School Inc. Episode 1: The Price of Excellence – Full Video
- Articles, Blog

School Inc. Episode 1: The Price of Excellence – Full Video

In the modern world, we ride the crest of a wave. Every day, innovators discover new and better ways of meeting our needs. The greatest innovations are routinely replicated worldwide, except in education which has remained stubbornly at anchor while the rest of the world has sailed past it. In the next hour policy analyst Andrew Coulson explores why our classrooms have yet to be transformed by a similar wave, the same kind of innovative wave that has revolutionized and improved every other aspect of our lives. We crisscross the globe in our search for answers to the essential question: How do we attain educational excellence? In the barrio neighborhood of East Los Angeles, a uniquely gifted teacher becomes an unlikely hero, showing his Garfield High School students how to shatter expectations. He taught us to be strong and to stand up for what you believe in. But the same drive and determination that fueled Jaime Escalante’s unparalleled success with the students of Garfield High also proved to be his downfall. He was setting a precedent. A lot of the teachers were resentful and it was very public. 5,000 miles away, in a very different culture, Andrew Coulson finds an amazing similarity in the competitive spirit of a baseball game and what students must do to get into college. In my case, I stay up all night before exams – maybe during six weeks. Here, in Seoul, South Korea, the fierce competition for entrance to the very best colleges, paired with cutting edge technology, has propelled a unique educational industry to soaring heights. Ninety-five percent of all South Korean students attend intensive after-school tutoring sessions called hagwons. It is a market, like, it is an entire market, and the consumer – a student – likes the product that is better than any others. So teachers compete within the market to become, like, entertaining and educative at the same time. For the last ten years, my whole lecture revenue is over 100 million dollars. Isolated examples of success and innovation DO occur in education, but seldom have such examples been expanded or “scaled up” to improve the educational systems that serve the masses – that improve the basic quality of life, that lift people out of poverty. Join us as Andrew Coulson explores the challenge of replicating educational excellence in “School, Inc.” It’s often said that education is different from other fields. And there’s one respect in which that’s certainly true. But to really see it, we have to stop and step back in time to the late 1970s. Recognize this? It’s the original Sony Walkman, introduced in 1979, the first mainstream personal music player. And on the eve of its release the Japanese media were in solid agreement: they thought it would flop. Sony itself expected to sell only about 5,000 a month. And then a funny thing happened: people kind of liked it. Within two years, Sony had sold a million-and-a-half Walkmans worldwide, sparking similar products from other companies that sold millions more. But that was just the beginning. Every year or two, new and improved models hit the market. To earn enough to buy the original Walkman, you had to work two weeks at a typical minimum wage job. And that was for lo-fi sound on cassettes you had to flip over every half an hour! What’s really amazing about the rapid spread and improvement of personal audio players is that it isn’t amazing at all. It’s perfectly normal. Great new gadgets and services are appearing and going viral every day. A decade ago, no one had ever heard of Google. Now they do tens of thousands of internet searches per second. Facebook went from zero to half-a-billion members in just 5 years. And the same thing is true outside the high-tech world in everything from organic grocery stores to disposable diapers. Basically, invent something good, and it gets big. And these days, it gets big FAST. But of all the products we make and the services we provide, there’s one that stands out as an exception to that overall pattern; one activity in which excellence doesn’t spawn countless imitators or spread on a massive scale. And that exception is schooling. For generations, there hasn’t been a SINGLE innovation in teaching that has transformed classrooms and improved student achievement worldwide. The closest thing to it can be found here, inside this 19th century schoolhouse. Let’s have a look. And here it is: the blackboard. For the first two-thousand years of education history, it was hard for teachers to communicate complex visual information to groups of students. Wax tablets, like the one shown in this Greek vase painting, had been around since the 5th century B.C. And that’s how children learned to write…etching letters into the wax, rubbing them out, and starting over. Useful as they were, they didn’t allow teachers to reach the whole class all at once. Twenty centuries later, we’d made the great leap forward to these: slate tablets and chalk. Bit of an improvement – certainly they’re easier to erase, but it wasn’t until the late 1700s that a Scottish schoolmaster named James Pillans had a really clever idea: He took all of those tablets off of students’ laps and he hung them together on the wall. Suddenly, every student could see exactly what Pillans was talking about at the same time. In a flash, the blackboard leapt across the Atlantic to the United States Military Academy at West Point. And just a few decades later, it was a common item even in remote rural schoolhouses, like this one. So there’s an example of a brilliant