Education International
Education International

South Korean teachers fired over standardised testing

published 20 January 2009 updated 20 January 2009

Seven primary and middle school teachers in the South Korean capital Seoul have been fired for giving students and parents a choice about whether to take a national standardised test.

The teachers are all members of Jeon Gyo Jo, which is the Korean Teachers' and Education Workers' Union (KTU), an affiliate of Education International. EI joins the KTU in strongly condemning the firings, and calls on the education authorities to re-instate the teachers to their previous jobs. “Across the OECD countries, teachers are becoming increasingly concerned about the uses and abuses of standardized testing and its vastly increased stress on students and teachers,” said EI General Secretary Fred Van Leeuwen. “High-stakes testing has significant negative impacts in terms of narrowing the curriculum in order to teach to the test. Teachers have a professional right and duty to speak out about testing regimes they believe to be harmful.” The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education dismissed the seven teachers, alleging they had not “followed orders” and had “induced” students not to take a national test, thereby “interrupting” the students’ “right to learn.” In fact, the fired teachers had sent letters to the parents, suggesting that this kind of standardized testing might “raise unnecessary competition among students” and give children “a heavy, stressful burden.” If students did not want to take the test, the teachers suggested that they could participate in an educational field trip instead – provided they had their parents’ permission. If students wanted to take the test, they could. The South Korean education system is highly competitive, with government policy compelling all elementary and middle school students across the country to sit the standardized tests. High school students endure extremely intense schedules of study seven days a week in advance of critical university entrance exams. The KTU says the firings are the most recent example of a consistent pattern of attacks on teachers and public education by the administration of President Lee Myung-Bak. The administration has nullified the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement and imposed a punitive system of teacher evaluation, introduced by repeated hostile statements in the media. The KTU is determined to continue supporting the teachers, who they believe were merely exercising their professional judgment and conscience, and will press its demands for teacher autonomy in the face of arbitrary government moves. Van Leeuwen noted that parents and other stakeholders across South Korea have also joined in the union’s protests. “Parents and teachers share these concerns because they want a quality education for all children,” van Leeuwen said. “They understand that quality education involves much more than high marks on standardized tests. Quality education is focused on academics, to be sure, but it is also about the arts, athletics, citizenship, critical and creative thinking skills, love of learning, and so much more.” EI will continue to monitor the situation in South Korean schools and to support its affiliate in complaints it plans to bring to the International Labour Organisation and the Expert Committee on the Application of the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Teachers (CEART).