Although there has often been a knee-jerk reaction within the Korean government to block new forms of education emerging outside mainstream, government-funded schools, not everyone who has served in government has been limited by that stance.

I met Lee Ju-Ho, the former Minister of Education, Science, and Technology and now a professor at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management, to understand his efforts to improve the Korean education system In the book The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley, Lee comes across as a forward-minded thinker about the challenges facing Korean education and the need to make changes to the status quo of how education is regulated, managed, and delivered. In a wide-ranging conversation in his office, Lee did not disappoint.

Michael B. Horn and former Minister of Education, Science, and Technology Lee Ju-Ho, pose for the camera while each holds the other's book.
Michael B. Horn and former Minister of Education, Science, and Technology Lee Ju-Ho, pose for the camera while each holds the other’s book.

He first explained why it is so hard to change the status quo. Korean hagwons are a $30 billion industry, but unlike private schools in the United States, they do not compete against and therefore create pressure on mainstream schools. Instead they exist alongside as complements. The wealthy in society have no incentives to lobby for education reform as a result because they have market-based solutions to provide a customized education for their children. And because politicians are under strong political pressure from hagwons because the private-tutoring industry plays an active role in political donations and elections, there are vested interests in protecting the hagwons. This situation is not damaging per se, Lee said, but it delays reforms of the public schools.

Lee said that an increasing number of public school teachers are enthusiastic about reforming public schools because hagwons are hollowing out the purpose and value of the classroom. As students learn concepts in their hagwons and stay up all hours of the night studying, more students are sleeping in class. As a result, teachers are losing their self-efficacy and passion for teaching.

The basis of school reform should revolve around a few principles, he said, including school choice, diversification, autonomy, accountability, and transparency.

In our conversation, Lee spoke proudly of six accomplishments from his time in President Lee Myung-Bak’s administration in moving education reform forward.

Under his leadership, Korea began digitalizing its textbooks. Although there appears to be delays in this effort since the change in administration in 2012, one subject has been digitalized and is being implemented.

Second, Korea has historically focused on cognitive skills at the expense perhaps of what Lee called “connective” skills that focus on character or creative education. He is proud of the efforts to bolster school orchestras and sports teams.

Third, Lee spoke of his accomplishments in moving Korean universities to emulate how students are admitted. The Korean government funded roughly 600 admissions officers to join universities and select 15 percent of the incoming college class—roughly 50,000 students—based on a more holistic look at the students, not just based on their KSAT score. This practice, Lee said, has encouraged too much of an emphasis on the Confucian traditions of rote learning.

Fourth, Korea now has a teacher evaluation system.

Fifth, in the past, Korea’s school principals were chosen based on a point system among school administrators. Seniority counted for the most points, which often meant that someone would be selected as principal literally the year before her retirement, which created a one-year rotating position in effect. This was damaging to leadership across the school system. Principals now serve 4-year terms and are chosen by an open search committee that consists of parents, teachers, and experts.

Lastly, Lee and I spoke the most about the creation of Meister High Schools under his and President Lee’s watch. Created in 2010, Meister—meaning master of a trade—High Schools are converted vocational schools that partner with companies in specific industries to create educational experiences tailored to the needs of the workforce. They emerged in an effort to turnaround vocational schools that were looked down upon within their communities; diversify educational options; and help industry find the mid-level managers who are both critical and hard to find. Partnering with these schools is a smart backward integration step by the companies.

In Lee’s view, only 10 to 20 percent of Korean universities are competitive globally compared to 50 to 60 percent in the United States. Pushing people to attend low-quality universities is a bad strategy, he said. A better one is to narrow the gap between learning to know and learning to do by creating these Meister High Schools that offer direct links to employment after graduation.

Meister High Schools focus on a particular field—banking, shipbuilding, mechanical engineering, semi-conductor manufacturing, and so forth—and hire a former CEO from that industry as the principal. For example, the former CEO of Renault-Samsung’s automotive group became principal of a Meister High School in Busan focused on automotive manufacturing. One school, called the Chungbuk Semiconductor High School, had a semiconductor company donate semiconductor machinery to it.

Out of roughly 400 vocational high schools in the country, seven were selected to become a Meister High School in the first year, and 35 in total were converted over President Lee’s five-year term. Even more have converted now to Meister High Schools by creating memorandums of understanding—with over 1,300 companies in total across the schools—so that they can guarantee employment opportunities.

Ultimately President Lee’s leadership made a big difference, Lee said, as he acutely understood industry’s needs for mid-level managers from his days as CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction. President Lee would often say, look at Germany. No one requires a soccer player to have a diploma.

The point, Lee said, is that you don’t need a degree to succeed; you need the right skills. The Meister High School takes a page from Germany’s vocational schools and apprenticeships to prepare students for careers earlier. And after four years of working, students can then get that college degree through an online, night, or weekend program while continuing to work to assuage the 93 percent of parents that want their children to have a degree. It’s the best of both worlds.

The biggest changes are that these schools go from being the shame of the community to being the pride of it. And the students go from listless participants in their education to enthusiastic learners in it, Lee said, with “fire in their eyes” as they know they can be the best in something. A master.

There’s nothing better than that, and it’s yet one more chip away to show that there can be multiple pathways to success in Korea, not just one, and that the Korean culture can change its views on education.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.