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South Korea, Its High PISA Scores, and Its Suicide App

May 28, 2015

Here is irony:

In January 2014, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted that students from South Korea were tops at “creative problem solving” on the first such Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test:

01/04/2014 – Students from Singapore and Korea have performed best in the OECD PISA first assessment of creative problem-solving. Students in these countries are quick learners, highly inquisitive and able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts.

85,000 students from 44 countries and economies took the computer-based test, involving real-life scenarios to measure the skills young people will use when faced with everyday problems, such as setting a thermostat or finding the quickest route to a destination. …

“Today’s 15-year-olds with poor problem-solving skills will become tomorrow’s adults struggling to find or keep a good job,” said Andreas Schleicher, acting Director of Education and Skills at the OECD. “Policy makers and educators should reshape their school systems and curricula to help students develop their problem-solving skills which are increasingly needed in today’s economies.”

The test is supposed to demonstrate the ability to solve everyday problems. South Korea students fared well on the test. Then comes OECD director Andreas Schleicher suggesting the “reshaping” of “school systems and curricula to help students develop their problem solving skills.” The implication is that educational systems like South Korea are to be emulated.

Not hardly.

Schleicher fails to note that one of South Korea’s greatest problems involves the rate at which its teens are committing suicide– and it is connected with the pressures of school.

As NPR reporter Elise Hu notes in her April 15, 2015, article entitled, The All-Work, No-Play Culture of South Korean Education:

In South Korea, grim stories of teen suicide come at a regular clip. Recently, two 16-year-old girls in the city of Daejeon jumped to their deaths, leaving a note saying, “We hate school.”

It’s just one tragedy in a country where suicide is the leading cause of death among teens, and 11- to 15-year-olds report the highest amount of stress out of 30 developed nations.

A relentless focus on education and exams is often to blame. For a typical high school student, the official school day may end at 4 p.m., but can drag on for grueling hours at private cram institutes or in-school study hall, often not wrapping up until 11 p.m. …

Everything here seems to ride on a single college entrance exam — the suneung — taken in November. It’s so critical that planes are grounded on test day for fear of disturbing the kids.

Results determine which universities students can get into, and since there are as few as three colleges considered top tier by future employers, the competition is fierce and the stakes are sky high. …

It’s no surprise, then, that researchers found more than half the Koreans age 11 to 15 reported high levels of stress in their daily lives. That’s a higher percentage of stressed out kids than in any of the 30 other developed nations that are part of the OECD, or Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“It’s kind of alarming actually. If young students [are] not happy, we cannot guarantee their happiness when they grow up, so our future will be really dark,” says Kim Mee Suk, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, which helped conduct the stress study. She ties the demand for college success to a national drive to keep the economy humming.

A race to succeed so intense it can have tragic consequences. And there are social consequences, too. Many parents say they chose not to have more children because supporting all the cramming simply costs too much. [Emphasis added.]

The alarming rate of South Korean teen suicides has prompted the South Korean Education Ministry to resort to its own “creative problem solving”: An app to assist with combating suicide:

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates of any developed country. Suicide is the fourth-most-common cause of death among South Koreans, and the numbers are especially high among young people.

In response to the public health crisis, South Korea’s education ministry announced plans for a smartphone app designed to screen students’ social media posts, messages and web searches for words related to suicide, AFP reported Friday.

The app will send an alert to the parents of students are determined to be at risk.

South Korean students report high levels of depression, stress anxiety, much of it caused by the demands of the country’s hypercompetitive education system.

Student suicides tend to increase around November, when high school students take college entrance exams. Students often study intensely for years to prepare for the College Scholastic Ability Test, which can determine their career trajectory and even affect future prospects for marriage.

In addition to attending school full time, many students spend several hours every day preparing for the exam, often seeking extra help from so-called cram schools.

Though many welcomed the education ministry’s announcement of the suicide-prevention app, the ministry also faced criticism for not addressing the roost (sp: roots) of the country’s suicide problem, including academic pressures and the stigma of mental health treatment.

“Instead of a stop-gap policy, we must work out a fundamental and eventual solution, because various factors lead to the suicide of students,” the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations said in a statement, according to AFP. [Emphasis added.]

