Rock Star Teachers

Obviously this article won’t be about any teachers in New Zealand, though there are surely bound to be some that deserve the sort of title and rewards that come from such a title.

In enlightened countries, where the teacher unions are non-existent and performance garners rewards there certainly are rock star teachers and they earn a significant amount of coin for their efforts.

Kim Ki-hoon earns $4 million a year in South Korea, where he is known as a rock-star teacher—a combination of words not typically heard in the rest of the world. Mr. Kim has been teaching for over 20 years, all of them in the country’s private, after-school tutoring academies, known as hagwons. Unlike most teachers across the globe, he is paid according to the demand for his skills—and he is in high demand.

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

“The harder I work, the more I make,” he says matter of factly. “I like that.” 

With an attitude like that the PPTA would black list him in a heart beat. Perish the thought that similar behaviours take root in our education system.

I traveled to South Korea to see what a free market for teaching talent looks like—one stop in a global tour to discover what the U.S. can learn from the world’s other education superpowers. Thanks in part to such tutoring services, South Korea has dramatically improved its education system over the past several decades and now routinely outperforms the U.S. Sixty years ago, most South Koreans were illiterate; today, South Korean 15-year-olds rank No. 2 in the world in reading, behind Shanghai. The country now has a 93% high-school graduation rate, compared with 77% in the U.S.

Results focused, performance related.

The idea is seductive: Teaching well is hard, so why not make it lucrative? Even if American schools will never make teachers millionaires, there are lessons to be learned from this booming educational bazaar, lessons about how to motivate teachers, how to captivate parents and students and how to adapt to a changing world.

To find rock-star teachers like Mr. Kim, hagwon directors scour the Internet, reading parents’ reviews and watching teachers’ lectures. Competing hagwons routinely try to poach one another’s celebrity tutors. “The really good teachers are hard to retain—and hard to manage. You need to protect their egos,” says Lee Chae-yun, who owns a chain of five hagwons in Seoul called Myungin Academy.

The most radical difference between traditional schools and hagwons is that students sign up for specific teachers, so the most respected teachers get the most students. Mr. Kim has about 120 live, in-person students per lecture, but a typical teacher’s hagwon classes are much smaller. The Korean private market has reduced education to the one in-school variable that matters most: the teacher.

And the market handles quality, no registration in Korea. If a teacher is tits they go broke.

It is about as close to a pure meritocracy as it can be, and just as ruthless. In hagwons, teachers are free agents. They don’t need to be certified. They don’t have benefits or even a guaranteed base salary; their pay is based on their performance, and most of them work long hours and earn less than public school teachers.

The parents want and demand this too.

Performance evaluations are typically based on how many students sign up for their classes, their students’ test-score growth and satisfaction surveys given to students and parents. “How passionate is the teacher?” asks one hagwon’s student survey—the results of which determine 60% of the instructor’s evaluation. “How well-prepared is the teacher?” (In 2010, researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found classroom-level surveys like this to be surprisingly reliable and predictive of effective teaching in the U.S., yet the vast majority of our schools still don’t use them.)

“Students are the customers,” Ms. Lee says. To recruit students, hagwons advertise their results aggressively. They post their graduates’ test scores and university acceptance figures online and outside their entrances on giant posters. It was startling to see such openness; in the U.S., despite our fetish for standardized testing, the results remain confusing and hard to interpret for parents.

Once students enroll, the hagwon embeds itself in families’ lives. Parents get text messages when their children arrive at the academies each afternoon; then they get another message relaying students’ progress. Two to three times a month, teachers call home with feedback. Every few months, the head of the hagwon telephones, too. In South Korea, if parents aren’t engaged, that is considered a failure of the educators, not the family.

Failure to perform has predictable results.

If tutors get low survey marks or attract too few students, they generally get placed on probation. Each year, Ms. Lee fires about 10% of her instructors. (By comparison, U.S. schools dismiss about 2% of public school teachers annually for poor performance.)

All of this pressure creates real incentives for teachers, at least according to the kids. In a 2010 survey of 6,600 students at 116 high schools conducted by the Korean Educational Development Institute, Korean teenagers gave their hagwon teachers higher scores across the board than their regular schoolteachers: Hagwon teachers were better prepared, more devoted to teaching and more respectful of students’ opinions, the teenagers said. Interestingly, the hagwon teachers rated best of all when it came to treating all students fairly, regardless of the students’ academic performance.


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.

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