educational idea – simple and effective – that took the world by storm in barely a generation. We know it CAN happen. But that was 200 years ago, and nothing quite like it has happened since. Why haven’t our classrooms been transformed by that same pattern of improvement and innovation that we take for granted in every other aspect of our lives? It’s not that we haven’t tried. Schools have adopted all sorts of new technologies over the years, from projectors, to personal computers, to “smart” white boards. The trouble is that none of these new inventions has improved outcomes – measurable outcomes – on a global scale. Let’s take a look at something. American test scores at the end of high school have been flat since we started keeping track of them all the way back in the early 1970s, and the same thing is true in most other countries as well. Basically, educational quality has been stuck in the era of disco and leisure suits for 40 years, while the rest of the world has passed it by. Classrooms and clothes look a little different now than they did back then. But we’ve changed the trappings of education without really improving the substance. The best schools haven’t grown and taken over the less successful ones. The best teaching methods haven’t been replicated on a mass scale. And while our top athletes and pop stars reach huge audiences, our greatest teachers seldom reach more than a few dozen kids at a time, despite all our technological advances. Why not? That’s the question at the heart of this series: why doesn’t excellence scale up and spawn imitators in education, the way it does in other fields? We’ll travel the globe in search of an answer to that question. And we’ll take a few detours along the way, because the shortest route isn’t always a straight line. But maybe we’re just being impatient, and if we wait a few years, education will catch up to the pace of progress in other fields. After all, the rapid spread of new technologies and ideas – that’s an incredibly recent phenomenon…isn’t it? To find out, we’ve come here, to Lowell, Massachusetts…because in 1821… it didn’t exist. A local map from that year bears the title: “A Plan of Sundry Farms etc. at Pawtucket.” For miles south and east of the Pawtucket Falls, this was just agricultural land incorporated into the nearby town of Chelmsford. The one notable man-made structure was this, the Pawtucket Canal. It bypassed the falls and the rapids below. It allowed lumber and other products to be transported down the Merrimack River from its headwaters in New Hampshire all the way to the shipyards of Newburyport on the Massachusetts coast. Completed in 1796, it was a pretty sweet racket – generating a steady revenue stream from its toll fees. At least it did until 1803, when a more popular competitor opened for business right next door. So the Pawtucket Canal lost its monopoly – and a lot of its business and revenue along with it. As a result, this whole area remained a rural backwater for a generation, population: 200. Until, in 1821, something happened that changed all that. This! The owners of the Pawtucket waterway sold their entire operation – lock, stock and canal – to the Boston Manufacturing Company. Its Founder, Francis Cabot Lowell, had studied textile factories while living in England – studied a little more closely than their owners seemed to realize. And thanks to his, well, industrial espionage, Lowell was able to recreate a functioning mechanized mill just outside Boston. The machines were powered by belts connected to rotating shafts along the ceiling. Those shafts, in turn, were driven by a massive fly-wheel in the basement. And in the early 1800s, the way you got one of those great big fly-wheels up to speed was with one of these… the same kind of water wheel that had been driving grain mills in Europe since the middle ages. And that’s why, after Francis Lowell’s death, his partners brought his mechanized mill design to the Pawtucket Falls: it offered enough power to drive dozens of these wheels. Other entrepreneurs took a chance and followed their lead, and the newly incorporated town of Lowell quickly went from rural backwater to the biggest manufacturing center in North America. Their gamble paid off. Making cotton textiles in automated factories was faster, cheaper, and more precise than doing it by hand; so demand went through the roof. But there was a catch: in order to meet that demand, factory owners had to find thousands of workers willing to take on grueling 12 hour days and 6 day weeks. As it turned out, girls and young women flocked to fill these new factory jobs. In 1836, a mill girl named Hannah Wilson wrote to discourage her friend Mary from coming to Lowell in search of factory work. “I think you are better off where you are, for there is more girls than you can shake a stick at the Lawrence Corporation.” “Holly Thompson has gone to doing housework at Doc Hubbard’s; she could not get in the factory nowhere in Lowell.” Still, the mill owners couldn’t rest on their laurels. In order to stay profitable and to stay ahead of the competition, they had to find new ways to boost productivity. And that’s why the clever chaps at the Appleton Mill hired an eccentric, vegetarian, tee-totaling engineer named Uriah Boyden. They asked Boyden to build them a couple of new, improved, water wheels… nothing brilliant about that. The clever part was to promise Boyden that the more efficient those wheels turned out to be, the more he’d get paid. Well, with an incentive like that, Boyden did what any good engineer would do: he started by copying off the smartest kids in class. Boyden studied the latest French