In 2012, in an effort to curb its leading suicide rate, the South Korean government banned fatal pesticides. And the OECD– the organization praising South Korea for its “creative problem solving” test scores– is aware of South Korea’s critical problem with suicide. The following was noted by Reuters in 2013:

In the highly competitive society of Asia’s fourth-largest economy, experts say people who end up alone battling pressure for good school grades or from financial burdens have little in the way of a safety net.

Despite the improvement in the suicide rate, more than 14,000 South Koreans killed themselves last year. Elderly people living in rural areas are a particularly high-risk group. …

The 2012 figures may offer a glimmer of hope, but the latest comparisons by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed South Korea was by far the most suicidal society, followed by Hungary, Russia and Japan.

To add to South Korea’s woes: In March 2015, South Korea’s unemployment rate reached a five-year high. Youth unemployment is a particular problem:

The number of unemployed Koreans under age 29 amounted to 484,000, the highest since March 2001 when it was 499,000. The overall number of unemployed totaled 1.2 million. …

Another underlying problem is the surplus of overeducated young people with very little practical experience who seek a limited number of jobs offered by leading Korean conglomerates, which account for more than half of the country’s job growth, market observers said.

According to the February 2014 University World News, South Korea is having trouble employing its college graduates:

In South Korea the number of ‘economically inactive’ graduates has passed three million for the first time, according to government figures released on 3 February, up just over 3% from the previous year. …

“The main reason [for rising joblessness] is that there is a growing number of college graduates,” said Kong Mi-sook from Korea’s statistics agency. He believes the number of unemployed with college degrees could continue on an upward trend.

OECD knows that South Korea has a suicide crisis and that its test-centric education system is a catalyst.

The outlook for those who achieve a university education in South Korea also veers from Schleicher’s simplistic message about problem-solving skills as being “increasingly needed in today’s economies.”

By 2020, South Korea will face a crisis in a dearth of trained workers in industrial fields.  Even now, there is a “strong demand” for workers in South Korea’s manufacturing industry– with Filipino workers available to fill them.

The South Korean economy is out of balance, and the social stigma of a South Korean industrial career appears to be one of those “fundamental issues” needing addressing, as called for by the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations.

I wonder how many of those overstressed South Korean teens would really prefer to be apprenticed in an industrial field.

Perhaps an app offering South Korean students and their families career options to explore upcoming jobs in industry is also in order.

Just to try something different– some real-time “creative problem solving.”



Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has her second book available on pre-order, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, due for publication June 12, 2015.

CC book cover

  1. And they seem to want the same in the US. Nuts ! (That’s UK English for crazy)

  2. When can we all have a look at the test questions ?????????

    • Laura H. Chapman permalink

      You can see about 10 pages of sample test questions at

      The tests were administered in computer and non-computer environments. There are technical reports on the sample sizes, breakouts by gender and so on. The tests require math and science skills, and in some cases some familiarity with technological gadgets. I found some of the questions not far removed from conventional word problems in math, but with illustrations. Note that the OECD language of “high performing countries” only refers to scores on on OECD tests. This same language has been appropriated in the US to mean not only scoring high on tests in comparisons with other nations but totally unwarranted inferences about high test scores and the status of the nation on economic indicators. From there you assume that social and cultural welfare is assured by scoring high on tests. Mercedes has agin hit the nail on the head in showing the consequences of that flawed reasoning and emphasis, now being propagated worldwide.

  3. Ken Watanabe permalink

    It seems like South Korea has a trend of increasing youth in population, which is quite opposite to Japan that is suffering from shrinking population and agism. I learned their story from the PBS News Hours while ago.

    They have similar high-context culture with Japan–such as obedience and self-restraint as sign of respect for authority, family expectation, entrance examination ordeal, etc. Very similar trend in avoiding 3Ds(Dirty, Difficult, and Dangerous) blue collar work. There are not many young people who are willing to work at industrial job, so the government goes for the plan B: recruiting foreign workers from Philippine, China, or South America. That’s exactly what Japan has been doing for over the last couple of decades under work-visa/trainee scheme to the detriment of alleged human rights abuse.

    It’s not surprising to see the problems surrounding them. In my opinion, promoting education reform for the boost of job-training development or national economy in the name of globalization is plain stupid and dumb. It doesn’t make any difference in student learning without making significant changes in school environment to alleviate study stress for improvement of self-esteem. It doesn’t help students improve English by simply having a bunch of TFAers-like 20-something from US in the classroom.

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