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No matter how high your test score is, you are still bad: Korean education’s responses to PISA

Hyunjoon Park
Cet article est une traduction de :
« Très bien, mais peut mieux faire » : les réponses apportées par le système éducatif coréen aux résultats de l’enquête PISA [fr]

Notes de l’auteur

This article is based on my book published in 2013, Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge).

Texte intégral

1Students in South Korea (hereafter, Korea) have consistently demonstrated outstanding performance in international tests of student achievement such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), attracting the interest of international scholars and policymakers who attempt to identify the sources of Korean students’ performance. However, at the same time Korean education has been subject to strong criticisms, often stereotyped rather than based on empirical evidence, particularly in relation to its test-focused education at the expense of creativity and reliance on private supplementary education (Park, 2013). Therefore, the news that Korean students show the highest average scores among PISA students hardly surprises scholars and the public in Korea. Rather, news media in Korea tend to focus on the “problems” of Korean students revealed in PISA surveys. With the release of PISA 2012 results, where Korea showed the highest average score in mathematics among OECD countries, Korean newspapers unequivocally highlighted the comparatively low levels of Korean students’ intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics for pleasure, and other affective indicators such as self-efficacy and self-concept (Eum, 2013; Kim, 2013; Shin, 2013). The high level of literacy performance among Korean students is often undervalued and interpreted as the result of standardized education that heavily focuses on testing at the expense of students’ engagement, motivation, and interest in study.

2This self-deprecation of outstanding performance in PISA (and TIMSS) reflects the long-standing criticism that Korean education fails to nurture individuality, diversity, and creativity, with too much emphasis on rote learning, memorization, and testing (Park, 2013). This image of Korean education is pervasive among educators, the public, and the media, and is even gaining popularity in the changing economic context. Economic studies emphasize that the Korean economy is transiting toward a knowledge- and information-based economy, which requires a paradigm shift in Korean education toward “an education system which not only permits learning throughout the lifetime of its citizens and encourages their creativity, but more importantly, is sufficiently flexible to adapt to the changing demands of a knowledge-based economy” (Dahlman and Andersson, 2000). The “traditional” Korean education is considered to poorly equip students with creative, flexible, and independent thinking.

3As I have already pointed out elsewhere, the mirror image of Korean education, which is claimed to inhibit students’ individual talents and creativity, is the image of US education, which is perceived to be superior in cultivating “creativity, initiatives, social responsibility, or independence of thought” (Berliner and Biddle, 1995, quoted in Park 2013), despite the lower average scores in achievement tests. A businessman argues in a newspaper article that “although US education and culture, which values creativity, diversity, and autonomy, falls much behind major Asian countries, including Korea, in simple and mechanical ranking, it still proves that it excels in creativity, which leads the world economy to a new stage” (Choi, 2013).

4The critical view of “traditional” Korean education has spurred Korean governments to introduce new reform measures intended to promote students’ creativity and student-centered education sensitive to individual diversity. For instance, in revising the national curriculum in 2009, the previous government envisioned students developing individual personality and career pathways and exerting creativity with new ideas and challenges, among other features (Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, 2009). The new government, which came to power in 2013, has declared that “Korea is seeking a major shift in school education from rote-based learning and teacher-centered instruction toward practice-based learning and student-centered instruction” (Ministry of Education, 2014a). Most of all, President Park has made a clear point for creative education: “We are now living in an era where creativity and ideas move the world. If we are going to move ahead of others, there should be an education revolution to make it possible to raise creative talent” (remarks made at the New Year’s ceremony with education leaders, from Yonhap News Agency, January 8, 2014).

5However, as I have noted, the current discussion on educational reform in Korea does not attempt to question the major assumptions underlying the criticisms of “traditional” Korean education and proposed directions for reform (Park, 2013). The self-negation prevents systematic assessments of what Korean education has done well and what it has not done well. In fact, it is even questionable that Korean students under the old regime of education actually lacked creativity and independent thinking relative to US students. Little cross-national research is available to provide a reasonable answer as to what extent Korean (and Japanese) students lag behind students of the United States (or other countries) in creativity (Park, 2013). It is simply too difficult to compare the level of students’ creativity across countries, as creativity may not be monolithic but specific to culture: “Creativity… may well be limited by its cultural specificity” (Craft, 2003). There is a strong, untested assumption that “traditional” Korean education was too standardized and homogenous in educational process and therefore necessarily failed to foster students’ creativity. Combined with another presumption of creativity “as a ‘good thing’”, without recognizing the limits and complexities of creativity (Craft, 2003), the self-criticism of Korean education has called upon creativity as a panacea that is believed to cure the old problems of “traditional” Korean education.

6Another important omission in the current drive for creativity, related to its monolithic and deterministic treatment of creativity, is the lack of discussions on diverse ways of fostering creativity in schools. To foster creativity in schools is simply equated to increasing individualized educational processes and differentiating and tailoring school curricula according to students’ ability (Park, 2013). Major policy measures, emphasized by the last government to enhance creativity and character education, included increasing school choices via the establishment of diverse types of secondary schools, and increased differentiation of learning and teaching according to students’ ability and interests (Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, 2009, 2011). Following the fundamental orientation of the previous government, the current government further pushes individualized education by implementing one “test-free semester” for middle-school students by 2016 (Ministry of Education, 2014b). According to the Ministry of Education, “test-free semesters aim to reduce the immense stress students experience from tests heavily dependent on memorization. This form of career education will allot students more time to reflect on their futures and partake in a wide variety of activities and experiences” (Ministry of Education, 2014c). The trial plan now being implemented in selected schools has two main programs: 1) to “personalize lesson plans and the curriculum”; and 2) to “build infrastructure for experience-based education” (Ministry of Education, 2014c).

