In a 2008 article titled, “Elite Korean Schools, Forging Ivy League Skills,” the New York Times wrote about how successful specialized South Korean high schools had been in developing high-performing students geared to getting accepted into top Ivy League schools in the U.S. How successful were they?

If SAT scores are a key performance indicator, then, “Their (Daewon) average combined SAT score was 2203 out of 2400. By comparison, the average combined score at Phillips Exeter, the New Hampshire boarding school, is 2085. Sixty-seven Daewon graduates had perfect 800 math scores.”


These high schools were pretty successful, I say. From the New York Times’ descriptions of these schools ― Daewon Foreign Language High School and Korean Minjok Leadership Academy ― I get the impression that they are more of an Olympics-style training facility for gifted athletes, rather than what we would usually think of as “schools.”

For many years, the academic excellence of these schools was a source of pride for Korea, until recently. In the past few days, it has been reported that the Minjok Leadership Academy, one of the two schools profiled by the Times’ story, is considering shutting down. The reason is the central government’s decision to transform specialized high schools, including independent private high schools, into regular schools.

I actually don’t know enough about the dynamic complexities of Korea’s ever-changing educational system to articulate difference between various specialized schools and regular schools. What I do know is that the government’s educational policies are elevating concerns about equity above the traditional values placed on academic excellence.

In other words, the current government led by the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) views these specialized schools as the cradle for hereditary privilege and wealth ― the children of those who can afford cram schools, private tutors, and other benefits that regular students can’t access. This situation is viewed as fundamentally unfair. So, the solution is to get rid of these schools and, thereby, the privilege pipeline. In a sense, the goal is forced equity


But at what cost? By all measures, these schools have produced students who are excellent. I am not aware of any definitive studies that track the career paths of the graduates of these schools, but, if their college choices are any indication, then they will be pretty well set up. Granted, the pool of candidates who can get in and thrive in such school environments is bound to be small and self-selecting, based on the level of parental engagement and support.

However, it’s also true that these students are the best that Korea offers in terms of academic excellence. If Korea wants to produce the best of the best, then there is nothing wrong with an excellence pipeline that does exactly that. How is this method different from curating promising athletes and nurturing them into gold medal winners? Should Korea forgo future Kim Yuna’s because figure skating is an expensive sport that not every parent can afford?

Talent is one thing, but it takes family commitment and active engagement to refine that talent until it becomes noticeable. True, not every family can afford to do that. But that shouldn’t penalize those families who choose to do so. And not every rich family’s children will end up in these specialized schools anyway.


What I find ironic is that ruling party members mock the conservatives for wanting to go back to the Park Chung-hee-era ethos of “work hard, don’t complain, and sacrifice yourself for the nation.” It’s indeed true that such ethos led to individuals being treated as replaceable commodities in service of the greater good.

However, the DPK also seems to long for the same era’s ethos, in which anyone could make it to the SKY universities, through a combination of a smart brain and hard work in their local schools. They want that “local kid made good” to come back again. The DPK suffers nostalgia over a Korea when everyone was poor, worked hard, and had an equal chance to better their lives. Ironically, the right suffers from that same exact nostalgia over the same Korea. The difference is how they want to go back to the good old days. The two main parties are offering competing versions of “Make Korea Great Again.”

Unfortunately, the days of dragons spontaneously rising to the sky from little streams are gone. Today, dragons usually come from dragon parents carefully nurturing and curating their offspring. Trying to force dragon parents to raise lizard offspring won’t work. Dragons will do what dragons do.

Excellence is inescapably elitist. That’s the nature of excellence. You can only have one gold medal winner. Elitism is inherently not equitable, but that doesn’t mean that excellence has to be an enemy of equity. Why can’t there be policies that nurture academic excellence, even admire and laud it, while providing equity to all students as well?

I mean, we don’t all have to be in the Tour de France to enjoy riding a bike. Let people who want to excel do so; it requires a level of sacrifice and talent that most people won’t commit to. Let those who don’t want to excel choose a different path. Maybe that’s real equity: the ability to choose.

Jason Lim (jasonlim@msn.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture.





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