water power systems, called turbines, and then modified their intakes and outlets to bump up efficiency. His design performed so well that it blew the old technology out of the water. In the coming decades, mills around the country ripped out their medieval-style water wheels and replaced them with ever-more-efficient turbines. Productivity just kept rising, and the innovations behind it spread like wildfire. The cost of manufactured goods steadily fell while quality continued to improve. It was the dawn of the American Industrial Revolution, which brings us back to the reason we visited Lowell in the first place. From our vantage point at the beginning of the 21st century, it certainly seems as though great new ideas and innovations were already scaling-up two hundred years ago. And that, with the exception of the blackboard, education just wasn’t keeping up. Not everyone required the benefit of historical hindsight to see that. One man in particular noticed it at the time. He was born in 1796, the same year that the Pawtucket Canal was completed, became a lawyer, was elected to public office, and eventually served here in the Massachusetts State House as president of the Senate. His name was Horace Mann, and this is how he saw his state’s fledgling public school system in 1837. “As the system is now administered, if any improvement in principals or modes of teaching is discovered in one school, instead of being published to the world, it dies with the discoverer.” “Now, if a manufacturer discovers a new mode of applying water or steam power… the information flies over the country at once; the old machinery is discarded the new is substituted.” Sound familiar? Like us, Horace Mann was frustrated that the common schools – as public schools were then known -weren’t enjoying the same spread of innovation that he was seeing happen all around him, in places like Lowell. And so he resolved to do something about it: to find a way to make educational excellence go viral. In 1837, Mann closed his law practice, resigned his seat in the state legislature, and became the first head of the first state board of education in the country. From that position, he changed the course of American history. But to understand the plan that he came up with, we first have to understand what education was like during Mann’s time. There were common schools all across New England, but there was no state or federal authority dictating what they taught or who could teach. It was parents who hired the teachers, and often picked the textbooks as well. In fact, to save money, families sometimes billeted the teachers in their own homes. So if little Johnny couldn’t read, figuring out why might be as easy as walking into the next room. But all that parent power came at a price…literally. If you sent a child to a public school in the early 1800s, they sent you something that looked like this: a bill. Local education taxes were levied so that the poorest students could attend at little or no charge, but everyone else was expected to pay tuition fees. In fact, half to two-thirds of common school budgets came from these fees. Since the public schools weren’t giving education away for free, parents had an incentive to hop in the carriage and check out what the private sector competition had to offer. And they liked what they saw. Most students in the early American republic attended private schools. Some of them were large academies enrolling hundreds of students, but many were also run by individual teachers. Anyone who wanted could put out a shingle and solicit paying pupils. And finding them was easy; you could just open up the local paper. “Miss Boardman informs her friends and the public that her spring term for instructing young ladies and misses commenced on Monday, March 11th.” “Terms: for instruction in reading, orthography, chirography, arithmetic, geography, astronomy, English grammar, rhetoric, composition, history and plain needle-work eight dollars per quarter.” Eight dollars for three months. Still, that wasn’t pocket change in the 1820s and 30s, but there were teachers offering instruction for less than half that amount. There were also private school options for the poor, with free and reduced-price tuition. Those were run by mutual aid societies, religious groups, and tradesmen’s guilds. And, unlike today, many of the larger private academies received public subsidies, allowing them to reach a wider audience than they otherwise would have been able to. Competition helped, too. Just as the opening of the Middlesex Canal put pressure on the Pawtucket Canal operators, the creation of all these new, small independent schools forced the larger private academies to lower their tuition fees. This jumble of competing private schools didn’t use the same textbooks or methods, but it seems to have been effective. Student enrollment and literacy were high and rising, newspaper readership was exploding, and the standard of living was improving from one generation to the next. None of this was lost on Horace Mann, or his friend James Carter. It was Carter who spearheaded the creation of the State Board of Education, from his seat in the Massachusetts legislature. But before Carter ran for public office, he ran his own private school. He’d seen their growing popularity first-hand, and, like Horace Mann, he worried that the common schools were lagging badly. In fact, Carter wrote for the Boston Patriot newspaper, that unless something was done… “The academies and private schools will be carried to much greater perfection than they have been, while the public free schools will become stationary or retrograde.” Faced with