Lounge with Leona: Hagwons

Waiting for the elevator. The door opens, and teenagers rush out of the no longer sealed box, frantically running towards the nearest convenience store to buy snacks and drinks within the five minute break time. Upon arrival, a sweet looking young woman welcomes everybody, and perhaps offers them tea or coffee. In one classroom, students all face down only to stare at thick packets of endless questions, desperately flipping through the pages to finish before the timer rings.

“Remember, you don’t have to say anything when the same questions you solve today comes out on the test tomorrow.”

In another, a teacher stands in front of the whiteboard, speeding through a semester worth of course material within a mere hour.

“If you don’t feel like you understand the entire concept, just memorize this, this, and this. They always come out on the AP test, so you have to know them.”

In another, a single student with their parents meet with the director, discussing about which colleges they should apply to. The director flips through their calendar, telling the student to take which standardized test and which AP course at exactly what point in their high school career.

“The average accepted SAT score for [insert IVY league school here] is [insert any number between 2200 and 2400]. We recommend you enroll into this SAT program at our hagwon to ensure you finish it in one try. You will come in every day during summer break for 8 hour classes. 6 hours of lectures and 2 hours of solving questions.”

It’s unnerving. It’s frightening to think that this has become our norm; students worshiping hagwons, or cram schools, and feeling as though it’s only right for them to attend one (or more). I guess it’s not that surprising. It has become a norm, after all. Millennials are so obsessed with getting perfect scores, even if that means they have to pay millions of dollars to hagwons for some “extra help”.

According to Yonhap News, a 5 week SAT program (5 days per week from 8:30 A.M. to 12:30 P.M.) offered in a hagwon in Gangnam costed around 2680 dollars (around 2400 dollars for lectures and 280 dollars for materials).  Another hagwon offered a SAT program starting 8:30 A.M. and ending 11:30 P.M. (that’s 13 hours stuck in hagwon, even with lunch and dinner hours subtracted ). This program was offered for 7 weeks, and costed over 5000 dollars [1]. If a student can’t finish the test because of an unsatisfactory test, that’s doubling costs so that they can repeat the whole process of going to hagwon all over again. This is the problem with private education today. 

Clearly, the current education system is not efficient by any means. Nobody wins in the scenarios. Students who come from households wealthy enough to be able to spend thousands of dollars in order to prepare for standardized tests (or anything else, for that matter) end up receiving scores they don’t deserve, perhaps get accepted into schools too high-level for them, where they may fall behind. Parents will be wasting a fortune on their children’s “education”. It could perhaps be said that hagwon teachers “win” if the concept of winning is measured through a materialistic scope, but at what cost? They’re emphasizing the fact that to memorize is to learn, which is obviously false. Moreover, certain teachers who don’t know where to stop even commit crimes by providing students with leaked tests, encouraging them to cheat.

Sure, whether or not a student wants to go to hagwon should only concern what they think as well as their parents. Sure, parents are willing to pay – ultimately speaking, it’s their money anyway. Personally, I think these parents can be broadly categorized into two groups. Those who support and encourage the idea of their children cheating, and those who are terrified into buying part of the entire process. It’s a no-brainer why the former group of parents only worsen the status quo. The situation with the latter group, however, is a bit more different. They are those who are manipulated into fearing their children may not get accepted into college (and by college, I mean either Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or any other ivy league school). Behind them are hagwons that prey on ignorant parents who don’t speak English, for example. Though extremely unethical, parents who are oblivious to the entire process of applying to colleges can’t help but fear. And those parents are exactly the type of people hagwons target for money.

The education “system” is no longer simply a system. It’s an industry. Hagwons are essentially machines that are destroying education, and the parents are byproducts of those machines. This industry is where money gets people into places. In such capitalistic society, money comes from money. Children born into families who are financially stable enough to pour millions into their private education are those who typically get accepted into private universities and find a stable top paying job, only to recreate the entire process again with their children. Name any billionaire you can think of. Elon Musk? Stanford. Mark Zuckerberg? Harvard. Also, throw in the fact that he went to Phillips Exeter Academy. Warren Buffett? Columbia. In our world, especially in an education-centered country like South Korea, high education is pivotal for a successful career and life. And to receive high education, money is a necessity. In essence, this mechanism is only an unfair and vicious cycle controlled by the movement of money.

Of course, in an ideal world, there would be no private education. Rather, there would be no need for private education, unless it’s for special interests purposes. For example, if a student wants to learn public speaking skills or how to play the ukulele, by all means, they should find professionals to teach them; most likely at a hagwon specialized for the purpose. However, this is different when it comes to academia. Schools are supposed to be a place in which students, as long as they pay attention in class and do the assigned work, receive high grades. Such proper practices of studying should guarantee high grades for students, which they so desperately yearn for. However, because the idea of “no hagwon means failure” is deeply rooted within not only the minds of students but also parents, they assume it’s natural for students to attend hagwon for hours on top of regular school.

You don’t need hagwons for success in your academic career. You absolutely don’t need hagwons to replace schools with. If students feel as though they’re falling behind, extra studying may perhaps be encouraged. Moreover, things that aren’t taught in school such as measures on tackling the SATs or SAT IIs can also be a reason behind attending hagwons. However, the moment a student begins to rely solely on hagwons is when problems arise. This rewards people who prioritize profit more than actual education. There are countless accounts of students who fall asleep in class or simply not pay attention to the lectures because they know they have a backup plan; catching up at hagwon. And most of the time, those hagwons only push the idea of memorization (if you’re willing to argue, tell me you haven’t seen all the kids forcing SAT vocab definitions into their brains without even knowing how to use them in sentences, or worse, pronounce them). This lack of pressure at school only allows them to slack off even more, hence the higher demand for hagwons. Like I said before, it’s an endless cycle. The answer to “I’m failing this class” should not be “Mom, can you get me a tutor.” It should be, “I should clarify confusing parts with my teachers.” Teachers are here to answer the students’ questions. It’s their job.

Now if the hagwons are for cheating purposes, it’s a completely different story. Cheating will get you nowhere. It’s true that certain questions from the SATs and SAT IIs are recycled. Certain AP class teachers at school may reuse old AP questions for their test questions. For both cases, certain hagwons have the capability to provide students with those questions. And both of those cases are illegal. Sure, it may be the easy way out. It’s indeed pressuring to not cheat on those pesky tests when virtually everybody around you receive those packets. And what if you don’t get the scores you truly deserve (in terms of your intelligence) because you’re not a good test-taker? Whether standardized tests truly measure one’s capabilities can be written about in an entirely different article. My point is, if it’s just to get into a brand name school, don’t. It’s not worth it. The education system is corrupt, and Collegeboard should be well aware of that. But hagwons that take advantage of this fact, as well as of students who fear of getting accepted into decent colleges, perhaps is the mastermind behind the entirety of this hypocrisy.

– Leona Maruyama (‘17)

Featured Image: Hannah Kim (’19)


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