Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Ethical Dilemma for Hagwon Owners

The thought for this post came to me while reading a criticism of an article I wrote for this week on the misery of hagwons (privately owned after-school academies) for many Korean students, which can be seen here.  On the comment section another blogger,, commented that I had no idea what I was talking about but did not elaborate and merely posted a link to an article on his website.  So I looked but was still not entirely sure what his point was after reading it.  I replied anyway with what I thought he meant and asking him to explain further.

Now, I can understand why he/she (will proceed with 'he' for simplicity) might be a tad upset.  From what I can gather he is a foreigner who owns a hagwon in Korea and my article was pretty scathing on hagwons generally.  The strange thing is, however, is when I looked at some of his previous posts, they all seemed to confirm exactly what I said in the article.  He actually has a very good site, worth reading, especially if you want to know more about Korean hagwons.  I will highlight just a few articles:

I could link more as they are very interesting.  In each he muses about many of the concerns I raised in the article I wrote, but as I don't expect everyone reading this to take the time of reading 4 pieces of writing I will start getting to the point.

In the second post, he goes into a little detail of the ethos of his school, which seems a noble philosophy that I applaud him for, but it is the first post on fear and guilt that pricked my interest.  In this post he talks of a mother of one of his students who came in complaining about the lack of progress of her son for the last two years.  She apparently had him tested at another hagwon (a competitor) and they said he wasn't able to put a sentence together.  The writer then goes on to say that this particular student wasn't too bright and was introverted, shy, and buckled under pressure, so it was no surprise he did badly when under the spotlight.

This got me thinking, because my first job in Korea was at a really great little hagwon where the owners were well organised and tried hard to do the best for their students, much like this chap seems to be doing.  But, as nice as they were, there were many students in that hagwon that were going nowhere with their English and the owners knew it.  Of course, to stay in business in a highly competitive industry they have to continue to accept money from these children's parents and keep the students attending every day (these were often the most miserable students too) and this is where the ethical dilemma comes in.

Teachers and hagwon owners must know what students are not making even the least bit progress, as hagwons are not generally big enough to lose kids in the system, indeed small class sizes is one of the reasons they are considered important for learning English.  Despite this, they take the money and I think more importantly the poor student's time and enthusiasm for learning.  In wangjangnim's own post he taught a student for 2 years and he couldn't make a sentence in English, under pressure or not that is troubling.  How many hours of his short life did he spend there after school?  Did he enjoy his time there?  Maybe he did, but it is surely the case that many students in a similar position don't, this being another factor that may lead to student depression and even suicide in extreme cases.

I am in no way am attacking this hagwon owner by saying he is not teaching well, sometimes you can be the best teacher in the world and working at a school with the best strategies, but some kids just will not want to or be able to learn, especially when they are saturated with education like they are in Korea.  This is a problem however, because I think it is unethical to keep on taking the money for teaching this student and taking up their precious time.

The dilemma is though, can you really be honest and do the right thing?  If you are honest and do the right thing, surely your business will fail, while at the same time significantly improve the chances of the dishonest one's succeeding.  This maybe shows a small example of the wider issue of global business generally, that the muck tends to rise to the top.

Curiously, as well as the good hagwon I worked at (mentioned earlier) I also worked at a bit of a nightmare hagwon as well.  The boss had a reputation for firing teachers on the 11th month of their contract - thereby avoiding paying the bonus for completion of the contract - and I thought his strategies for teaching English were poor and he was willfully deceiving the parents of the children and the children themselves.  He was a pretty ruthless, cut-throat businessman and he had a long history of being a hagwon owner and was also successful in running a string of successful hagwons in Seoul, the most highly competitive of all places in Korea.  He knew how to survive and make a profit in the business when others were falling around him and this worried me a lot considering his lack of care for the students, dishonesty, and his general nastiness (his English was also appalling, especially as he wrote a book about how best to teach it).

Not all owners are like this guy obviously, but it was the fact that he had survived for so long that troubled me, he was a success story in the industry having been in it such a long time, he also had a maths academy in the same city.

