Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Excessive competition for university entrance exams affects the lives of children starting from when they are toddlers. More and more parents send their children to English-speaking preschools, international middle schools, science/foreign language and other special-purpose high schools, and eventually the so-called “SKY Universities (Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University)”, a pipeline that is assumed to be the only means to ensure the success of their children. Most South Koreans agree that it is easier to get a better job with a good educational background. As such, education is closely connected to economic achievements in South Korea. Under such circumstances, most students inevitably suffer from an inferiority complex or fear of failure, except for only a handful of top performing students who can make it to the top-tier schools/universities. According to Statistics Korea, four out of ten teenagers from the age of 13 to 19 who have felt a suicidal impulse answered that grades and admissions were the cause of said impulse. This is an example that directly shows how much teenagers are suffering from academic work and stress. In addition, according to the 2013 Comprehensive Survey of Children in Korea by the Ministry of Health & Welfare, children over the age of 9 gave 60 points (average: 80 points) out of 100 for the quality of life. This was lowest figure among OECD member states. The shadow education industry rapidly grew by preying upon such social sentiments of anxiety. 2013 statistics by the Ministry of Education show the shadow education market in South Korea amounting to 18.5 trillion Korean Won (approximately $17 billion), which is about 2% of South Korea’s GDP.
Behind the unnecessary and excessive shadow education sparked by fierce competition, there is the crumbling public education system. With the diminished trust in the country’s public education system, more parents feel uncertain whether their children will be able to go to a good university and get a good job if they were to “just go to school” without receiving supplementary tutoring. This anxiety has opened the way for shadow education to replace public education, beyond just complementing it. Some parts of the public education system itself have also lost the balance in fairness, by including academic contents that are outside of the regular public education curriculum into their admission tests. Therefore, without fundamental changes in the current public education system, South Korea cannot ensure equal access to quality education, but instead promotes unfair competition in the name of education. In the meantime, citizens can easily feel overwhelmed when confronted with the complicated task of rebuilding a public education system. However, stakeholders including school parents, teachers, policy makers and education experts must all collaborate to induce systematic change in the South Korean society. But, such an opportunity for collaboration has not been provided. Existing civic movements have strived to solve various education issues of their interest, but no organization has attempted to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problem of university admissions competition and the myriads of other related problems upfront. In-soo believed a “master organizer” was needed to form a new education system by bringing these different stakeholders together.
Historically, South Korea is also entering a critical phase. Students with good grades from an education system that focuses on cramming and memorization are no longer regarded as talents. There are new signs that companies now focus on qualities such as autonomous decision-making, character, creativity, and problem-solving skills that cannot be shown in academic grades. South Korean society needs a revolution that goes against outdated systems such as the poor quality of public education, hierarchical university rankings, and an emphasis on educational background in the recruitment market.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
South Korean society has achieved rapid economic growth over a relatively short period of time. The cost of this growth has been the heightened sense of competition amongst Korean citizens, and a deep worry of falling behind in this competitive environment. Fueled by the anxieties of parents, the private supplementary tutoring market, referred to as “shadow education,” has become so overheated that it has even replaced public education. This has had significant societal cost, with many parents and students suffering from financial burden and emotional and physical stresses. In-soo, as a long-time education reformer, envisions a new system, created by the citizens themselves, who will be empowered to restore the proper place for public education and ensure fairness in the educational sphere. Before In-soo’s work, Korean society did not believe this problem could be solved through a civic movement. Koreans viewed shadow education as an individual choice made within the larger socio-structural contexts of growing dissatisfaction with public education, and a job market that prioritizes specific criteria, like graduating from a handful of prestigious universities. These issues have been considered untouchable areas for individuals to tackle. In-soo chose to break away from the ill-functioning pattern of “civic movements with no citizens” led by educational experts and policymakers, and started a new grassroots movement led by ordinary citizens, including the parents who constitute more than half of the country’s population.
In-soo believes South Korean parents hold the key to solving this problem in the new paradigm: parents who were initially viewed as the “perpetrators or victims of excessive shadow education” were given a new identity as the key to resolving the education problems. In-soo purposefully used the issue of shadow education, which all South Korean parents can easily identify with, as leverage for broader engagement with citizens. He has the unique goal of creating a world where no parent has to spend a dollar for shadow education and not one student will feel compelled to commit suicide due to excessive study burdens by the year 2022. In-soo is helping parents to become more self-aware of and get rid of their own old mindsets, which can then further motivate and empower them to take a lead in fixing and changing the corresponding old systems and practices around South Korea’s deep-rooted education problems. In-soo founded a new organization, The World Without Worries about Shadow Education (WWWSE), as a knowledge sharing platform and network hub to provide new channels and opportunities for ordinary citizens to contribute to major educational changes. In this new paradigm, stakeholders who once held individual battles can now see how they are affected by each other, and can therefore imagine a new education system for the country through collaboration. In-soo created an offline space as an enabling environment where parents, teachers, education experts, journalists and even shadow education professionals can come together to clearly understand each other’s role and devise solutions. The new types of information and insights from these offline gatherings were made available online as well, facilitating nationwide discussions and participation. The participants have even voluntarily spread out into 40 different local networks across the country.
In order to meet the desperate need and aspirations for change in the educational field in South Korea, WWWSE is expanding its national influence, financed purely by the donations from its over 3,700 active members whose monthly membership fees cover most of its annual budget of about 1.3 billion Korean Won (approximately $1.2 million). Based on the active participation of ordinary citizens, WWWSE carried out a series of strategic interventions involving activities of petition for legislation and campaigns for education reforms. In 2009, In-soo and his organization made a critical contribution to the 2 trillion Korean Won (approximately $1.9 billion) reduction in the total households’ expenditures on shadow education by changing the admission requirements and criteria of the foreign language high schools and special-purpose high schools in South Korea. Also, in 2014, a new law was passed at the National Assembly as a direct result of his organization’s legislation movement, which called for the prohibition of “preceding education” -the teaching and testing of students ahead of the regular academic curriculum in public education spheres. In-soo also emphasizes the need for change on the ground, within schools, in addition to these institutional and policy level changes. Along with his organization, he is leading a national campaign called “Stop Lining Up Our Students” which identifies the long-standing ill practices in schools that have reinforced school’s unhealthy culture of excessive competition. Such a culture has encouraged discrimination and has led to degrading treatments towards students with low academic performance. In-soo and his organization are working with 16 city and provincial education offices throughout the country, recently signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Gangwon Provincial Education Office and North Jolla Provincial Education Office, as channels for disseminating new information and wholesale partners to expand their influence around the country.