that prospect, Carter and Mann devised a plan to ensure that every child would have access to the dynamic private education marketplace. Okay…I might have made that last bit up. What they actually did was to try to get everyone out of the private sector and into the common schools. That sounds a little odd when you think about the way they felt about common schools versus private schools – as far as performance went – but when you understand the way they thought about parents and government, it begins to make sense. Carter in particular thought that the reason private schools performed so well was that elite parents chose them. So if he could get those same elite parents to send their kids to the common schools…well, problem solved! Much as they respected the educational decisions of the nation’s elites, they had a pretty dim view of the average parent. Referring to young children Carter had this to say… “Their whole education, if it may be called by that name, is drawn from parental examples, which are not always the best, and are oftentimes the most corrupt.” Both men thought that it was wisest to take control of education out of the hands of parents and place it into the hands of state-appointed experts and state-trained teachers, which is why we’re here on the Battle Green in Lexington, Massachusetts, site of the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that marked the beginning of the American Revolution. Right across the street from this green, the two reformers kicked off a revolution in American education, creating the first state teachers’ college in the country. State teacher-training was just one part of their plan. The common school reformers also advocated higher state spending, prohibiting the common schools from charging tuition, and gradually centralizing power here in the state legislature. They believed that that would allow the best pedagogical practices to scale up, bringing them within reach of every child. But there was more to it than that. Horace Mann, in particular, believed that the public schools could transform society for the better. Horace Mann believed in the perfectibility of humanity, and that a well-funded state school system would achieve that perfection. Through his tireless campaigning and inspiring words, he eventually won the hearts of the American people. In the hundred and fifty years since, we have expanded and funded the public schools beyond his wildest expectations. Has it worked? Here are a few people who can help us find out. I’ve been in banking for about 12 years now; I’m with Wells Fargo. When I graduated law school and I passed the bar exam, I got a job at the office of the federal public defender here in LA. I chose the profession of architecture. I’m currently the assistant director of facilities and construction for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. The people you’ve just seen have a lot in common. It’s not just that they’re all high achievers with successful careers. Every one of them went to the same public high school. This is Beverly Hills High School- as seen on TV. Ninety-eight percent of its seniors graduate, and virtually all of them go on to college. Every year, six hundred of its students take advanced placement courses, and virtually all of them pass. It has more National Merit finalists and semi-finalists than you can shake a stick at. But this isn’t where our illustrious group of high achievers went to high school. Taxi! This is the real alma mater of our illustrious group: Garfield High in East L.A. But in the late 80s, early 90s, there was something magical happening at Garfield High School. I came into the school in 1988; at the time it was a 3-year high school. Garfield High School was a fantastic school while I was there. There were committed teachers, there were committed students and committed parents. Up until the late 1970s, it was a pretty typical inner city school. Test scores were poor and the mostly low-income Latino students weren’t even offered the most challenging courses. I would say most of the students in this particular school come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We didn’t even know we were poor, right? Like, we had no idea we were these disadvantaged kids and that kind of thing. But by 1988, more students were passing the advanced placement calculus test here at Garfield than at Beverly Hills High. One out of every four Mexican Americans who passed AP calculus, nationwide, attended Garfield. Why? Jaime Escalante. Jaime Escalante. Jaime Escalante. “Time?” “Three seconds.” As a teacher, he was fantastic. You can talk to a number of students about Jaime Escalante, and they tell you what a wonderful teacher he was. What I could say today is that he had a major impact in my life. Each of us remembers the great teachers, the ones who touch our lives. From the time he started teaching at Garfield in 1974, Jaime Escalante worked as if his life depended on the success of his students. The mathematics program chair – and driven by Mr. Escalante at the time – was very rigorous. There was nothing but excellence expected of us students. Hence, we had to step up to the challenge. I did not want to disappoint him, and that is something that I think you’ll probably find from other students. We did not want to disappoint Jaime. By 1982, the results were beyond belief, literally. His students performed so far above expectations on the AP calculus test that the Educational Testing Service suspected cheating and threw out their scores. Undaunted, they re-took it and came through with flying colors a second time. He taught us to be strong and to stand up for what you