Much of the business world revolves around dishonesty, unfortunately, that appears to be a reality of life but it seems to me that hagwon owners do have a little extra responsibility on their shoulders when dealing with young people who can't tell whether their time is being spent well and their parents money is being spent wisely.  Parents can't also judge very well how effective the hagwon is at teaching its children because the majority have almost no knowledge of English themselves.  This is a problem of conscience and makes the right way forward extremely unclear.  As wangjangnim says in his post on fear and guilt, a key factor of what drives the industry is deeply immoral, making parents feel the need to put their kids in private schools for fear of their children being disadvantaged.  I mostly overlooked this aspect in my post at asiapundits as I focused on private academies more from the students' perspective, but his article certainly confirms my fears for students and what they are really getting from these schools and the motivation for parents to send them there in the first place.

I urge readers of this post to have a look at  I have read 4 or 5 posts now and it is an interesting perspective of the Korean hagwon industry from a man who owns one himself.  His posts are sensible, knowledgeable, and sincere.  He obviously cares about giving his students the best tuition possible.  This post and my asiapundits article was in no way a direct attack on his business.  I simply have grave concerns about the industry as a whole and I genuinely worry about the well-being of young people in Korea and private schools are a large part of that problem.


  1. so have you quit your job? or are you the type to just throw stones? it seems that so many come here and find fault, but there is a reason korea is doing well in the ww economy. the students here are MUCH BETTER in almost all subjects compared to their western counterparts.

    1. I don't work in a Hagwon anymore. I will explain my position further in my next post, which I will put up soon to clear some of this up. I think it is fair to say though, that I have never said the students aren't good. Students here are smarter and much more pleasant than back in England, I really like them a lot. That is why I hate to see their well-being suffer.

      I would hope that they are better at almost all subjects considering most average an extra 4 hours a day minimum of study than kids back home. Money isn't everything and test scores aren't everything either. As I will go on to explain in the next post, however, I have grave concerns about my own education system. I never said that it is better back home overall. Well-being of young

    2. (clicked publish by mistake)... people in education is better back home but the hard-work ethic is better here because they have much higher expectations of students, which is good and better than back home.

    3. Not doing very well here. Anyway, my point being is that perhaps there could be some middle-ground sort between the two ways of educating young people.

  2. I’m still trying to parse just where the ethical dilemma you speak of is here. It sounds like you would possibly prefer to students get kicked out of a hagwon if they are not displaying sufficient interest or achieving up to certain standards (or at least, as well as the other kids in the room). I know you are aware of how much shame plays a role in the sense of self-worth of people in this part of the world and what you seem to suggest sounds rather cruel to me - and I don’t think that is your intention.

    Some of the more prestigious private institutes I’ve worked at here in Seoul do exactly that, though. Students at some hagwons in high-competition parts of town like Daechi and Mokdong and Nowon have to demonstrate a certain level of expertise BEFORE they are admitted and every three months they have to pass muster in standardized tests in the school and if they do not make that grade they WILL be gently pushed aside – out of the classroom and out of the school - in favor of more promising kids. These schools have a waiting list and ask for higher tuition because they seek out and attempt to create for themselves a reputation for producing a high percentage of alumni who do well on the public school examinations and ultimately get admitted to one of the top 3 universities. In fact, I feel that what happens at these places shows a far greater degree of unethical business practice. They are cherry-picking the best, and culling out the worst, then making claims that their particular educational method represents the sound choice and justifies the higher cost for the parents. This is their business model, and it works for them. These schools are very profitable fort their investors.

    I think every educator is aware, and I think you are aware, that not every student will learn at the same pace – I disagree that the kids who are learning less quickly are wasting their time and their parents’ money. I’ve seen it happen many times, a kid doesn’t have a clue and doesn’t care, and month after month it goes on like that – then suddenly something clicks and she’s understanding things she wasn’t getting before, and as the comprehension and performance begins slowly to pick up the kid also begins to enjoy the process of learning – because kids (anyone) hates studying but we all enjoy learning – and if there’s a smart teacher around who notices it and gives a damn enough to help it along, the process will snowball and things will start happening that will surprise a lot of people involved.

