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South Korea: Tops in PISA and Suicide

November 6, 2015

Mapo Bridge

Inscription on the Bridge of Life (Seoul, Korea): “Just go and see the person you miss.”

In fall 2014, Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann of Education Next published an article entitled, “U.S. Students from Educated families Lag in International Tests.” The article includes three graphics ranking countries and US states using both 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores and 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores.

The first graphic ranks countries and states on “student proficiency overall”– percentage at or above proficiency level in math among all students in the Class of 2015 in US states and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

The second graphic ranks countries and states on “student proficiency, low parental education”– percentage at or above proficiency level in math among students whose parents have a low level of education in the Class of 2015 in US states and OECD countries.

The third graphic ranks countries and states on “student proficiency, high parental education”– percentage at or above proficiency level in math among students whose parents have a high level of education in the Class of 2015 in US states and OECD countries.

On all three graphics, Korea ranks first. In comparison, the United States ranks 24th, 20th, and 31st, respectively.

The authors conclude the post by noting their “apples to apples” comparisons show that US students “are not faring well” when compared to other countries on PISA. The authors conclude that the US must “bridge the gap” between US PISA scores and those of other countries.

In other words, according to the authors, the USA needs to become more like Korea in its international test performance.

However, in their article, Hanushek et al. do not consider what the USA might forfeit in such a quest.

Indeed, South Korea has another “first,” one that it has had for 11 years as of 2015 and that it cannot seem to shake: South Korea ranks Number One in suicides among OECD countries. As the August 31, 2015, Korean Times reports:

South Korea is No. 1 for the 11th year in a row when it comes to suicide rate among OECD countries, according to the organization’s Health Data 2015 report.

The average suicide rate among all OECD countries, according to 2013 data, was 12 people out of 100,000.

South Korea, in 2012, saw 29.1 suicides per 100,000 people. In comparison, Hungary, which came in second, saw 19.4 suicides; Japan saw 18.7; Slovenia saw 18.6; and Belgium saw 17.4.

Turkey had the lowest suicide rate, at 2.6 people per 100,000, followed by Greece (4.2), Mexico (5), Italy (6.3) and Israel (6.4).

Although overall suicide rate in OECD countries has decreased since 1985, in South Korea it has risen since 2000. [Emphasis added.]

As it happens, South Korea is attempting its own education reform– and its high PISA scores are interfering– as is the US adulation of Korea’s high PISA scores. As Singapore-based Today’s Ng Jing Yng reports on July 23, 2015:

SINGAPORE — While South Korea’s strong performance in the highly regarded Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been a source of pride for many in the country, it has created a headache of sorts for its former minister tasked with reforming its education system.

Speaking to TODAY in an interview yesterday (July 22), Professor Lee Ju-Ho, who helmed South Korea’s Education, Science and Technology Ministry between August 2010 and March 2013, recalled how United States President Barack Obama lauded South Korean education during his State of the Union speech in 2011.

(Mr Obama’s) remarks made me embarrassed. I was in the middle of pushing for a reform — we really think we need to make a change. But PISA somehow is telling (people) that Korea is the best, like Singapore. This is kind of hiding our problems,” said Prof Lee, who was in Singapore to deliver a lecture today on his country’s experience in education policies.

The PISA test is conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) once every three years. South Korea’s 15-year-olds were ranked sixth in science, fourth in mathematics and second in reading in the 2009 edition. For the 2012 test, the country came in seventh in science, and fifth in both maths and reading.

Prof Lee, who is an economics academic at KDI School of Public Policy and Management, published a paper last year on South Korea’s education reforms, in which he noted that South Korean students’ high scores in the PISA test had been used as justification by those against reforming the country’s education system, and had created an obstacle for reform advocates. 

He told TODAY that PISA’s focus on cognitive skills does not assess students’ creativity, for example. He added that he believes his country’s booming private-tuition industry could also have boosted its PISA rankings. [Emphasis added.]

More to come on that private tutoring industry in Korea. But note that despite its top PISA scores, Korean students are still lacking in workplace prep:

He noted that the OECD Survey of Adult Skills, which assessed those aged between 16 and 65 in literacy, numeracy and problem solving, indicated that South Korea’s education system does not prepare its people well for the workplace. South Korea took part in the first round of this survey, which was conducted between 2011 and 2012, and its older participants achieved below average scores. …

While an explanation for the disparity in the country’s performance in the two OECD tests may be the improvements in the South Korean education system, Prof Lee said the gap also showed a lack of motivation at the workplace.“Because of rote learning and memorisation, students tend to have less motivation to accumulate skills later in life,” he said. [Emphasis added.]