believe in. Hollywood noticed, dramatizing the story in the movie Stand and Deliver. “This is basic math but basic math is too easy for you burros – so I’m going to teach you algebra… because I’m the champ.” Seeing the movie makes me laugh, it gives me a lot of memories as to how it was in the classroom. The depiction of Mr. Escalante was right on. “You ever been to the beach?” He was a character from the moment he walked in the door to the hat he wore every single day. “A negative times a negative equals a positive.” Some of the things that were so striking in that movie is the fact that he built a relationship with each one of the students. He knew them by name, he knew their story, and that was not an exaggeration. He knew our stories. One of the things I still admire about him is his ability to continue teaching even after he was famous and he had attention. He was still a teacher at heart, and he taught me everything I needed to be prepared for college. In art as in life, Escalante had a simple message for his students: with enough drive and hard work, the sky was the limit. Ganas is something that any of us can attain. Culturally, it goes to kind of the gut of who you are in your soul. The lessons I learned from Jaime, I apply them every day, I apply them with my children and I talk about Jaime and I talk about the “ganas”–the need to have the desire. Nothing’s for free. You have to work really hard if you want to achieve anything. We lived in a community that is generally poor, but we are the most hardworking individuals that you could find. And that’s exactly what Mr. Escalante tapped into; the willingness to work and the willingness to find that path. Certainly his students did well on their high school math tests, but did they retain what they’d learned long enough to build it into successful lives and careers? It’s an important question, because a lot of technical jobs require math…especially if you’re reaching for the stars. This is the Mount Wilson Observatory, high in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest. From this telescope, Edwin Hubble made observations back in the 1920s that dramatically changed our understanding of the universe. Virtually everyone at the time assumed that the universe was static. It was Hubble who showed that it’s continually expanding – giving rise to the Big Bang Theory for the origin of space and time. Needless to say, for this kind of work, you need a fair bit of math. I work at JPL…I’ve been there – actually, I hired there right out of high school. I’m a supervisor of the mechanical integration group. And what we basically do is assemble spacecraft. Mars Science Laboratory is a beast of a spacecraft. It’s the size of a Mini Cooper. Say you wanted to build a laser-packing, rock analyzing, nuclear powered robot, strap it to a rocket, and send it to Mars; would having attended classes with Jaime Escalante in high school have helped get you there? Getting to his classroom was an incredible experience; and I don’t know how far I would have gotten without him. I think my current job had to do with him. I went to college, and in college we had 4 calculus classes to take, 4 levels of calculus; and then there was still another 3 levels of math classes above that. And in every one of those classes that I took – there was always a subject that I had already learned in Mr. Jaime Escalante’s class in high school. Of course, engineers and scientists aren’t the only folks who use math. Nor is Sergio Valdez the only student who benefitted from his time in Escalante’s classroom. But what good is a fantastic math teacher if you want to pursue a career in fine arts, or journalism, or the law? I often ask myself why is it that …even now – I’m 47-years-old – it’s Jaime that I remember the most? And I think it’s because he inspired me the most. Okay. So, Jaime Escalante did have a lasting impact and it reached beyond the students who were particularly interested in mathematics. But he was only one man, so there was necessarily a limit to the number of students he could reach, right? You might think so based on the nickname that his students gave him: They called him “Ke-mo” short for… Ke-mo sah-bee. “You Ke-mo sah-bee.” “Ke-mo sah-bee?” “Ke-mo sah-bee” is what the Native American Tonto character affectionately called…The Lone Ranger. Mr. Escalante was very informal with his students. He was a kidder, he was a joker. You know the whole concept of having- being that familiar with your teacher is probably one of those things that defines the personality of the teacher and the personality of the student. He made it a point to keep his classroom interested And humor is one way he did it. And having this nickname, Ke-mo, and calling his students by nickname was a way that he had, he made that personal connection with them. It was a pretty cool nickname, but Jaime Escalante wasn’t really a Lone Ranger. He had a posse. Escalante partnered with several other of Garfield’s math teachers to create a program that covered everything from basic fractions to advanced calculus. There were other teachers also that participated, and that I had a lot of respect for. And it was with this team that Escalante created a program bigger than himself, able to produce so many high achievers – even ones who never set foot in his classroom. I started teaching here at Griffith Junior High around the corner from Garfield. One of my ex-students, she was taking a class with Escalante. One day she said “Mr. V, you have to meet Escalante, because you remind me of him.” She arranged the meeting, and I went there and we sat down after school for an hour or so. We talked, and we