suddenly, Dr. John W. Gardner's book, "Excellence: Can we be equal and excellent too?" came to my mind. I read it when I had just started teaching. So I picked it up again from the bookshelf and read its faded yellowish pages again. It seemed to be old because it was written in the 1960s and translated in the 1990s, but it came as a fresh surprise to me that the ideas taught by the book are still applicable today. This may be due to the fact that the fundamental functions and nature of education do not change, just like the basic desires and needs of humans.


The writer (sochan57@naver.com) is a retired principal of Gunsan Girls' High School.




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