7In this tendency toward individualized and differentiated educational processes that are assumed to foster students’ creativity and independent thinking, it is natural to criticize “traditional” Korean education, which is portrayed to have limited students’ exposure to individualized and differentiated curricula and instruction. However, as I have shown in my work, the recent educational reform for individualized and differentiated education has actually reduced the strength of “traditional” Korean education, which helped low-achieving and socioeconomically disadvantaged students maintain a comparatively high level of academic achievement compared to corresponding students in other countries (Park, 2013). Assuming that creativity and independent thinking can be achieved only though individualized and differentiated learning and teaching processes, the current reform ignores warnings from the empirical findings of various educational and sociological studies, which indicate that individualized and differentiated learning and teaching processes, such as between-school and within-school tracking, can lead to increased inequality in student achievement (see Park 2013 for the related literature review). At the same time, the current reform does not consider the possibility that creativity can be fostered in alternative ways, particularly without the individualization and differentiation of educational processes.

8The planned policy of “test-free semesters” seems to resemble the yutori (relaxed) education reform that Japan implemented in 2002 with the aim of “shift[ing] the overall direction of Japanese education away from ‘traditional’ curricula and instructions toward nurturing self-motivation and self-direction for study, individuality, and independent thinking” (Park and Lee, 2013; see also Tsuneyoshi, 2004). However, as some studies have suggested, relaxed education, which reduced study hours, increased curriculum differentiation, and introduced integrated study across subjects to promote student interest and hands-on experiences, benefited some students more than others, leading to increased disparities in student outcomes on the basis of family background (Bjork, 2009; Park and Lee, 2013).

9This consequence of the yutori education policy provides lessons for the current reform to Korean education. Before it is too late, Korean education needs to step back from the current direction of reform and begin serious and open conversations about what the real strengths and weaknesses of “traditional” Korean education were. As mentioned above, an important feature of Korean education was that Korean students often showed a relatively narrow disparity of performance, combined with a high average score, in international achievement tests. Even if enhancing students’ creativity and independent thinking is an indispensable goal for educational reform, it does not mean that this real strength of Korean education should be discarded. More importantly, the request for creativity should begin with an appreciation of how the concept of creativity is complicated and how teachers, parents, and students, as well as policymakers, may understand creativity differently. As demonstrated in previous efforts to enhance students’ academic performance, educational programs and policies may not benefit all students, but only some at the expense of others. Similarly, it is possible that specific programs and policies for creative education can actually lead to an increasing gap in creativity among students from different academic, demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Moreover, as hinted by the Japanese experience of educational reform, new programs and policies for creativity may even damage academic achievement, particularly of academically and socioeconomically disadvantaged students, if the specific needs of those students are not considered. The task is more daunting than the current reformers of Korean education imagine!

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Bjork, Christopher. 2009. “Local Implementation of Japan’s Integrated Studies Reform: A Preliminary Analysis of Efforts to Decentralize the Curriculum.” Comparative Education 45 : 23-44.

Berliner, David C., and Bruce J. Biddle. 1995. The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books.

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Craft, Anna. 2003. “The Limits to Creativity in Education: Dilemmas for the Educator.” British Journal of Educational Studies 51: 113-127.

Dahlman, Carl and Thomas Andersson. 2000. Korea and the Knowledge-Based Economy: Making the Transition. Washington, DC: World Bank and OECD.

Eum, Sungwon. 2013. “Although Korean Studies Do Well on Mathematics, They Have Low Motivation.” The Hankyoreh (December 9) (in Korean).

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Park, Hyunjoon. 2013. Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Park, Hyunjoon and Yeon-Jin Lee, Y-J. 2013.“Growing Educational Inequality in Japan during the 2000s.” Pp. 131-146 in Gary DeCoker and Christopher Bjork (eds.), Japanese Education in an Era of Globalization: Culture, Politics and Equity. Teachers College Press. Shin, Jinwoo. 2013. “Korea: Mathematics Ability Number 1 among OECD; Interest Bottom.” Dong-A Ilbo (December 4) (in Korean).

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Yonhap News Agency. 2014. “Park Calls for Education Revolution to Produce Creative Talent.” (January 8). Available at

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Hyunjoon Park, « No matter how high your test score is, you are still bad: Korean education’s responses to PISA »Revue internationale d’éducation de Sèvres [En ligne],  | 2014, mis en ligne le 04 juin 2014, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Hyunjoon Park

Hyunjoon Park is Korea Foundation Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. He received his PhD from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. Park is interested in education and family in cross-national perspective, focusing on South Korea and Japan. Specifically, he has investigated how the ways in which schools and families affect children’s education are contingent upon institutional arrangements of educational systems, public policy, and demographic changes. He has published a book, Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea: De-mystifying Stereotypes (Routledge 2013) and a coedited volume, Korean Education in Changing Economic and Demographic Contexts (with Kyung-keun Kim, Springer 2014). Email:

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