clicked. And he said “I want you to come and work with me. I want you to be part of my team.” “Louder!” “A negative times a negative equals a positive.” “Why?” The movie Stand and Deliver ends on a high note with Escalante’s students proving the skeptics wrong. But the story of his mathematics program at Garfield does not have a Hollywood ending. When the film was released in 1988, Garfield’s math program was bigger and more successful than ever. Before I came to Garfield, I had never heard of Mr. Jaime Escalante. But sure enough, as soon as you step foot on campus, you hear about Mr. Jaime Escalante, and you hear about the math program. Every single week there was a new film crew coming in. In any other field, we might expect this combination of success, scalability, and publicity, to have catapulted Escalante to the top of his profession; or like Hubble’s expanding universe, to have spread all across the country. That just isn’t what happened. My years were the years of controversy, where a lot of the teachers were resentful, and it was very public. Jaime was the type of person that wouldn’t settle for normal goals. He had big dreams and he wasn’t afraid to reach for them. Jaime was relentless and he wanted, you know the best for the students. The key problem was that Escalante’s classes were big. The number of students in the class worked for him. He could handle it. He was setting a precedent. He was giving the message to the administrator: “If Escalante can do it, why not you?” The union helped Mr. Jimenez, who was the other calculus teacher, helped him to believe that he could run as the chairperson, and be the chairperson…which he did. And that was done, you know, in the background. They hide it from Escalante. The union was able to get the votes to oust Escalante as chairman of the math department because his success and fame had started to arouse jealousy. Maybe they felt that he had too much power, too much attention given to him and his programs. And, you know, I could see that happening. Jealousy and union opposition weren’t the only problems Escalante faced. He also lost one of his key supporters with the departure of Principal Henry Gradillas in 1987. The new principal was Maria Tostado. Tostado took over, and she basically was an outsider, did not understand what it implied, you know. The validity of the program, you know, how much it meant to Garfield, to the barrio. She did not apply herself to understand that that was the greatest gift the community had, and never treasured that. In 1991, demoted and resented by many of his colleagues, Escalante left Garfield High. I know that when he left, he did not leave on good terms. To me it was just tragic… it was just tragic, because he was a good man. All Jaime Escalante ever wanted to do was to help us achieve our goals. And if there’s anything wrong with that, I don’t see it. It is very difficult for one person or two or three to make an impact that has that ripple effect. It was amazing stuff that we learned. And 20 years later, I know schools have come a long way. But it was still a big challenge, it was still a big achievement; and I’m proud of having been a part of that. Nearly two centuries ago, Horace Mann thought he’d found a way to bring the greatest teachers and schools within reach of every child. But, as Jaime Escalante’s experience illustrates, we still haven’t achieved that goal. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are places where educational excellence is scaling up, which is why our next stop is a baseball game…in South Korea. Baseball has one of the heaviest schedules in professional sports. But the Doosan Bears and the Nexen Heroes are still giving it their all – despite the fact that this is a mid-week game, and the skies are threatening to open up any second. Playing ball isn’t all fun and games, but it has its perks: The top players on that field are national celebrities, and they earn big bucks because of their skill and their hard work. Wouldn’t it be great if the best teachers earned that same remuneration and that same recognition? Well here in Korea, they do. Okay, not exactly. The top teachers earn more than the highest paid professional baseball players. My whole lecture revenue is over 100 million dollars. How is that POSSIBLE? Well, it’s an interesting story, and it reaches back a thousand years. In 958, Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty started doling out government jobs to whoever scored highest on a national service exam. The subject matter was mainly Confucian literature and mathematics; and only the ruling elite could afford to prepare their children for it. But it sent a powerful message: academic excellence was the road to success. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the national service exam was finally abolished. And the “hermit kingdom,” as Korea had been known, finally started opening up to the outside world. But before it got very far on the road to modernization, Korea suffered a 40-year occupation by imperial Japan, and then the partitioning of the country after World War II, and another 3 years of war instigated by the communist North. After all that, South Korea was in ruins. Illiteracy was high. The infrastructure had been destroyed. But the nation had two things going for it: economic freedom, and the fervent belief that education was the path to prosperity. Schooling exploded…first elementary, and then secondary. But the creation of colleges couldn’t keep up. So, to ration those scarce college places, South Korea rekindled its ancient tradition: introducing a mandatory college entrance exam. Only this one focused on modern