Aug 16 2013

South Korea Has a $4 Million Rock Star Educator. Does the U.S. Need the Same?

A culture of competition and freelance tutors has built a South Korean education ecosystem that richly rewards educators.

Teachers aren’t normally afforded rock-star status. That’s a label more readily handed out to, well, rock stars naturally and other celebrity types.

But South Korean educator and 20-year classroom and tutoring veteran Kim Ki-hoon considers himself an exception.

He’s certainly making rock-star money. In a recent profile on Ki-hoon for The Wall Street Journal, Amanda Ripley reports that the enterprising educator who records his lectures and sells them online at a rate of $4 an hour earns an annual income of $4 million. That’s million, with an “M,” folks.

The money doesn’t come easy. Ki-hoon tells Ripley that he works long days, mostly teaching English. It isn’t uncommon for him to clock 60 or more hours a week.

Such hours aren’t likely to elicit much sympathy from his counterparts here in the States. A telling infographic that made the rounds on this site last week showed that the average U.S. educator can expect to put in 12- to 16-hour days for a modest $49,000 a year, a fraction of Ki-hoon’s annual haul.

What’s His Secret?

It probably comes as no surprise that Ki-hoon doesn’t make his money in the classroom. As Ripley reports, he only spends about three hours a week delivering lectures. He spends the bulk of his time online answering students’ questions or writing lesson plans and texts distributed to students as part of South Korea’s phenomenally successful private tutoring industry.

"The harder I work, the more I make," Ki-hoon tells Ripley, who recently traveled to South Korea to get a bead on the success of the tiny country’s world-renowned educational system.

Just how good is South Korea? Ripley reports that the country boasts a 95 percent high school graduation rate. Compare that to 77 percent in the United States. That’s pretty amazing, writes Ripley, considering that 60 years ago, most of the South Korean population was illiterate.

Not Without Controversy

But the strides made by students in South Korea — and the money earned by teachers there — have not come without controversy. Ripley writes that private tutors outnumber traditional schoolteachers and that the wealthiest students, whose families can afford the kinds of ancillary products created by teachers such as Ki-hoon and others, hold a distinct advantage over those from lesser means.

Ripley says Ki-hoon makes the majority of his money from 150,000 families who pay for their children to watch his lectures online.

Ki-hoon’s success offers a glimpse at the massive size and scope of the South Korean tutoring market. Ripley reports that one in three students participates in private tutoring programs, and in 2012 South Korean parents spent more than $17 billion on those services. That same year, she says, Americans spent $15 billion — on video games.

What do you think? Could the American education system benefit from a culture that encourages more teachers to produce and market ancillary, technology-based products for use outside of the classroom? Or does this approach simply contribute to a wider chasm between the haves and have nots? Tell us in the comments.

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