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[Editorial] Education reform

More time and preparation needed to launch a new graduate school system for teachers

Jan. 18, 2023 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

Education is one of the three key areas that the Yoon Suk Yeol administration aims to reform along with labor regulations and pensions. As with other sectors, however, the government must overcome a slew of obstacles, especially opposition and skepticism from existing stakeholders.

A case in point is the raging dispute over the government’s plan to establish new special graduate schools of education for those who want to become elementary and secondary school teachers.

The envisioned graduate schools will be open to teacher candidates of various backgrounds and field experiences, a format that follows the law school system. Unsurprisingly, many of existing teachers and those who prepare for a national exam to become primary and secondary teachers are strongly opposed to the drastic changes to the new graduate schools that will drastically reconfigure the teacher recruitment system.

On Jan. 5, the Ministry of Education unveiled the major plans for 2023, one of which is to launch the new system designed to produce professional teachers with at least master’s degrees by integrating programs of current special education colleges and pre-teacher field training.

Those who finish the two-year program at the new graduate schools will be given a regular teacher certificate (Grade 1) together with a master’s or doctorate degree. Under the Education Ministry’s road map, it will run pilot programs at two schools in the second half of this year before starting a full-fledged graduate school system next year.

Education Minister Lee Ju-ho last week stressed the need for introducing a new graduate school system as part of securing qualified professional teachers for the future, saying that this year will mark the beginning of education reforms.

Currently, candidates for elementary and secondary teachers at public schools attend the Korea National University of Education or special education colleges to finish four-year programs before taking the fiercely competitive teacher recruitment examination.

With the introduction of the new graduate schools, teacher candidates will be required to study for at least six years to become full-time teachers.

In theory, the new system will encourage more talented people with diverse backgrounds -- who major in subjects other than education -- to take the graduate school programs and start careers as teachers.

One particularly sensitive detail of the plan is that the government considers allowing those who graduate from the new schools to skip the teacher recruitment examination -- an extremely generous and controversial proposal. Such special privilege is bound to spark complaints from teacher candidates who have spent years to pass the state exam. Given that those who graduate from the law schools have to pass the national exam to obtain licenses for lawyers, the government should ponder the potentially disruptive impact of giving such national test exemption.

There is no question that Korean students will benefit from a new pool of talented teachers with diverse professional expertise and higher education qualifications. Many of the OECD nations run teacher training programs that last six or more years. For instance, Germany’s secondary teacher training program is 6 1/2 years long. Italy and Austria run six-year programs for those who want to be secondary teachers.

Despite the potential benefits, the government should listen to opposing views from teachers, education experts and teacher candidates. An association of education college students held a press conference on Jan. 8 and claimed that the new graduate system will lead to restructuring of education colleges and cut in the number of teachers. The association also argued that the government is pushing for the plan unilaterally without sufficient discussions with stakeholders. Experts also point out that the new graduate system could aggravate the oversupply of licensed teachers, with many having to wait to be appointed to schools.

The Education Ministry should pay more attention to such opposing views and map out a detailed education reform plan. Running a pilot program at two schools this year and launching the new graduate school system next year appear to be on too tight a schedule. Considering that education reform is a long-term undertaking, the government should collect more opinions from stakeholders and take enough time to prepare for the new graduate school system.