subjects and was genuinely open to all. Well, with their children’s futures riding so heavily on that single test, Korean parents were keen to provide the best preparation they could. And since they lacked confidence in the public school system, families started looking for alternatives. This was similar to the situation in 19th century America, where most parents opted for private schooling. But here in Korea there was a twist: the private schools were so heavily regulated that they didn’t really look much different from the public schools. So, parents decided to opt outside the regular school sector entirely, hiring private tutoring services called “hagwons.” These hagwons were popular with parents, but they weren’t popular with everyone; government officials in charge of public schooling worried that they would lead to inequality in the education system. And so, in 1980, they outlawed most private tutoring. This prohibition on after-school tutoring was every bit as effective as America’s prohibition on alcohol. Instead of driving hagwons out of business, the ban drove them underground. They became illegal educational speakeasies, like the illicit drinking establishments of the “Roaring 20s.” The Korean government even offered cash rewards to anyone ratting-out teachers engaged in extra-curricular…curricula. Despite all this, the private tutoring industry boomed. By the time the ban was struck down 20 years later, the number of hagwons had risen from 5,000 to more than 67,000. With the outright ban on hagwons overturned, the government resorted to a cap on fees. But this, too, was ruled unconstitutional. Not to be dissuaded, the government set a 10pm curfew on hagwon lessons that remains in place to this day. “In place,” but not entirely effective… Actually, my tuition, my hagwon at that time, we had a time limitation on only ten o’clock. But, they had a program from 10 to 1 o’clock. So, what they did…we were studying at 10 o’clock and, we were in the night, we had to finish the lesson. And then, they send us all into the restaurant just down below. And then, when the police comes, right – you know – they will check around whether this hagwon is ongoing or not. After they went back to their police station, they call us to the restaurant, “Okay, now you can come up.” Then we come up again and we had a lesson. And sometime we were studying but – by the window we see a policeman. Then, we turn off the lights. Then we wait for they to cross the road. Then, we turn on again and study. It is illegal. However, parents want it. Do they ever. Ninety-five percent of students have taken hagwon lessons by the time they leave high school. It’s typical to attend after school, several days a week – sometimes well past midnight. And, according to one study, three-quarters of students prefer those hagwon lessons to their regular school classes. Actually, I think the aim of hagwon is helping us to get better grades from the school. And for me, actually, hagwon help me a lot. I’ve seen many students asleep at school like, all subjects, from morning – eight to afternoon – five pm…and they just sleep. And then, when they go to hagwon, their eyes are so sparkly, and they’re ready to study, and they study ’til two o’clock. Of course it’s that way; it’s because hagwons are customer-oriented. When students enroll in hagwons, they are matched with classes based on their performance level. So it’s possible to tailor the lessons to those specific students. But that’s not the case for regular public schools. Which means the highly-advanced students and those who are far behind are in the same classes, classes that aren’t really suited to them. Public schools are divided by age in classes. I think that makes a big difference. And it’s not the only difference. Schools are places students are required to attend, but they choose to come to hagwons so they have more affection toward them. That means they tend to pay closer attention in class and, because of that, it is so fun to teach these kids. Mr. Choi is a national star. A lot of students have fallen in love with his lectures. In the past, students from outside Seoul had to come take these classes during vacation. But as internet technology improved, kids got the opportunity to listen to great lectures in the comfort of their own homes. Actually, I’m not from Seoul; I’m from Daejeon…which…there aren’t really many celebrity teachers, so we have to take online courses. So me and my friends – and we’d be all watching the same teacher’s education. I actually met one of them at Seoul train station – and me and my friends from back home are, like, excited and we want to take pictures. He was like a celebrity to us and he actually helped me with the subjects I did not really do well on. I teach around a thousand students a year in person. As for online – it’s around ten or fifteen thousand students a year. Every online lecture has a demonstration lecture. Almost all students should see that first and then, they are free to choose. Online and in-person lectures, on average over 100,000 students taking my lessons. It is a market, it is an entire market. And the consumer, a student, likes the product that is better than any others. So teachers compete within the market to become, like, entertaining and educative at the same time, you know? I must study hard – even harder than my students – so the lecture is very enlivened, and interesting, and exciting. For online hagwon teachers, if they deliver passionate lectures and give good service, many students will subscribe to their classes… and their earnings reflect that. For the last ten years, my whole lecture revenue is