Funny how the likes of Obama and of Hanushek et al. are pushing American students to be more like South Korean students even as ed reform in South Korea is trying to move South Korean students away from the country’s hyper test-score-focus.

Which brings us back to South Korea’s private tutoring industry. The following article by Kwanwoo Jun, entitled, “What Ails South Korea Education System? Private Tutoring, Says World Bank Chief,” appeared in the Wall Street Journal in November 2014:

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has a word of advice on South Korea’s hyper-competitive education system and its stressed out students: cut down on private tutoring.

South Korean parents paid $18 billion for private education last year to try and give their children an advantage in the competitive yearly college entrance exam, a figure from the national statistics agency shows. Test scores at the make-or-break test are a key part of qualifications for being admitted to top-notch universities, which many Korean believe will continue to play a major role in determining their success in life. But critics say a reliance on private education creates an uneven playing field for the less wealthy.

Dr. Kim, who is visiting Seoul to attend an education forum, singled out private tutoring–a widespread and common practice in South Korea–as something that should be modified to improve education in the country.

“Korea has one of the best educational systems in the world. What we are pointing out is the competition itself is not the problem. One of the problems is that there is a very high psychological cost for the students to be going through,” Mr. Kim told a press conference in Seoul.

South Korean kids regularly appear among the top rankings globally for educational achievement, but most students are exposed to immense pressure to succeed at school, where they slog through long hours of rote learning, and also forced to work at private after-school institutions until late at night.

South Korea is known for its hyper-stressed and unhappy students. A global survey ranked the country 75th out of 135 countries in well-being.

Mr. Kim, who emigrated from South Korea to the U.S. at age five,  said private tutoring–often very expensive–could deepen inequality that could be “very damaging” to Korea in the long term.

“With an intense desire to get better tutoring, some of the socioeconomic inequalities get played out. In other words, those who can afford expensive tutoring are the children who do better.”

Though falling short of suggesting concrete solutions to the problem, Mr. Kim said South Korea should find a way to reduce the psychological burden on students by changing the way that they are forced to study, reducing the overall number of studying hours, reducing demands for tutoring and equalizing access to tutoring. [Emphasis added.]

The above articles offer some important takeaways for those tempted to give too much weight to the Hanushek et al. suggestion that the USA needs to “bridge achievement gaps” between the USA and other countries (which means trying to emulate other OECD countries’ PISA results). First of all, Koreans are under incredible pressure to perform on their own national tests– high PISA scores are a byproduct of this. Second, the competition is so intense that Korea has a private tutoring industry that grossed $18 billion in one year. Moreover, the private tutoring industry is contributing to South Korea’s own “opportunity gaps.” Fourth, scoring well on international tests (a byproduct of the need to score well on national tests) does not assure “workplace readiness” in South Korea.

Fifth, the South Korean obsession with high-stakes testing is interfering not only with the nurturing of creativity among students, but also with the psychological welfare of its citizens.

In order to help South Korean citizens to stop wanting to take their own lives, Samsung has posted encouraging messages on a popular suicide spot in Seoul, the Mapo Bridge. Below is a four-minute video on the Mapo Bridge, now nicknamed, “The Bridge of Life”:

South Korea is paying a steep price for its test obsession.

America, take a lesson.


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 (April 2014, Information Age Publishing).

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools? (June 2015, TC Press).

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.


  1. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Thanks for doing this. I am so tired of the inferential leaps made by statisticians who have no concept of culture and will not accept that poverty bears on test scores, and who think test scores are the gold standard for judgin education. Careful research has shown that the kids who score high come from societies that value compliance with authority and know how to follow directions and For whom there is not a huge gap in the language at home and in school, including vernacular speech. I have that reference, but not on my iPad.

  2. Jill Reifschneider permalink

    Thank you again, for a reality check on what should be priorities in our education system and what we need to avoid. President Obama, once again, doesn’t get it.

  3. Another Tim permalink

    Another case of cherry picking statistics to suit a cause.

    There are lies, damned lies… and statistics.

    Thanks for posting this article.

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