SEOUL -- In any high school in the United States, it would be a routine question met with a routine answer. But here in South Korea, ask a principal for her school's dropout rate and then stand back:
"No one just drops out of school," says a disgusted Chung Chang Yong, principal of Ewha Girls' High School. "A student may transfer to another school, but no one just drops out. … To drop out of school is a major disaster, a catastrophe. It wouldn't happen unless it was unavoidable."
Maybe not in South Korea where 93% of all students graduate from high school on time. But in the United States, almost one-quarter of all students — more than 1.2 million individuals each year — fail to graduate. Once the world leader in secondary-school education, the United States now ranks a desultory 18th among 36 nations examined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The U.S. also is one of only two countries, along with tiny Estonia, where the percentage of high school graduates is lower among younger workers than among their parents — stunning for a nation whose identity always has been defined by the expectation of better tomorrows. Educators and economists alike bemoan the nation's lost excellence, linking the failure to make better use of the nation's human capital to both rising income inequality and growing insecurity among the hard-hit middle class.
"The U.S. has rested on its laurels way too long. The Baby Boomers were the best-educated generation of any in the global workforce. Today's labor force entrants are not as lucky," says Jacob Funk Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C. "Other countries have increasingly caught up and surpassed the United States."
Stagnating educational attainment is just one of the warning signs that — even before the current financial crisis — stirred alarm about the competitiveness of the $14 trillion U.S. economy. Aging infrastructure and wasteful energy usage are among other national shortcomings that, to some, suggest the U.S. has lost a step to more nimble global rivals. "We've been asleep for a good number of years as a country," says Richard Freeman, economics professor at Harvard University. "It's not that we're doing so horrible. But the other guys are moving faster."
Listen to teacher
One of the fastest-moving is South Korea. In the early 1960s, this key U.S. ally had an economy equivalent to the least-developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In the next four decades, thanks to an increasingly educated workforce, it emerged as one of East Asia's tiger economies. Today, education remains the guiding principle of South Korean society, from affluent city dwellers to the poorest villagers.
"In a country so small, with no natural resources, the reason we can export cars and (information technology) is because of our human resources," Chung said.
While U.S. graduation rates have stagnated or even slid back, South Korea has shot ahead. In the U.S., the percentage of 55- to 64-year-olds who eventually get a high school degree, including a G.E.D., is exactly the same as those in the 25-to-34-year-old group, 87%. But South Korea has driven its rate from 37% to 97% for the younger group, the highest percentage of any of the 36 nations studied by the OECD.
With an ethic reminiscent of postwar America, parents here almost universally make their children's education the family's unquestioned priority. An experienced secondary-school teacher makes almost 25% more than a comparable American teacher, according to OECD data. As in all Confucian societies, students here are raised to revere teachers. An old saying has it that one should not dare step even on the shadow of a teacher.
Another sign of that commitment: National educational spending as a percentage of South Korea's $1 trillion economy, from both public and private sources, is higher than in the United States and higher than the OECD average.
As a percentage of the economy, South Korean families spend three times as much as Americans on education — except for college, where Americans spend fractionally more. What distinguishes South Korea is the $200 billion parents spend on private educational institutes, says Ryu Ji-Seong of the Samsung Economic Research Institute.
The South Korean formula combines fierce societal pressure, determined parents and students who study nearly round-the-clock. After a typical eight-hour school day, most students spend their remaining waking hours in private tutoring or reviewing schoolwork. "Society wants us to go to university and graduate," says Ewha student Yun Ji Lim, 18, who hopes to become an engineer.
Her mother, Baek So-Ae, 45, praises the school's science classes. But she spends about $8,000 annually on after-school tutors for her daughter in science and math. "I always have to reduce living expenses," she says. "We spend around one-third of our total income on education. That is definitely a burden."
But it's a burden willingly borne in status-conscious South Korea, where parents regard getting their children into the right university with a fervor that dwarfs even the most ardent Ivy League-crazed American mother or father.
"People say that university is not the end of everything, but it is one of the most important parts in life. Society wants professional people, and getting married is not the end for women these days," says Baek. "I think university is the best place to gain professionalism. It does not guarantee success, but it definitely raises the probability."
American missionaries founded Ewha Girls' High School in 1886 hoping to produce young women schooled in Christian values. Nestled in a leafy enclave in the center of Seoul, the spacious campus of modern brick buildings is equipped with the latest computers and high-tech gadgets.
