Korean private high schools outperform Korean public high schools

There is a semi-new paper (pdf) by Youjin Hahn, Liang Choon Wang, and Hee-Seung Yang, the abstract is this:

We show that private high school students outperform public high school students in Seoul, South Korea, where secondary school students are randomly assigned into schools within school districts. Both private and public schools in Seoul must admit students randomly assigned to them, charge the same fees, and use the same curricula under the so-called equalization policy’, but private schools enjoy greater autonomy in hiring and other staffing decisions and their principals and teachers face stronger incentives to deliver good students’ performance. Our findings suggest that providing schools greater autonomy in their personnel and resource allocation decisions while keeping school principals accountable can be effective in improving students’ outcomes.

That is from G Heller Sahlgren, who has numerous tweets of interest on Korean schooling.


It seems obvious that this would be true as a partial equilibrium: if you let some schools fire bad teachers and prevent other schools from firing bad teachers, the bad teachers will pool at the latter schools. That doesn't answer the question of the global equilibrium: if you allow all schools to fire bad teachers, will the overall quality of the teacher pool go up? Not answering one way or another, just that this result doesn't mean a priori that running all schools like private schools would help things.

Other possible equilibria: Bad teachers leave system and kids learn better at a loser teach student ratio. Same as first but better teachers enter system and kids learn better at same ratio.

We should apply this logic to the entire economy. What good does it ever do to fire anyone? They have to work somewhere....

Maybe it would be better for the entire economy if instead of firing people we tried to train them so that they'd become like the better quality workers. Of course if they're stealing or telling customers to fuck off maybe there's no amount of training that will make them better.

"We" have everybody in compulsory education for many years. My cohort of classmates experienced a wide range of outcomes. Until we were all about 18 years old, "we" tried to train all of us, with the same resources, in the same building. There are a lot of presumptions behind the statement that further outcomes depend on how "we" train them/us.

It would be nice to know exactly what the schools did with their "greater autonomy".
One thing in the paper that I found might explain some of the difference is that public school teachers in South Korea switch schools every few years while the private schools didn't do that. Having to up, and move and having 100% new co-workers and facilities every few years could reduce quality. Another thing along the same lines is that short term teachers in public schools had to leave the school after their contract was up.
I also wonder what the total costs of each school per student. The private schools paid their teachers more I wonder if they cut costs elsewhere in their budget or if they had more resources.

That's what's great about making them private. You don't have to wonder about it. I have never wondered about how to manage a workforce of programmers and graphic artists, yet the software industry seems to muddle by.

So you don't think its important to know the reasons behind one system being better then another?

It is an interesting academic exercise. It would be very useful for private/free school administrators whose job it is to implement improvements. As a question about how to match the outcomes of private institutions with public institutions, it's like a dog chasing a car.

This will come in handy when I move to Korea.

My guess is that it's because children who go to private schools also benefit from extra tutoring in many or all of their subjects.

I highly doubt that teacher quality has particularly much to do with it. Maybe a little bit. But when the bestest of best teachers can make in a Saturday afternoon (tutoring rich kids) what other teachers make working all week, well ... is it surprising that students who can afford private school might do a little better?

Much different from Canada or US, where the main benefit is that rich kids can network with rich kids and parents can help their children get an in where they will see that law school is certain to be followed by an opportunity in the best firms unless they screw up bigtime, etc., or as helpers in executive boards where they will go straight up unless they screw up bigtime, etc. Actually, my understanding us that education in private school can often even be worse because accreditation requirements do not apply in private schools.

> is it surprising that students who can afford private school might do a little better?

From the abstract:

> Both private and public schools in Seoul must admit students randomly assigned to them, charge the same fees, and use the same curricula under the so-called 'equalization policy'

And paragraph 2, page 3 of the paper states that they "rule out" private tutoring.

Are these schools for profit institutions?

The term "private" is misleading: there are "public" schools, run by the Ministry of Education, "private" schools, run by other groups (non-profit), and "international" schools, which I don't believe are for-profit. Public and Private schools run on the same books, same students, but different administration.

"Private" is misleading for most people. Korean "private" schools are simply schools that are not set up under the Ministry of Education. They have the same fees, the same required curriculum, and have no more control over who enrolls than the "public" schools. To an outside observer, they are simply public schools run by a different administration.

There are a couple of differences that may matter greatly:

1) There are still single sex "private" schools. The "public" schools have, to my knowledge, all turned co-ed.

2) While they are required to run under the same curriculum, they are not subject to the whims of the Ministry of Education. This makes a considerable difference: every president has their own plan on how to reform things, so every five years we have a new "great idea" that is implemented in the "public" schools.

3) Most "private" schools are set up by religious organizations. While students do have a required class in the religion of the school, there seem to be very few attempts to push the religion. They do benefit from support from the parent organization.

4) There are different expectations for bribery. There have been a number of attempts to stop bribery in the public schools, but it remains a problem (it has now become gifts, rather than an envelope of cash,) in many places. The reason behind the constant shifting of public school teachers is partly to stop the creation of a local teacher mafia, and partly to stop Ministry officials from selling slots at the better schools.

Outside tutoring might be different, because of local changes in school operating hours, but I have no evidence of that. I have students from both public and private schools, and clearly they are all in outside classes.

I would credit it to teacher stability, better resource allocation, and school culture. Pay and benefits are higher for public school teachers, and from my experience private school teachers have chosen a place where they want to teach, rather than accepting what the government gives them.

Of course, all my information is anecdotal, and proper research may come up with very different answers.


I reviewed Amanda Ripley's book following American exchange students in South Korea, Finland, and Poland:


The South Korean school was comically bad: all the students napped through it to rest up for the after-school test cram academies:

"A third of the class was asleep. Not nodding off, but flat-out, no apology sleeping with their heads down on the desks. One girl actually had her head on a special pillow that slipped over her forearm. This was pre-meditated napping."

What’s going on? Most of Eric’s classmates spend from 8AM to 9PM at school, primarily test prepping, then go to private hagwon cram schools until curfew at 11PM. They nap through the day on the assumption that school is less important than evening test prep:

"He had found one possible explanation for Korea’s PISA scores, and it was depressing. Kids learned a lot, but they spent a ridiculous amount of time doing so.…He was astounded by the inefficiency of it all. In Korea, school never stopped."

I am always amused when talking to foreign teachers who want to know how Korea schools work. I don't think they do work for most kids. I teach English at a hogwan, and my students seem to get nothing from their public school classes. All of them go to multiple hogwan, most of them are learning more from hogwan than from the schools. I would be interested in knowing how they "rule out" private tutoring, since it may have more effect on the level of the students than the schools.

The idea about % East Asians receiving private tutoring could have been overblown. In the UNESCO report about private tuition http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0011/001184/118486e.pdf table1, some stats for primary, lower secondary and senior secondary,

EG 54 74 ?
HK 45 26 34
JP 24 60 ?
KR 82 60 59
MY ? 59 53 31
MT 52 83 ?
SG 49 30
TW ? 81

The % secondary for Egypt and Malta were higher than that for KR. The PISA scores for HK and Singapore were among the top yet the % secondary tutoring were unusually low.

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