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Understanding Korean education based on international study

Dec. 30, 2012 - 20:20 By Korea Herald
An international assessment of mathematics and science for the fourth and eighth grades, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, has been conducted every four years since 1995.

According to the analysis of the TIMSS from 2011, Korea is placed in the top tier of participating countries. Korea’s fourth-grade mathematics and science achievements are respectively ranked second and first place, and eighth-grade scores respectively ranked first and third place. The results indicate improvements when compared to the TIMSS from 1995, 1999, 2003, and 2007.

Political and educational contributions have been made in several aspects. Korea’s curriculum has been able to quickly adapt to the international flow by occasional revision.

In fact, the curriculum was revised in 2007 and 2009. The 2007 curriculum changes reflected some results from the TIMSS from 2007. The possibility of offering customized classes that adhere to the learning levels of individual students had already been increased by emphasizing level-differentiated classes in the National Curriculum. Along with these efforts, strengthening subject education in pre-service teacher training courses and increasing the ratio of teachers who participate in various training compared to the past had accounted for improvement in the quality of teaching.

Korea also augmented educational resources at school and home through internet programs, learning resources, and book reserves. These resources had a significant impact on achievement levels and students’ accessibility to education was increased. The efforts for improving achievement levels had resulted in the successful outcome of the TIMSS 2011.

TIMSS divides the academic achievements into four levels ― advanced, high, intermediate, and low international benchmarks. Korea’s ratio of low level students decreased in both mathematics and science. The ratio of advanced benchmark in the fourth grade mathematics and science are 39 percent and 29 percent, respectively 14 percent and 7 percent up from the TIMSS 1995.

For middle school students, the proportions of advanced students in mathematics and science are 47 percent and 20 percent, up 7 percent and 3 percent from 2007. The proportions of high and intermediate students are also rising.

Korean education has made a continuous effort to reinforce level-differentiated classes in the 7th National Curriculum and to operate subject-oriented after-school classes to offer customized education to individual students. In 2008, the government established the “zero plan for below-basic students” as a national agenda to move all students toward basic academic achievement.

Politically supported programs, such as “the program to support basic academic ability,” which started in 2009, can be credited for the improvement of Korean education; additionally, supportive plans have been established and implemented to improve basic academic achievement since 2010.

But Korean students’ attitude toward math and science is less positive than the international average. Most top-ranked countries, as well as Korea, appeared to have low attitudes compared to the international average. Confidence in math and science is lower than the international average. This tendency is similarly shown in the top-ranked Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. The extent to which Korean students like learning math and science is similar to that in Japan, Taiwan, and Finland. The value Korea’s eighth-grade students’ put on mathematics and science appeared to be lower than the international average. This tendency is also found in Asian countries, such as Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong.

Korean students’ high achievement result is very encouraging despite the results regarding attitude; a variety of measures must be considered. In order to create more positive attitudes, we need to benchmark successful cases from overseas to prepare an improved method of teaching, learning, and teacher education.

In the TIMSS 2011, the top-ranked Asian countries, such as Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, showed a low level of confidence, enjoyment, and value in math and science compared to countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Singapore, which had shown similar achievement levels.

It seems Asian cultural upbringing might have caused the students to respond in a modest manner. In particular, observation of Asian students indicates their tendency to under-appreciate their abilities. Low confidence and interest in math and science have been continuously found in Asian students, including Korean students, in the TIMSS results. To increase the students’ positive attitudes, there is a need to evaluate the correlation relationships between students’ Asian cultural upbringing and the achievement trends. 
Seong Tae-je

By Seong Tae-je

The writer is president of Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation. ― Ed.