In one classroom, about a dozen young girls wearing uniforms of pleated skirts and light-green V-necked sweaters or polo shirts, cluster around a telescope held by a teacher. Down the hall, biology teacher Lee Sookyong wears a wireless headset microphone while lecturing.
One of the finest schools in the country, Ewha is a private institution, like more than half of all secondary schools here. The unusual public-private mix is a legacy of South Korea's deep poverty in the years following the 1950-53 Korean War. Imbued with a culture that revered learning but lacking the resources needed to build a nationwide education system, the government encouraged religious orders and wealthy intellectuals to start schools.
Ewha receives half of its annual budget from the central government; the rest comes from the school's private foundation and annual $2,000 tuition payments. Unlike private schools in the U.S., Ewha's students are selected by the government. Families who can't afford the tuition receive government subsidies.
The South Korean system also is notable for enforcing a national curriculum and for spreading resources far more evenly than does the U.S. Unlike students in poorer U.S. districts, which lack sufficient property tax receipts to fund quality instruction and account for a disproportionate share of dropouts, just about everyone here receives a decent education.
In the southern part of Seoul, Yeongdeungpo High School provides a glimpse of a more typical public institution. At midday, rambunctious boys play an intense game of soccer on an all-dirt field, a dusty contrast to Ewha's tony environs. Teachers are assigned here by a public board, while Ewha selects its instructors.
But the two schools share one characteristic: the fierce dedication of parents and children to completing their schooling. "Foreigners may think it's strange. I think the main difference between the Western and the Korean parents (is) their way of life is quite different from ordinary Westerners. They are ready to sacrifice themselves for their kids. Whereas ordinary Westerners are seeking their own happiness," says Seo Dong Mok, 64, the school's principal.
Building the middle class
For most of the 20th century, each generation of Americans received an average of two more years of schooling than their predecessors, and the supply of skilled workers rose faster than demand. But starting about 1980, that ceased to be the case, according to Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard University. The most recent generations have gained less than one extra year of education.
That change has driven a sharp rise in the wages that college-educated workers earn relative to the earnings of the less-educated. Demand for workers with the education to use computers and cope with an economy that can swiftly change course is outpacing the supply of those workers. And that makes it difficult to maintain the sort of broad-based middle class that characterized the U.S. for much of the last century.
Education "was a big part of the rise of the U.S. to economic dominance and creation of a broad middle class. … If education doesn't keep up, it impacts not only growth, but also inequality," says Katz.
While there are many elements of the South Korean system that no one suggests are worth replicating, including a conformist regimen and grinding workload, its success isn't limited to high graduation rates. South Korean students also routinely best their American counterparts in standardized tests. In 2006, for example, South Koreans ranked second on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test. American kids finished 25th of 30 countries on the exam, which is administered to 400,000 15-year-olds every three years.
The best U.S. high schools remain superlative, and the nation's universities are regarded internationally as the best in the world. The problem is that the performance of U.S. high schools is uneven. Some systems, such as Fairfax County, Va., are top-notch, while other poor-performing school systems are what experts at Johns Hopkins University call "dropout factories." Students in Detroit, for example, have just a 37.5% chance of graduating, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.
Globalization also has raised the bar on what is acceptable. Whereas the dropouts of an earlier era could count on landing well-paying factory jobs in the American heartland, today's dropouts confront a reordered globalized economy where unskilled work increasingly is migrating to low-wage nations in Asia or Latin America.
"It's not just Brooklyn and Boise anymore. (American students) are competing with Bangalore and Beijing," says Bob Wise, president of the non-partisan Alliance for Excellent Education. "There's an international standard being set every day. It's called the international market. We can't shield our students from its demands."
Still, the South Korean approach is not without serious flaws, as parents and educators here are quick to note. The emphasis on endless study produces students who perform well on tests but often fall short in creativity. Classes also are far larger than a typical American high school, with about 40 students in each Ewha classroom.
The government plans to address some of these shortcomings. It hasn't gone unnoticed that so many parents yearn for their kids to study abroad. The country has only a relative handful of top-shelf universities, not nearly enough for the avalanche of eager graduates its high schools produce. And educators recognize the need to adapt schools to produce creative, flexible workers for today's jobs rather than churn out more or less identical industrial-age drones. "It's not obvious what the right mechanism is," says Harvard's Freeman. "Probably some mix between the Korean and American ways would be ideal."