Tuesday, December 05, 2006

what price education?

The Lost Nomad links to an article from the English edition of the Hankyoreh (hangyeoryae, or "Hani," as it's affectionately known) about Korean attempts to scheme the system and get as many students as possible into American Ivy League institutions.

I don't doubt that corruption of this sort already exists in the US. I imagine that many rich American families also pull strings to get Chad and Muffy into Princeton. But I don't think we have the sort of highly developed system described in the Hani article. Here's a choice quote:

SPA [Student Parents' Association] representatives and the school principal held a related meeting on May 3. According to the e-mail sent by Song to nine PSA [SPA?] members on July 2, he had received the following guarantees from the principal: (1) letter grades are to be assigned only in those classes which are absolutely necessary for entrance into U.S. colleges, and all other classes are to be evaluated on a pass/fail basis, (2) in graded classes, all students are given a baseline score of 60 percent for course completion, and if the score exceeds 70 percent after factoring in scores from tests and class work, then students are to receive an A, (3) standard curriculum classes are to be taught in the morning hours, whereas English language and AP classes are to be taught in the afternoon, as there is more class time in the afternoon than in the morning.

A nation hellbent on producing more Dr. Hwangs will eventually reap what it sows.

American colleges can minimize a lot of this by requiring students to come in for extensive face-to-face interviews. In my experience as a language teacher, I've found that interviews provide the best format for minimizing student chicanery. No notes-- just your brain, and whatever facts lie jumbled within. In some ways, interviews can be easier than written tests, but one of the most important skills a US-bound foreign student must possess is linguistic proficiency. A nice, 50-minute interview can address the university's doubts quickly.

Some will argue, rightly, that interviews take time, but consider: I'm an American citizen, but my university required me to go through an hour-long interview with a local alumnus. That person had to "sign off" on whether I seemed like proper material for the university. Interviews for linguistic competency need not be done by language teaching professionals; it would be enough, in my opinion, to give interviewers (like that alum) an outline with basic interview criteria: Can the student respond coherently to complex questions? Does the student have clear opinions, and can s/he construct cogent arguments? Does the student appear able to engage native speakers about both everyday and specialized topics with little or no difficulty? These are all matters that can and should be verified in an oral interview. I wouldn't trust email, and I certainly wouldn't trust a typewritten essay on an application form. A 50-minute interview might take time, but it's an investment, a way to avoid, or at least minimize, years' worth of damage later.

And I see no reason not to apply the same standard to native speakers. If a student who has written a mellifluous essay on her application turns out to be an inarticulate dud during an interview, I'd say that that warrants a red flag, no matter the student's country of origin.

What constantly boggles my mind about Korean instances of cheating is the rank shamelessness of it all. Westerners cheat, too, and that's nothing to brag about. But as I argued a while back, Westerners still retain some vestige of conscience about what they're doing-- the urge to run from the authorities when caught, because rule of law is the assumed and accepted reality, even among the lawbreakers. The Hani article paints a scary picture of a grade-inflation system so entrenched that no one seems willing to do much about it. I'll end my post with this further quote from the Hani:

On a visit to Hanyoung Foreign Language High School on 22 November, administrators were aboveboard on the subject of grading. "We give them A grades if they score over 70 percent and send them off," said one employee. Filling in temporarily for Principal Jang, who had retired since the phone conversation, Kim Jong-in said "I can't just change the system that is in place," continuing, "we give A grades to graduating students with scores over 70 and send the transcripts to U.S. universities." In response to this reporter's queries, he urged Hankyoreh21 to "take a look at other schools. They're doing the same thing as Hanyoung Foreign Language High School."*

Indeed, it is believed that grade inflation takes place at most foreign language high schools.

Incredible. But I have a question: does this article also appear in the Korean edition of the Hani?

*I couldn't help noticing that the first sentence of this paragraph contains a dingle-damn dangling modifier. Grrrrrr.


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