Want proof of what’s possible in education? You’ll find it in Korea.

by Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General for the OECD


Last week, UNESCO and six other UN agencies convened world leaders in education in Incheon, Republic of Korea, to establish the post-2015 development priorities for education. They could have hardly picked a better place to push the international community to significantly raise education ambitions so that high-quality learning will become a reality for all.

Korea provides an amazing example of how education can leverage social progress and become the key agent of change. Two generations ago, Korea had the same level of economic development that Afghanistan has today, and one of the least-developed education systems. Today, Korea is one of the driving forces of the OECD, and Korea’s school system comes out on top of our global PISA metrics for the quality of education.

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Korea shows us what is possible in education. This isn’t a story about money; it is a story about getting priorities right. Our TALIS data show that in Korea, it is teachers, not lawyers or economists, whose profession is most revered. Part of Korea’s success is that its policies keep the teaching profession both financially and intellectually attractive. Whenever in its history Korea had to make tough choices between smaller classes and better teachers, the country always chose the latter.

Korean parents and children see hard work and perseverance as the key to success. This is because they go to schools where teachers expect every child to succeed, not just those from wealthy or privileged backgrounds. All of this is mirrored in the PISA results: 20% of students from the poorest families in Korea outperform the 20% of students from the wealthiest families in the United States. Clearly, poverty doesn’t need to be destiny.

And better education outcomes can help to improve income and reduce poverty. The OECD estimates that if every 15-year-old in lower-middle income countries achieved at least basic literacy and numeracy skills, these countries could generate six times their current wealth over the working life of today’s school children. That means that the rewards to better education dwarf any conceivable cost of improvement. Even in OECD countries, modest improvements in the quality of schooling would generate more wealth than the total amount we spend on our schools today. Our best bet to make education free for tomorrow’s children is to provide today’s children with better education.

The message here is simple: there is no shortcut to improved learning outcomes in a post-2015 world where knowledge and skills have become the global currency. And there is no central bank that prints this currency. We cannot inherit this currency, and we cannot produce it through speculation; we can only develop it through sustained effort and investment in people – both young and old. And for those countries struggling to provide high-quality education, the economic output that is lost because of poor education policies and practices leaves many of them in a permanent state of economic recession.

What is most impressive about Korea is that it has never become complacent. Next year, PISA will publish its first global comparison of student well-being. PISA is going beyond subject-matter knowledge and skills to include creative, social and global competencies in its international comparisons. Why? Because countries like the Republic of Korea push us to do so. They are telling us that they have figured out how to teach mathematics and science and want to move on to ensure that students don’t just have a solid foundation of knowledge in key disciplines, but also develop creative, critical thinking, collaborative and global skills, mindfulness, curiosity, courage, leadership, empathy and resilience. Many Koreans know that they may not come out on top on these measures right away, but they understand how central these broader competencies will be for the country – and for the world – in the long run.

Last but not least, Korea is now helping others follow suit by devoting a large share of its development aid to education. Again, that is a smart choice because people here are figuring out that the future of Korea may depend even more on the success of schools outside its borders than on education in-country.



  1. Perhaps this is “proof” of what is possible. Please show us proof of what is PROBABLE.

  2. Koreans have provided the rest of the world a model . They have placed education at the helm of development. Rightly Koreans did not chase to get high position in literacy achievement. They mixed literacy with skills development and used other mechanisms apart from formal systems to develop both education and skills. Hence they have come on top of development also a providing a new paradigm. This is in contrast to Sri Lanka which wanted only to win the literacy race but ignored the skills development need and neglected other forms of learning ignoring education of the poor and powerless resulting in the current development bankruptcy.

    Dr. S.B. Ekanayake
    former Basic Education Advisor UNESCO/UNHCR
    Central Asia
    CEO Association for Educational Research and DEvelopment

  3. I have serious concerns about the use of PISA testing data to back up the assertion of how good the Korean education system is. I notice that in this blog the only data presented relates to PISA and there is no mention of the high cost that this supposed ‘excellent education system’ is having on young people. There is no mention of the high cost due to the prevalence high stakes exams and testing. The curriculum of most schools is structured around the content of the entrance examination for universities through a test that can be taken only once a year and requires intensive studying, some starting preparation as early as kindergarten. The university a South Korean high school graduate attends is considered one the most important factor in determining his or her life chances and 100% of parents surveyed expect their child to go to university. Thus, entrance into top universities was the focus of intense energy, dedication, and self-sacrifice. Because college entrance depends upon ranking high in objectively graded examinations, high school students face an “examination hell,” a harsh regimen of endless cramming and rote memorization of facts that is probably even more severe than the one faced by their counterparts in Japan.

    Please read some quotes below from The Economist, New York Times and Time which show the other side to this remarkable PISA measured achievement in Korea.
    ” A poll by CLSA, a stockbroker, found that 100% of Korean parents want their children to go to university. Such expectations can be stressful. In one survey a fifth of Korean middle and high school students said they felt tempted to commit suicide. In 2009 a tragic 202 actually did so. The suicide rate among young Koreans is high: 15 per 100,000 15-24-year-olds, compared with ten Americans, seven Chinese and five Britons. Min-sung’s older sister, Kim Jieun, who took the exams a few years ago, recalls: “I thought of emigrating, I hated the education system so much.” The One Shot Society December 2011 http://www.economist.com/node/21541713

    “When I asked a class if they were happy in this environment, one girl hesitantly raised her hand to tell me that she would only be happy if her mother was gone because all her mother knew was how to nag about her academic performance. The world may look to South Korea as a model for education — its students rank among the best on international education tests — but the system’s dark side casts a long shadow. Dominated by Tiger Moms, cram schools and highly authoritarian teachers, South Korean education produces ranks of overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire program amounts to child abuse. It should be reformed and restructured without delay.” A assault upon our children New York Times August 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/02/opinion/sunday/south-koreas-education-system-hurts-students.html?_r=0

    “In South Korea, it has come to this. To reduce the country’s addiction to private, after-hours tutoring academies (called hagwons), the authorities have begun enforcing a curfew — even paying citizens bounties to turn in violators. ” Time, Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone Sept. 2011http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2094427,00.html

    So I would really like the OECD which is promoting ventures of data to consider the social and human implications of how the data is gathered, how these ‘amazing results’ are achieved and the social/human cost incurred. Education results are achieved not from input-output model which is what this form of narrow data analysis reduced education down to, rather education is highly complex social transaction and there are many factors influencing the outcomes which go far beyond the PISA measured outputs. While the next iteration of PISA will examine student well being I do wonder what it will find?? Will Korea and other top preforming PISA systems still be in the top when we examine their students welfare???

    For those of you with more academic outlook you can read Bynun and Kim EDUCATIONAL INEQUALITY IN SOUTH KOREA:THE WIDENING SOCIOECONOMIC GAP IN STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT 2010 http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Soo-yong_Byun/publication/235268313_Educational_inequality_in_South_Korea_The_widening_socioeconomic_gap_in_student_achievement/links/02e7e5294f5c8bba6e000000.pdf

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