Chung Eunjung, a 46-year-old mother from Seoul, says South Korea’s plan to give children more play time by ending Saturday classes means only one thing: more private tutoring.
President Lee Myung Bak’s government said on June 14 it would recommend schools adopt a shorter week starting in 2012, ending Saturday classes that have been a feature of the modern education system since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Most schools now hold classes on two Saturdays a month.
“I’m not the only parent to feel this way,” said Chung, who already spends $1,700 a month on additional classes for her two sons. “It would be a brave mother who let them play.”
The reaction of mothers like Chung helps explain why students in Asia are outperforming the rest of the world. Nations in the region dominate the top five slots in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s assessment of reading, math and science skills. U.S. students are ranked 30th in math, 23rd in science and 17th in reading.
President Barack Obama has cited South Koreans’ dedication to schooling as an example of the need for American kids to study harder to compete. Three out of four South Korean parents use cram schools, tutors or online learning to get their kids into college. More than half of the students in Asia’s fourth-largest economy take private math and English lessons, according to the government.
Rather than creating more family time, the plan to shut schools at the weekend would be a boon for academies like MegaStudy Co., or language-course operator JLS Co., said Kim Mi Song, an analyst at Hyundai Securities Co. in Seoul.
“This will be good news for education stocks,” said Kim. “It is clear that the amount of time students spend in private courses will increase.”
Even with the change, South Korean children will spend more time in school than their U.S. counterparts. In his State of the Union address in January, Obama said South Korea treated its teachers as “nation builders.” In 2009, he said: “Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea every year. That’s no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy.”
In the latest round of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment in 2009, South Korea placed second in reading, fourth in math and sixth in science. Finland was the only country outside Asia to make it into the OECD’s top five in any of the three categories.
‘Send My Son’
“If private institutions expand Saturday classes, I’ll definitely send my son,” said Kim Hyeran, who pays $2,800 per month for out-of-school classes for her 13-year-old, including as much as 20 hours of math. The Kim family, like the Chungs, live in Seoul’s Gangnam district, renowned in Korea for its concentration of specialized schools and private academies.
South Korean parents spend about $220 per child every month on out-of-school classes, tutoring and online learning, according to government statistics.
Traditional Confucian reverence for learning matters less to parents these days than the fear that their children will be left behind, according to Han Zun Shang, a professor of education at Yonsei University in Seoul. Annual per capita income has doubled in the past decade to $20,759 and wage inequality is increasing, said Han.
Japan, which cut the school week to five days in 2002, is reversing course after its students began sliding down the OECD’s rankings.
Between 2000 and 2006, Japanese high school students slumped from first to 10th in math, second to sixth in science and from eighth to 15th in reading comprehension.
Japan added 278 hours to the elementary school year in 2009 and 105 hours to junior high school. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government in January last year told schools they could resume Saturday classes twice a month, according to its website.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, which governs education in the capital, said it plans to add two hours to weekday classes and will reduce some vacation days to offset ending school on Saturdays.
Hyundai Securities’ Kim is one of 10 analysts with “buy” recommendations on MegaStudy, which prepares kids for college exams. Eleven others rate the stock a “hold,” according to Bloomberg data.
Kim said the stock should rebound from a 13 percent drop in the past 12 months, after the government cracked down on cram schools holding classes past 10 p.m. and changed the way college-entrance-exam questions were chosen.
JLS, which offers online courses as well as regular language classes, has declined 7.8 percent over the past year.
Officials at MegaStudy and JLS declined to say if they would begin offering more classes.
Daekyo Co. and Woongjin Thinkbig Co., providers of home-study materials for elementary school students, may also benefit from the end to Saturday classes, said Joseph Shon, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. in Seoul.
Weekly workbooks produced by Daekyo and Woongjin provide a cheaper alternative to private tutors and academies. The companies are setting up study centers where parents can leave children to work by themselves under limited supervision.
Daekyo has gained 9.4 percent on the Korea Exchange this month while Woongjin has advanced 0.6 percent. The benchmark Kospi index has dropped 2.2 percent over the same period.
“I put great stock in my son’s education,” said Kim, the mother of the 13-year-old boy. “I will make sure he gets whatever he needs.”