USA could learn from South Korean schools

ByABC News
November 19, 2008, 5:48 PM

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.