    If I work at a hagwon, my wangjangnim wants warm butts in the chairs because every empty chair indicates a loss of potential income. If I’m a teacher and I care about the work I do then my goal is not all that far off from his, though – because, to put it as simply as possible, I cannot teach an empty chair. It doesn’t matter if I’m the greatest teacher who ever walked the face of the planet, if the student isn’t there, I can’t teach him anything.

    For business and for the learning, the goal will always be identical, to keep them coming back. And I’m not willing to give up on a kid because things haven’t clicked for her yet, this month or the month before – THAT is what I call unethical.

    1. I never suggested chucking them out, that would be a little perverse. Merely being honest with parents about their progress. If you keep on taking parent's money but don't tell them that all their child does is look depressed, sleep, and never speaks English and never shows any progress, I think this is slightly unethical. The dilemma is that if you are an honest hagwon owner who does the right thing and the parents take their child out of your school and put them in another one, what changes? It could even be that the other school is dishonest and tells the parents exactly what they want to hear.

      What is going on in the hagwons you talk of in Seoul is just as bad, of course. I think it is a stretch to read that I approve of having only high level students in hagwons from what I wrote. Standard is mostly irrelevant actually, but progress and well-being is. I am arguing for the depressed, exhausted student that has made no progress nor shows any sign of progress over an extended period of time, not culling every student that has a week or two or a month or two of a lack of motivation. I am not even talking of culling any student full stop, merely telling the truth to parents and letting them make up their own minds.

      Hope that has clarified my position.

    2. Do you think that hagwon teachers and administrators are lying to parents about how much or little progress their students are making? Do you really think so? I have to tell you, in my experience, most Korean parents are not stupid or naive and in fact are quite savvy and communicate with each other about the schools they send their kids to – generally speaking, they pay a great deal of attention to their children's education (some would say, too much) compared to parents back where I came from and they usually know with some degree of accuracy how well their kids are achieving.

      Do you have any evidence that these businesses are actively engaged in hiding the facts when, as you say, ‘all their child does is look depressed, sleep, and never speaks English and never shows any progress?’ A child who behaves as you describe is an extreme case and exceedingly rare – really, never ANY progress at all? Are you sure? – In my experience, in nearly every case, such a student also displays behavior problems that interfere with the rest of the class, so eventually it becomes something that has to be addressed in some way or other.

      Finally, do you think it might be possible that the parents ARE aware and yet choose to continue sending their kids to the hagwon anyway, perhaps in the faith that perhaps next month or the month after that something different will start to happen as the child moves one developmental phase to another? I think it’s not unreasonable for parents to carry the belief that even making borderline or minimal progress in a classroom at a private school might be better for the kid than doing nothing at all in the afternoon, or perhaps spending time at some other activity they might get up to on their own which might actually bring some detriment to them.

      I still don’t see your ethical dilemma, but perhaps that’s because I can’t imagine any circumstance where a teacher or a school administrator, businessman or not, would be responsible in their role to even suggest that a student needs to study LESS, or ought not be enrolled at a school – even if it were possibly true in a case of some particular student, it is not for the teacher to say it, nor for the principal either. It’s certainly true that a lot of students are overextended and enrolled in too many classes in addition to their main public school. However, that’s a matter for the student and his or her family to work out, and it is in no way anything either a teacher or the owner of a particular institute ought to be trying to influence.

      A lot of people entertain a view that commerce corrupts because the profit motive only cares for profit and nothing more, that furthermore educational commerce corrupts the pure goals of learning, and while I sympathize with the view and understand where it comes from, I don’t think it must always be so or that nothing of value can be given or received within a commercial educational environment. Even when working within a school with a strong and overwhelming profit basis, the teacher has a lot to say about what happens in the classroom, so a lot will follow from how an individual teacher chooses to interact and guide his or her students. What I'm saying, it really IS possible to make money and provide a sound educational service all at once.

      In most private institutes, the owner is a businessman rather than an educator, and that’s fortunate for the teacher because most of us have very little aptitude for economics and what we DO need tends to be something he (the businessman) can give me, which is students on which we can practice my craft.

    3. "Do you think that hagwon teachers and administrators are lying to parents about how much or little progress their students are making?"

      Yes, I do. Because every single hagwon I have ever known has done it at some level, including all those of my friends. If you look at wangjangnim's website he will even admit many of his chain hagwon competitors do it. My wife's hagwon tells her to not post low test scores on their website but to doctor them (online to show parents progress), a friend also told me he was not allowed to give his kids any mark below an A or B and both the hagwons I worked at did not address issues with students that I was concerned about. My co-teachers in the second place told me of how she had to give them high marks too. My wife's best friend has been involved in the hagwon system for the past 6 or 7 years and she says it is just part of everyday hagwon business to do this kind of thing. Parents talk but if they are not being given accurate information how can they find out the truth? Many don't know enough English to be sure. Some will have a good idea but many will not. In wangjangnim's rebuttal to this post, he never even argued against me on this point.

      Do I have any statistics and studies to back this up, well no. But that is exactly why I want some form of hagwon assessment and regulation with regard to teaching results and efficacy. When it comes to tuition charges, back in 2009 67% of hagwons were found to have been dishonest and over-charged for tuition, against government regulations. The supposedly rigorous parents didn't pick up on that very well did they? Are you seriously telling me that you trust that the vast majority of hagwons in Korea are giving accurate, honest assessments of students to their parents? Even when they were told by the government not to overcharge and 67% still did! 40% charged twice the registered tuition amount. I just think you are not being realistic here.

      For the parents that are aware but still send their kids, well, of course the hagwon is not responsible, if they want to keep sending them, fine. Do I really have to fine tune my argument this much to point out the obvious. I still think this is miserable for the children however. It is not about doing nothing at all in the afternoon, it would be enjoying themselves, meeting friends, having fun, etc. There is such a thing as life without going to a hagwon you know.

      I never said the hagwon should be trying to influence, just be honest and upfront about the students, what is wrong with that?

      Again, of course commerce and education can co-exist, never said it couldn't. Just be honest about it especially when it concerns young people's precious time. Wasting it and stressing them out for little or no improvement year on year I think is unethical and parents share most of the responsibility for this but so do hagwons too.

  3. ‘Again, of course commerce and education can co-exist, never said it couldn't.’

    I'm not sure how the word ‘again’ is in any way appropriate here because I've just looked again very carefully and I don’t see any place you've even hinted at it before. On the other hand, you did say ‘If you are honest and do the right thing, surely your business will fail,’ and that with ‘the wider issue of global business generally, [...] the muck tends to rise to the top’ and again, ‘Much of the business world revolves around dishonesty.’

    In fact, I do agree that Korean kids spend too much time studying in classrooms and doing homework, but the alternative – nothing, in other words, being left to their own devices – is certainly not better, and I often think about how kids back in my own country fall into such edifying pursuits as vandalism, drugs and alcohol, premature experimentation with sexuality and gang activity. None of these things even come close being on the radar in this country, and while I won’t give the hagwon industry credit for it, I think we’ll both agree that most Korean kids just don’t have time to get into that kind of trouble. If they are in elementary school, they are taking piano lessons or taekwondo or art or English or Chinese calligraphy, and once in middle and high schools they are cramming for tests.

    It’s the test culture here that has the greatest responsibility for the stress put on kids in this country, and to the extent that the private education industry benefits and even exacerbates that stress, this is really where the true moral dilemmas are to be found. But a school and the teachers can either feed into this paradigm or attempt to mitigate it, can either teach directly to the test and push the kids to get those numbers higher, or instead do actual language instruction that will also result in higher performance both on the standardized exams and also in actual real-life communicative situations. It’s a choice that a school can make, and the parents make the same choice by deciding which among the schools available they will send their kids to.

    I haven’t worked in hagwons for several years but all of them have been in Seoul, so things might be different where you are. I was always instructed to seek balance while writing evaluations – share positive info along with every negative bit. I don’t think that is dishonest, personally, and helps to cut down on natural biases a teacher might carry toward or against certain students for whatever reason. What I don’t know is how well or accurately my critiques were conveyed to the parents once my comments got translated by my Korean co-teachers and the admin staff – many of the schools I worked at were not average neighborhood schools, though, and perhaps your wife’s accounts are more commonly the case than what I experienced.

    I’m not sanguine about the solutions you propose, which seem to be increased regulation – or taking kids out of classrooms altogether. The government, for instance, has no business choosing or approving textbooks used by teachers not under its own employ, and I don’t see anything to be gained by such an idea, or by having government inspectors come around private businesses. The very reason hagwons exist, after all, is the widespread and longstanding perception that the public education system has fallen down on the job and that students need more than what they get for free there. If there is any place where reform needs to happen it is in the public schools, not the private ones.

    1. The 'again' comment was not reserved for that specific subject but for the combination of things like assuming I was in favour of throwing kids out of hagwons, only was interested in high standard students, or was giving up on students who learn at different rates. I never expressed any of those views. The 'again' was the assumed position on things I never said. Anyway, I realise that comment could be taken emotively and argumentatively, and apologise nonetheless.

      I'm sorry, the argument I am reading from you is 'study until late at night or do nothing and take drugs and vandalise.' Summary: The Korean idea is better than the West. I think you do not need to go to such extremes, the middle ground is where I lie. A little bit of our strategy and a little of theirs, that is what I am advocating, by study in more moderation in Korea. I am not even arguing to take kids out of classrooms altogether. If they are going to be there, let us try to make sure it is worth their time whilst also acknowledging that they probably spend too much time studying generally. I agree that the education system as a whole is responsible, but I am focusing on the hagwon part of it here and how it is not helping matters.

      On the regulation point, I don't agree with you but acknowledge that it is a tricky matter to regulate. A government or other professional body that approves learning materials for example would help. It actually doesn't have to be the government, an outside body assessing efficacy of hagwons would give an independent and knowledgeable assessment of hagwons enabling real consumer choice. I just think the waters are too murky for parents to judge just how well hagwons are teaching their children and it is too open to manipulation. I am seeking a way to clear it up a little. I propose regulation as an option, but I am by no means sure on this point as it does have problems like you mention. And, I will concede that public schools are probably a greater problem than the hagwons. It is a cultural thing that needs to change, I was merely focusing on the hagwon element of it.

  4. I don't think the author of this post has any idea what he is talking about, and must be a very poor teacher. Two years of study in a hagwon and still an inability to creatively construct sentences is the norm, not the exception to the rule. If after only two years of study the student is making sentences, they will be barely comprehensible. Korean students need a good year just to get their ear adept at correctly hearing the sounds of English and their mouth correctly producing the pronunciation of English, because their native language is so ridiculously different from English.

  5. I don't think the author of this post has any idea what he is talking about, and must be a very poor teacher. Two years of study in a hagwon and still an inability to creatively construct sentences is the norm, not the exception to the rule. If after only two years of study the student is making sentences, they will be barely comprehensible. Korean students need a good year just to get their ear adept at correctly hearing the sounds of English and their mouth correctly producing the pronunciation of English, because their native language is so ridiculously different from English.

    1. 1. The author of the post is me, but the part you are talking about was based on a post from a foreign Hagwon owner (of extensive experience in Korea).

      2. "Creatively construct sentences", you say. I wrote, "In wangjangnim's own post he taught a student for 2 years and he couldn't make a sentence in English, under pressure or not that is troubling." A tad different.

      3. I've been studying Japanese for 2 months, and I can create basic sentences in Japanese, and could do after probably one month, studying once a week, not everyday. I am no language genius, I'm sure. I also had no formal study in Korean, and managed to speak it, not fluently, but pretty decently after a couple of years.

      These three points make me think that it might be you that has no idea what they are talking about. Haven't replied to a comment on this blog in a while, now I remember how stupid some of them can be.