over 100 million dollars, and my share is 25 million dollars. But, at this point, the regular schools’ teachers, if they worked harder, there would be nothing. There could be nothing for their more efforts. Not just in Korea but also in America, there’s nothing like that motivational compensation system. The best thing about teaching at hagwons is the freedom it guarantees about everything…as long as I’m doing a good job. But at hagwons, you must renew your contract every year. If the feedback and surveys from students are not good, you could be let go. It’s a sort of carrot-and-stick approach: you could be let go, or you could be paid more. So hagwon teachers have no choice but to develop themselves in the best ways they can. There is a book called Professor Farnsworth’s Explanations in Biology. It left a lasting impression on me. In that book, he says that everybody has a natural instinct to share what they know. To be able to share the things that you know and get paid for doing that is actually a miracle. The same freedoms and incentives that are driving the success of hagwons have also created what people call the “Miracle of the Han River,” Korea’s rise in barely two generations from war-torn ruins to, well…this. During the 1960s, average income per-person was less than $500 in both North and South Korea. But by the early 70s, the nations began to diverge: the South adopted an open market economy; the North, a centrally-planned government system. Today, per-capita income is twenty-times higher in the South. It’s not hard to spot the difference…even from space. The two Koreas at night: the North, a sea of darkness, the South awash with light. South Korea’s new wealth has spawned a proliferation of colleges. This view of Seoul is from the top of the Classic 500 Building – which itself was built by a university foundation. But, though there are now enough college places for everyone, the high-stakes university entrance exam remains, and the competition to score well and attend a top-ranked college is fierce. It’s fair to say that Korea’s combination of hiring practices, high-stakes exams, and intense education culture have combined to make life pretty tough for students. In my case, I stay up all night before exams, maybe during six weeks. So I got under pressure a lot. Traditionally in Korea, the educational level of a person has played a crucial role in determining his or her status in society. Actually, I find this deeply troubling. I feel that the kids are suffering in this system created that is by adults. And yet other students seem to take the academic pressure in stride. If I look back, I think, it was not all just study. You know, I had fun with my friends, studying. And I kind of enjoyed it. And I wanted to do more to you know, succeed and do better. And I liked learning. So, I think, not all Koreans are, like… I don’t want everyone to pity the Korean students because we study a lot. Sometimes we kind of enjoy it, because we are doing it for ourselves. And it’s hard to undo a thousand-year tradition. But there are signs of change. For one, businesses are finally starting to look beyond elite college degrees when sifting through their applicants’ resumes. Korea’s challenge is to find a way of easing the pressure on its students while building on the key strength of its hagwon sector: the ability to bring top teachers within reach of a massive audience. Our challenge is to figure out how they do it. Could it have something to do with the freedoms and incentives of Korea’s tutoring sector? Its teachers have tremendous autonomy and they’re constantly striving to improve their services to stay ahead of the competition. And the more students they serve, the more money they bring in. All of that’s also true of private schools back here in the United States. So, if that’s the recipe for replicating excellence, we’d expect to see the same kind of growth among U.S. private schools. Do we? Let’s find out. On the next episode of School Inc., Andrew Coulson’s journey takes him to one of the top ten performing private high schools in America, to find out why replicating their reputation of excellence is not part of their highly successful traditions. In Austin, Texas, he visits a remarkable charter school system where “scaling-up” and “expansion” has become a source of community pride. And Coulson visits Chile to ask: What could winemaking and education possibly have in common?

About James Carlton

Read All Posts By James Carlton

23 thoughts on “School Inc. Episode 1: The Price of Excellence – Full Video

  1. Are those classes being filmed before a live studio audience? How many celebrity professors, and apprentices, does it take to teach us how everything works? If we are free to choose then why do we have the Department of (misleading) Education?

  2. I kind of wonder if the success in the Korean Hagwon Schools can be credited to the Government trying to make it illegal. Over time, I've noticed that when people of authority try to forbid something, it becomes interesting.

  3. RIP Andrew. You did an amazing job, and I can't wait to watch every episode. Hopefully the public at large will give new ideas proper consideration and eventually help to create a school system that is better in ways we can't even imagine.

  4. THIS IS EXCELLENT. PERsonally, the public schools in the US today spend way too much time & money on sports–extra curricular activities and not near sufficient time with actual teaching. Then, the other real problem with school is–bored teachers who don't do anything except show up & get paid! It's shameful!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *