In a nutshell, it's because Korean style management emphasizes process over results, hierarchy over ability, and pride versus understanding reality. Add in there extreme mismanagement and complete lack of long-term planning, mixed with the arrogant belief that just "trying hard" and believing it will work will "make it so" – and you get a recipe for disaster.
Then you add in the extreme economic and academic pressures brought in by the blind worship of English for the sake of doing so, and you get a whole bunch of rash or unwise decisions.
I've been here from the beginning and I've blogged about this in two major posts ("The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones." ). Now, read two very good articles (Part 1 and Part 2) (digested below here) written about first the EPIK program and then the Fulbright ETA Program.
See, I'm not crazy and it wasn't because I was a biased insider. Somebody else said the same thing.
In the end, if even a government-run program hires just about anyone off the street, lies about contract conditions and wages, doesn't provide an adequate training and orientation program, treats its foreign staff completely unprofessionally and with utter disrespect, engages in corruption and deceit, and doesn't allow the teachers themselves – who know best – any part in designing the curriculum they will teach – is anyone surprised that the program will suck? Is anyone then surprised that the private sector treats foreigners even worse?
With all the unprofessionalism, lack of controls, and poor planning, is anyone surprised that the people who are hired occasionally turn out to be idiots or assholes? I certainly am not.
"2000 by 2000"? That idiotic slogan said it all. Korean-style management, to a "T." Read the second article, where Dr. Underwood explains how the Fulbright ETA was run versus how EPIK was, and you'll understand why Fulbright bluntly refused to be the program expanded by the Korean government and why the Ministry of Education, under the auspices of the Korea Educational Development Institute, had to go on their own (a fact not included in this report).
Despite whatever progress Korea has made in other areas, in terms of English education and the management of foreign teachers, the level of disorganization, unprofessionalism, deceit, and corruption is more like a Third World country than a developed one. A harsh thing to say, but who can really disagree with that assertion?
What does Korea need to do in order to improve things? How might the government improve the failed EPIK program?
By running things professionally, by following any kind of hiring standards, by sticking to contracts and the terms of hiring in good faith, by asking for and appreciating the input of the teachers, by actually being committed to making their employees have some semblance of happiness. If the government – or any management – did that, the miraculous would happen: retention would rise, as would levels of professionalism, morale, and overall teaching quality.
As I've said before – if you hire and treat people like animals, they will start to behave as such, because that is the example that has been set. And English teaching and the entire industry itself is not much of a step above a zoo.
I'm not a fan of Japanese-style conservative management, but – at least the Japanese are good – VERY GOOD – at certain types of long-term planning. In Korea, "하면 된다" ("just doing it is enough") seems to still be as far as planning goes. That got Korea through the rough and tough part of early industrial and economic growth, but a finer organizing concept of management and planning is sorely needed.
Korea is good at doing things fast and furious and having things work out later. But the days when this rough strategy worked are over. A more subtle hand is sorely needed; whatever the standard excuses are, they are just that. Because the bottom-line conclusion is pretty clear when you see how poorly Korea falls behind China and Japan in exactly the same kind of endeavor.
Instead if obfuscating, public gestures of indignation – if Koreans knew the background and context of the "problem" of the English industry, on its several levels from government to the private sector, they would be deeply embarrassed.
So some foreigners without college or even high school diplomas are getting caught and put in the news? Whose fault is that, again?
I've placed the text of the original Joongang Ilbo articles below and manually added in the proper paragraph breaks, which were crunched on the original website and made the article irritating to read.
Teachers give bad grades to state-run ESL program
President Roh Moo-hyun last year expressed strong support for English-language training, saying "I believe the promotion of English and English education is essential." Unfortunately, the comment highlights what has become a serious failure on the part of the Korean government.
Despite nearly a decade of strenuous efforts, the Ministry of Education has been unable to establish an effective means of teaching a language that most Koreans feel ― for better or worse ― provides a key to their economic and personal well-being.
It is no overstatement to say that most Koreans share the president's view on learning English, which has become a $3-billion-a-year industry. Yet the Korea Government Information Agency reported that last year Korea ranked 110th worldwide in the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL. The gap between investment and returns reflects a crisis within Korean English-teaching industries, one that's compounded by the government's inept response to enormous public demand.
It's not that the government hasn't tried. In 1995, at the crest of a wave of private language institutes sweeping the country, the Korean Ministry of Education launched a pilot program called KORETTA, or Korea English Teacher Training Assistants, later renamed the English Program in Korea, or EPIK.
It was the first and only nationwide government-initiated program to address the demand for English education in Korea, designed to place native English speakers in public school classrooms to co-teach alongside Korean English teachers.
EPIK, however, was marked from the start by disorganization, miscommunication and allegations of corruption by its foreign teachers.
Based on a flood of complaints in the past year, an evaluation of the EPIK program by www.EFL-law.com, a Web site that provides legal information to teachers of English as a foreign language in north Asia, fell from an "A-" to an "F" when compared to other state-run team-teaching concepts in Asia, such as the Native English-speaker Teaching program (NET) in Hong Kong and the Japan Exchange and Teaching program (JET).
JET, which has operated in Japan since 1985, served as something of a model for the creators of EPIK. However, while JET counted 6,226 new and returning teachers participating for the 2003-2004 session, EPIK currently employs fewer than 300 teachers, representing less than 3 percent of the foreigners who come to Korea to teach English.
Compared to the JET program, said Lim Gill-chin, who advised the then-Minister of Education Ahn Byong-young on the creation of EPIK, "Korea is far behind and lacks long-term strategy."
The government has been trying to catch up ever since it became clear that English was necessary to become part of the world economy.
"There was a need for what I call ‘global competency' of English teachers," said Mr. Lim, now a professor of Asian studies at Michigan State University in the United States. "It was the time when people felt that without English language capacity, Korea could not be competitive in the global scene."
As the government cast about for a solution, the private sector rushed in to meet the rising demand for English lessons. The English frenzy in Korea began in earnest slightly more than a decade ago, roughly corresponding to the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, which put modern Korea in the world's spotlight. The Internet boom of the early 1990s, which signaled a rapid shift toward widespread global communication, reinforced the desire for greater English fluency.
These days, the drive to learn English starts at a very young age. For many Korean parents, the ultimate definition of success for their children is admission to a good university, and this goal is next to impossible without a firm grasp of English.
Every November, traffic throughout the country yields for one morning out of the year to nearly 700,000 stressed-out high school students who make their way to test centers for the University Entrance Exam. The test, which decides in one shot the fate of all of these youngsters, is made up of six subjects. Of those, English is worth more than 20 percent of the total score, and is weighted more heavily among top-tier university admissions.
In the late 1980s, before private language institutes, or hagwons, were as common as they are now, English teachers in Korea often had previous experience living in the country or had higher degrees specifically in English-language instruction. However by the mid-1990s, the number of hagwons had increased exponentially, and demand had far-outdistanced supply. As hagwons and universities struggled to fill teaching positions, selectivity dropped.
It was in this environment that EPIK was launched. The team-teaching concept employed by Japan's JET program provided a logical model for pairing Korean educators who couldn't speak English fluently with native speakers who were inexperienced in the classroom.
The idea behind EPIK, said Mr. Lim, was "employing native speakers of English to enhance the instructional competence of Korean teachers." The native speakers were seen as necessary for teaching colloquial English.
The eligibility requirements for becoming an EPIK instructor are minimal. Applicants must be a citizen of one of the six major English-speaking countries, or, for those with an ethnic Korean background, they must have studied English from the seventh-grade level and resided for at least 10 years in one of the six countries.
Teaching experience isn't necessary, and according to Park Jeong-hee, office director of EPIK for the past five years, most applicants don't have certification in teaching English as a foreign language.
The minimum requirement is a bachelor's degree, which is necessary for visa purposes. Salary depends on credentials; those with a master's degree, a teaching license or an ESL teaching certificate receive more money. Personal interviews are supposed to take place at the applicant's local Korean consulate.
In 1996, a summer intake that consisted of several orientation sessions, run by Korea University, brought in more than 860 teachers, but by the third week of October, fewer than 500 remained. Those who quit cited reasons such as inadequate housing, late salary payments and refusal of severance pay.
The high rate of attrition continued, and today, EPIK operates at only a quarter of its intended scale.
Up until last year, the program had problems filling even the smaller quota, but increased recruiting has increased the number of applicants. Mr. Park said in recent years, EPIK has had more applicants than spots available.
"Most applicants are eligible, but we cannot accept all of them because of the limited quota," he said.
"More schools want to hire native English language instructors, so we should recruit more EPIK members, but we cannot do so because of the budget situation and other issues we are facing," he said.
However, he doesn't see it as surprising. "It is not easy to have so many instructors. Every system cannot be perfect," he said.
Mr. Lim noted several problems that contributed to EPIK's difficulties, beginning with the unsuccessful recruitment of qualified instructors.
Schuyler Roche, manager of auxiliary legal services at a Korean firm in Gangnam, was among the first wave of teachers in EPIK's first session, which started in June 1996. She said she was shocked to hear from Canadian teachers who joked that the recruiters at the Korean consulates in Canada were so hard-pressed to fill their quotas, the only interview question was, "What's your favorite kind of pizza?"
The screening process led to some alarming consequences as well. David Lenard, who was a teacher with EPIK at the same time as Ms. Roche, said in an e-mail interview, "My group included a psychologically unstable woman and a New Zealander with a completely indecipherable accent."
Other incidences of alcoholics and even pedophiles being hired finally led to the decision to require criminal background checks on applicants to find more qualified instructors, said Mr. Park. The measure, however, has only gone into effect this year.
Once in the country, the new EPIK instructors, many of whom had little cultural knowledge of Korea, had difficulty adjusting to the new culture, among the greatest being the language barrier.
"Cultural differences in communication tended to make small problems into big ones," said Gilbert Schramm, a former Peace Corps worker who was also among the first EPIK teachers.
In some areas, Mr. Lim said, housing was a big problem. According to Ms. Roche, the Ministry of Education allotted 23 million won ($20,000) to each teacher in key money for housing.
"Twenty-three million won, outside Seoul, could get a teacher a comfortable two- or three-bedroom apartment," she said. "Most teachers never saw such apartments. They were put in old studios and some were placed in homestay situations." What happened to the money is unclear.
Compensation was another point of conflict between provincial education offices and teachers. Mr. Lim said what he considered an uncompetitive salary may have contributed to the program's inability to attract more qualified people. Currently, first-year EPIK instructors who meet only the basic requirements are paid 1.7 million won per month and those with teaching credentials can earn up to 2.2 million won. Private institutes generally offer more than 2 million.
Also, a large percentage of the initial drop-outs did so in reaction to a sudden change in their contracts that required pension payments be withheld from their salaries. The new pension program was in accordance with Korean law; however, Ms. Roche said, the law was not adequately explained to the EPIK instructors.
"Some provincial education offices decided to take advantage of the confusion between the ministries to skim some money for themselves," she said. "North Chungcheong withheld the legal 2 percent and others, like North Jeolla, went as high as 15 percent of the teacher's total salary. North Gyeongsang was withholding 9 percent," she said.
In some extreme cases, security issues extended even beyond the financial.
A spokesperson for www.EFL-law.com, a consortium of consumer rights and protection lawyers living and working in Northeast Asia who provide legal advice to foreign teachers in the region, says the group has substantiated complaints about EPIK ranging from wrongful termination and withholding of money to sexual harassment and disregard for foreign teachers' "professional dignity."
Exacerbating the situation was the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when the won fell by more than 50 percent against the U.S. dollar, and many foreign English teachers left the country after they found their salaries had sharply depreciated in terms of their home currency.
"Twenty percent of the foreign English teaching staff left between December 1st and 31st in 1997," said Rob Dickey, who served as a former president of Korea Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Perhaps even more difficult than the administrative problems EPIK faced were what Mr. Lim referred to as "informal dimensions," or the insufficiently addressed culture gap between foreigners and the Koreans with whom they worked.
Mr. Schramm, who wrote his thesis on the cross-cultural problems of Western teachers in Korea, specifically Americans and Canadians, said, "I think the biggest problems EPIK officials created were also linked to a cultural issue ― the kind and level of cross-cultural training we received."
Or didn't receive, as the case was. "We lacked a lot of background cultural information about the Korean educational system," said Mr. Schramm.
Ms. Roche said, "No one prepared the EPIK teachers, or the Korean English teachers they were ordered to co-teach with, and endless misunderstandings and hurt feelings were the result."
In Korean schools, where the highly structured environment revolves almost solely around "test coaching," Ms. Roche said, "the Korean teachers felt that they barely had enough time as it was to prep the students for those strenuous exams, so they resented the EPIK teachers' lesson plans because they felt they didn't help them in reaching their teaching objectives."
In this atmosphere of personal strife and resistance to their efforts, many EPIK teachers complained of what Mr. Schramm calls "expensive human tape-recorder syndrome," or the sentiment that they were disregarded as people and tolerated only for their native speaking ability.
"It's not that we expect EPIK teachers to show a miracle," said Oh Seung-hyun, director of the Teachers' Education and Development Division of the Ministry of Education. "EPIK teachers are only assistants to Korean teachers of the English language."
However, low expectations sometimes translate into low maintenance as well. William, a former JET employee and current EPIK instructor who asked that his real name not be used, said, "I haven't had a letter, an e-mail, a phone call from EPIK in two years. They abandon you."
The high turnover among teachers and the constant reshuffling of management at the Ministry of Education and at EPIK, has also disrupted the growth and development of the program. "Whenever there is a new officer at the Ministry of Education, existing programs disappear or change names," Mr. Lim said.
Quality of education
In the end, it is the students who suffer. During his thesis research, Mr. Schramm said that among the more serious EPIK teachers there was "a strong feeling that the Koreans weren't really getting very much for their money."
Mr. Lenard said part of the problem was that there weren't nearly enough teachers to go around. In his area, one EPIK teacher was assigned to two schools.
"I don't think the schools had a lot of guidance from anyone as to how to use the teachers, so they assigned me to teach all the ninth-graders at both schools ― for exactly one hour a week," he said.
"This fundamental problem ― insufficient classroom time per student ― was unsolvable, unless they had been willing to hire 10 times more teachers. By trying to spread the teachers so thinly, they basically made their impact negligible," Mr. Lenard said.
Despite all this, Mr. Lenard said he regards his experience with EPIK as positive, and current problems aside, EPIK was designed on sound principles. "Despite possible hurdles, it was a promising program," said Mr. Lim, "a good risk-taking project."
Indeed, the principles behind EPIK was a good one to start with, as evidenced by the fact that other private organizations have taken the same approach, such as Fulbright Korea's English Teaching Assistant program, which places young Americans as co-English teachers into public middle and high school classrooms in Korea.
Like the EPIK and the JET programs, Fulbright hires young college graduates with little to no experience in teaching, saying optimistically on its Web site that their teachers "learn the most through the act of teaching itself."
Despite the three programs' similarities, Fulbright and JET have thrived while EPIK has consistently struggled, suggesting that it is not the teaching experience of the foreign recruits that decides the success or failure of these initiatives, but the supporting infrastructure of the programs themselves.
by Kirsten Jerch <firstname.lastname@example.org>
JoongAng Daily staff writer Chun Su-jin contributed to this report.
Tomorrow, the JoongAng Daily looks at the Fulbright's English Teaching Assistant program.
How schools fail to teach English
Second of two parts
Driven by a powerful desire to learn English, believing that the language will bring them success in the job market, Koreans will try just about anything.
That includes sending their small children abroad for years, apart from their families, just so long as they are in an English-speaking environment. They happily spend fortunes on private tutoring in English. They stop foreigners on the street to engage them in conversation in search of an ad hoc free lesson. On top of all that, policymakers propose building English-only enclaves in major cities where Koreans will only be permitted to speak English.
To meet the demand, Korea's Ministry of Education did the logical thing: It set out to put hundreds of native English speakers in public school classrooms. But the effort, for many reasons, has met with failure.
The shortcomings of the Ministry of Education's English Program in Korea (EPIK) stand out when compared to a similar teaching program say in Japan or Hong Kong. It also stacks up poorly against other programs in Korea such as the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program, run by the Korean-American Educational Commission, a branch of the U.S. Embassy that administers the Korean Fulbright program.
The Fulbright effort began in 1992 and now employs around 60 teachers who are placed in Korea's public school classrooms to co-teach with Korean teachers.
While much smaller in scale, Fulbright's program differs from EPIK mainly in the way it supports its teachers. "We have a headquarters staff that pays attention, EPIK does not," said Horace H. Underwood, executive director of the Korean-American Educational Commission.
In terms of recruitment, the name Fulbright carries a lot of weight in attracting applicants, Mr. Underwood said. "You recruit among graduating seniors a group of ‘elite' self-selected people," he said. "They are flexible, adaptable, competent, willing to get along ... and often multinational and traveled as well."
Fulbright also provides a six-week orientation program at Gangwon National University in Chuncheon where new teachers learn the basics of Korean language and customs, participate in teacher training with veteran English Teaching Assistants and receive practical training in daily skills like ordering food and catching a bus.
"All the horrible adjustment stuff is done before they get to their schools," Mr. Underwood said.
During the orientation session, Mr. Underwood said, the teaching assistants also have ample opportunity to network and bond. They are provided with cell phones so that they can stay in contact with the Fulbright office and with one another. "Their support system is each other," he said.
Another important goal of the Fulbright program is cultural exchange. The teaching assistants are all placed in schools outside of the capital where they are the only native-speaking English teacher, and first-year teachers are placed in mandatory homestays.
The program is not without its problems. Mr. Underwood says that on average he will remove one teaching assistant per year from their school, and about 40 percent of them will have to change homestays, usually because of sexual harassment on the part of the school or homestay family.
The difference, Mr. Underwood says, is the extensive support network and cross-cultural experience in the Fulbright office, which is "actively involved" in advocating for the teaching assistants throughout their stay in Korea.
"Start with good people, train them well, pay attention, what's not to work?" said Mr. Underwood.
He says Fulbright was approached by EPIK representatives to advise them on how they could improve, but even armed with his simple formula for success, the representatives were unable to convince upper-level officials of the need for more resources.
When asked his opinion on why EPIK has not followed suit, Mr. Underwood suggests that there is an unwillingness on the part of the Korean government to acknowledge the expense of these programs.
"The political will to come up with the resources is not there," he says. "Central government is not internationalized, they just don't get it."
Oh Seung-hyun, the official EPIK representative at the Ministry of Education and Human Resources, said that as of last year, EPIK's funding from the national treasury, amounting to 10 percent of EPIK's total budget, was cut. "That's why we cannot help being conscious about money," he said.
Part of Fulbright's ongoing support network is a series of meetings and teaching workshops for the teaching assistants throughout the year. The JET program in Japan offers similar workshops that are attended by both Japanese and foreign co-teachers.
William, who asked that his real name not be used, is a teacher with EPIK who had also spent three years with the JET program. During his time in Japan, William had regular meetings with JET personnel who oversaw the teachers in each province. "There's nothing like that with EPIK," he said. When Korean teacher liaisons and supervisors at his provincial office of education meet in Korea, William said; "We're left behind."
Mr. Oh said the burden of oversight rests in the provinces. "Each [provincial] education office is supposed to be in charge of taking care of EPIK teachers," said Mr. Oh, "but it depends on the condition of each assigned council. It's possible there are councils that don't pay enough attention."
"To call it a program is what gets me," said William of EPIK, saying that in reality it is little more than another "headhunting" business, a broker. "It's not a program. There's no central control, no chain of command, no one to turn to if you have a problem. For the most part, they don't want to hear problems."
Noting the Korean program's lack of a cultural exchange focus when compared to Fulbright and JET, William added, "They have to change their whole philosophy to really make it a program."
by Kirsten Jerch <email@example.com>
JoongAng Daily staff writer Chun Su-jin contributed to this report.