For Kay Choi, providing a quality summer education for her two older children meant shelling out at least 10 million won ($9,000) each year. This covered two roundtrip plane tickets to Seoul, two months of ``hagwon'' tuition and an allowance for the high-school students while they stayed with their relatives.Up to $4,000 for two months of school? That's more than the house, the food, and the cars cost.
But Choi has different plans for her third child.
She's going with a local Korean academy instead ― not because she's short on money, but because the quality is now finally up to par with her standards.
From late night lessons and walk-in tutors to homework overloads, the school's got it all.
"It's just like a hardcore Korean cram school,'' says Choi, a realtor and an education-frenzied mother of three kids, two of which are enrolled in an Ivy League school. "But it's even better because my child doesn't have to fly anywhere and I don't have to pay as much.''
Korean-managed hagwon in the U.S. typically charge anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 for a fully customized two-month lesson plan for students preparing for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). On top of the basic course, parents can add on 10 weeks of writing, math or verbal classes for $600 to $1,000 each.
While I'm not aiming to turn into the next Brian in Jeollanam-do here, you've got to feel for the Korean kids growing up in the US. If they've spent any time in Dae Han Min Guk or have friends that are currently in Korea, they know all about the hagwon system - and how little they can do to control their experiences inside it. Living in America - even if they're expected to keep their grades up or go to a private school - must seem like cake compared to the 12-hour days other kids might be expected to do.
"The bottom line is, parents like super rigid teaching,'' said Kim, a co-head of a mid-sized hagwon in New Jersey. "They don't want us to cut them any slack. So our job is to appeal to them with the most systematic and tightly scheduled programs.''Really? That must just be the moms in the US. God forbid I make a child feel bad because they didn't do their homework, or can't even write a complete sentence. I'd understand if this is your first year studying English and you're in the first grade - but by sixth grade? After years of 'studying' English?
Ahead of the summer, hagwon in New York, Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles and other major densely Korean-populated cities are rolling out competitive curriculums to satisfy even the pickiest of moms and dads.And now? To find they'll be going to a school whose 'competition' is 7,000 miles and 14 time zones away? That's 'The World is Flat' crazy.
For many of these academies, their competition isn't the other cram school across town but those far away in Seoul.
On one level, I can appreciate the business-savvy of the school owners. They know that these 'densely Korean-populated cities' feature enough parents willing to sacrifice or work second / third jobs so their child(ren) will have an advantage. But are there enough Korean parents with the money and mindset for the schools to be profitable be effective stay open? Are these schools offering classes to the Japanese, Chinese, and other students with money, or are they being offered in Korean only?
In the end, you get what you pay for - which isn't necessarily results.
© Chris Backe - 2010
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