English Education Policy Before the Millennium

Written by Dr. David Shaffer

Why do so many Koreans go to college? Why are there so many private academies (hagwon) all over the country? Does Korea do policy planning for English education? These are some of the questions we will find answers to as we travel back to the years before the turn of the millennium, when a number of highly significant education-related policy changes were made that are still impacting society today.

During the 1960s, the Korean government’s focus was mainly on elementary education. The elementary school student population increased by 58 percent during this decade. For English education, which began at the secondary level, the National Curriculum emphasized listening and speaking, and suggested that these skills be attained through the adoption of the Audio-Lingual Method as the major teaching methodology. Regardless of the national directive, traditional teaching methods such as the Grammar-Translation Method were pervasive, allowing little implementation of the Audio-Lingual Method.

The National Curriculum of the 1970s moved the emphasis from primary to secondary education. During this period, middle school teachers and students almost doubled in number, while high school teachers and students nearly tripled! For English education, it was mandated that less emphasis be placed on the Grammar-Translation Method and that a focus be placed on communicative skills. It was mainly during this decade that the U.S. Peace Corps was invited to provide volunteers to teach English in middle schools. These native-speaking English teachers brought with them new communicative language teaching techniques. The introduction of these communicative teaching methods influenced the teachers at the Peace Corps volunteers’ schools, but the number of middle schools far outnumbered the Peace Corps volunteers available to teach at them. The Communicative Teaching Method established a foothold but was not yet in widespread use.

As the nation moved into the 1980s, the government and the constitution were changed, providing Chun Doo-hwan and his Fifth Republic with greater authoritarian control. The emphasis in education was to continue the modernization policies of the previous decade and to focus on higher education. The use of audio-visual teaching materials was encouraged. Greater emphasis was placed on listening and speaking skills, and the importance of communicative ability in everyday contexts was stressed. The National Curriculum also stressed the importance of testing across the four skills. These policy revisions, however, led to little change in teaching methods in the classroom: the passive skills of reading and listening remained prominent, as did testing of these two skills. Textbook topics did change, however, to using English in everyday situations as textbook approval was in government hands.

There were several significant changes made soon after Chun Doo-hwan became president. In order to promote equal opportunities in higher education, the establishment of new colleges and universities was encouraged. There was an increase of 56 percent in colleges and universities (from 357 to 556) in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, that number more than doubled to 1,184. In addition to the increase in the tertiary student population created by the newly established institutions, the entering student enrollment quotas were drastically increased at existing colleges and universities. Due to these two measures, tertiary student enrollments more than doubled during the 1980s and again doubled during the 1990s, raising the number of college students from 600,000 to 3.3 million during the 1980–2000 period.

While this huge increase in tertiary student enrollment created the possibility of college entrance for almost anyone who wished to further their education (80–85 percent of high school graduates entered college), it initiated a degradation in the quality of instruction across tertiary institutions. Let us take an example. Since enrollments increased across the board, the top-ranked universities accepted more incoming freshmen than before. These additional numbers would, by necessity, have to be students with lower college entrance exam scores than freshmen entering in earlier years, thus lowering the average student academic ability.

With colleges and universities of lower academic rankings, the situation was worse, and grew worse the lower the school’s ranking. At a medium-ranked school, for example, higher-ability students that usually enrolled in such a school were now able to enter a higher-ranked school. What were earlier considered to be the middle-ranked school’s lower-ability students were now their higher-ability students (without any increase in ability) and the remainder of their quota was filled with students of lower ability who would not have earlier been able to enter a medium-ranked school. For low-ranked schools, the situation was much worse: their entire freshman enrollment could now be made up of students of an ability level below that of the school’s entering students before the student quota expansions.

While this increase in student quotas was welcomed by students and parents, it was not so well received by instructors. It created a decrease in the average ability of the student body. In order to continue to teach to the middle of a class, the instructor needed to spend more time on specific topics, cover less material, and/or not delve as deep into specific concepts. In addition, tests became easier as material covered was less and because of the cultural aversion to failing students. The bottom line is that the quality of instruction that tertiary institutions offered suffered.

On top of this, in 1980 Chun Doo-hwan decided to ban all private education, known as gwa-oe (과외), to eliminate the financial burden it created for the less privileged. However, in addition to removing the availability of supplementary advanced learning to higher-ability students, it removed the possibility of much-needed supplementary remedial learning for lower-ability students and ended up not pleasing anyone. The gwa-oe restrictions were gradually lessened until the ban was ruled unconstitutional in the late 1990s.

The English education policies, and education policies in general, under the authoritarian regimes of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s were a mixed bag in terms of effectiveness. National Curriculums were often not put into practice in the classroom, the negative effects of increases in tertiary student quotas offset the benefits, and the untethering of the hagwon unleashed spiraling private education costs that the average household is struggling with yet today.

The Author
David E. Shaffer is Vice-President of the Gwangju-Jeonnam Chapter of Korea TESOL (KOTESOL). On behalf of the Chapter, he invites you to participate in the teacher development workshops at their monthly meetings (always on a Saturday). For many years, Dr. Shaffer has been a professor of English Language at Chosun University, where he has taught graduate and undergraduate courses. He is a long-time member of KOTESOL and a holder of various KOTESOL positions, including First Vice-President and Publications Committee Chair. Dr. Shaffer credits KOTESOL for much of his professional development in English language teaching. He is also editor-in-chief of Gwangju News.

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