On a recent afternoon, Jung Doo-gil walked into an after-school academy with a hidden camera in her purse in search of a peculiar type of wrongdoing: overeducation.
She has joined a nationwide cat-and-mouse game among parents zealous for more education for their children and government and activists who are trying to reduce the fever.
Caught in the middle are the managers and teachers working in after-school academies called hagwons.
Privately run education firms became a huge industry over the past decade as parents looked for ways to give their children an edge in a society in which success is defined narrowly, usually with entrance to one of a handful of colleges and then a career in government or big business.
The government counts 95,000 hagwons and 84,000 individuals providing tutoring services, though others offer such services beyond the eyes of tax monitors. Parents routinely spend $1,000 a month per child at hagwons and, just as routinely, students stay in such academies well into the night.
Koreans are very proud of faring well on standardized tests, and government policy since the 1960s has been to promote education as a means of lifting the country to affluence. But there’s a long-running conflict in Korean culture, which promotes itself as classless yet clings fiercely to a hierarchical tradition. People see education as the only way to break through the hierarchy and move up the ranks of status. So actions that unfairly separate moneyed people from the pack are strongly criticized.
The rising use of hagwons sparked a backlash from government officials and activist groups that say children of parents who can’t afford the private services are being left behind. Some argue that the cost of education associated with hagwons is one of the reasons South Korea’s birth rate has fallen to the lowest of any industrialized country1.1 children per woman aged 15-49.
“Students are supposed to sleep and take care of themselves instead of spending so many hours studying after school,” said Kim Seung-hyun, a former schoolteacher who now directs policy at an activist group here called World Without Private Education.
Starting in 2008, the national government allowed local regulators to impose curfews, fees and other restrictions on hagwons. And that’s when the cat-and-mouse game began.
Under such pressure, hagwon managers and teachers resorted to tactics in some ways reminiscent of Prohibition in the U.S.
Many hagwons shortened the time spent in classes and squeezed more sessions into the day. After curfews were imposed, some hagwons rented small apartments for students and teachers to retreat to after hours. A few moved students into coffee shops for late-night study, and others simply drew the shades.
Daehak Academy, one of Seoul’s largest hagwons, started offering classes on Saturdays to make up for having to cancel classes after 10 p.m. when a curfew took effect two years ago.
Lee Keun-young, management director at the academy, says no parents want their children to fail at their studies. “Some parents ask us to extend classes at night, but we should follow the [curfew] rule.”
A lot is at stake. There are about six or seven colleges that everyone wants to get in to. And because of lifetime employment policies that make it very hard to fire people, the top employers, such as the government and conglomerates, recruit chiefly from those top schools.
Hagwon managers or teachers who discuss ways around the rules risk running afoul of government authorities and the self-appointed whistleblowers, who have become known as hagparazzi, for their use of hidden cameras and recording devices.
Acting as interested parents or potential customers, they visit an after-school academy and look for tactics that break rules. Then, they report the violators and collect a percentage of any fine that is levied. Rewards can exceed $1,000.
Moon Seong-ok started a small hagwon in Seoul about 10 years ago to teach adults how to make a career of spotting infractions and reporting them. Until 2009, he specialized in tutoring people in catching restaurants that violated health codes and auto-repair shops that didn’t recycle oil properly.
When the hagwon crackdown began, Mr. Moon quickly learned how various cities were setting limits. Then he created a two-day, $250 course to teach people how to enforce them. “When those rules popped up, I knew that was going to be good business,” Mr. Moon said.
Ms. Jung, a 59-year-old former restaurant owner and recent graduate of Mr. Moon’s course, said she had to overcome a fear that she herself might be doing something wrong in turning in rule-breakers. “I know some people have a negative view” of hagparazzi, she said.
On her first visit to a hagwon with a hidden camera, she became convinced the academy was charging too much for its classes. And how much is too much? In Seoul, that varies by the municipal district. In the district she was in, the most that can be charged is about $100 per course per month, with 21, 45-minute class sessions in the month. Most kids take several courses.
She gave a recording of the conversation to a local government office and is waiting to hear whether the academy is to be fined. “That was easier than I thought,” Ms. Jung said.
For some, blowing the whistle on private educators has become hugely lucrative. Kim Jung-hee, 52, worked off her debts from a previous business and, she says, made about $100,000 a year in 2009 and 2010 by reporting violations at hagwons, including improper hours of operation, excessive fees and unreported taxes.
“When I first tried it, I was too nervous to look people in the eyes and I made mistakes like forgetting to video a scene,” Ms. Kim said. But now, she added, when a hagwon manager becomes suspicious of her and asks to look at her handbag, “I nonchalantly ask back if he’s looking for something he lost.”
Soo-ah Shin contributed to this article.
Via WSJ:Studying Too Much Is a New No-No in Upwardly Mobile South Korea
“It has become irrational and even unfair,” says Yang Kui-soon, the mother of a high-school senior in suburban Seoul. “Public education is not enough to prepare for college-entrance exams. Some students want to stay longer at hagwons to make up for the lack of school lessons.”