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Korea: Quality Education for All Children

Education as an “investment for the future” is not a new discourse in Korean society. For the country as a whole, education was a driving force behind the reconstruction and the rapid development after the Korean War in 1950. Although the strong interest in education has contributed positively to the development of the society, its negative aspects have also been pointed out as causing excessive competition in Korean education today. For individuals, education has been considered as a means to achieve social mobility during the rapid economic growth period. Functioning as social ladder, education is often considered narrowly as educational attainment, where the final goal is to enter a top university. Private sector education outside of schooling, including tutoring and group instruction, has expanded excessively in response to parents’ desire for their children to gain a dominant position in the competition. This culture of competition has trickled down to the lives of young children.

The ECEC system in Korea relies heavily on private kindergartens and childcare centers; however, there are wide variations in terms of quality and cost across the centers. In order to address the problem of equity, the government started to intervene by integrating the split system of education and care and by supporting tuition subsidies.

130 ? I-FANG LEE, CHAO-LING TSENG, AND HONG-JUJUN The Nuri Curriculum: Creating a New Landscape

ECEC in Korea has been split into two systems: kindergarten and childcare centers. Kindergarten, serving children aged 3 to 5 years, has been under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, while childcare centers, serving children aged 0 to 5 years, have been under the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Because of the overlapping age groups and similar functions, the duplication inherent to the split system has long been recognized as problematic. The need to integrate the two systems has been highlighted in contemporary reform discussions. In the attempt to overcome the conflicts, the Nuri Curriculum reflects the government’s will to solve the problem of equity.

What has made the Nuri Curriculum acceptable to different stakeholders in the field of ECEC is the shared understanding regarding the importance of the early years. It is believed that quality ECEC is influential for children’s later lives as well as for sustaining the nation’s future global economic competitiveness. Currently, multiple OECD reports and economic analyses on the importance of quality ECEC are merging to mobilize the concept of children as human capital. In particular, the major academic conferences in early childhood education for the last several years in Korea have often highlighted the economic aspects of early childhood education.

The production and implementation of the Nuri Curriculum, reflecting a strong narrative of ECEC as an investment, has emerged in Korea. While the Nuri Curriculum can be seen as addressing issues of quality and affordability of ECEC services, it is important to note that there are various sociocultural barriers that limit the “relandscaping” of equitable and quality ECEC.

The goal of the Nuri Curriculum, as officially stated, is “to improve the quality of early childhood education and to guarantee a fair starting point early in lives” (Ministry of Education, Science and Technology & Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2013, p. 8). The Nuri Curriculum has dual purposes: (1) as a curriculum, it establishes an integrated national early childhood curriculum for ECEC and (2) as a policy, it provides a tuition subsidy for all 3 to 5 year olds who are enrolled in either a kindergarten or a childcare center, regardless of household income. In this way, the Nuri Curriculum is a reformation of the ECEC system pursuing equity in quality and accessibility.

As a tuition voucher, the Nuri Curriculum provided KRW 200,000 (approximately US$200) per month in 2012, which will be increased to KRW 300,000 (approximately US$300) per month by 2016. The tuition subsidy is given directly to the service provider by the local department of education once a child enrolls in the institution. Parents pay the difference between the government subsidy and the tuition. As of 2013, over 91.49 percent of all children aged 3 to 5 years, in both kindergartens and childcare centers, were covered by the policy.

For kindergartens and childcare centers, implementation of the Nuri Curriculum means increased government regulation. The government tuition subsidy goes directly to the service provider, who has to provide three to five hours education/care based on the Nuri Curriculum in the morning. Government inspection, through evaluation, controls the implementation of the curriculum. In addition, in order to improve the financial transparency of private kindergartens and childcare centers, financial regulation is being introduced.

As the curriculum has become universal, institutions competitively provide tuition-based extracurricular activity classes in the afternoon in order to attract parents who might otherwise send their children to private tutors in the afternoon. Although the afternoon class is optional, the increased tuition burdens parents and defeats the purpose of the subsidy.

Equity in terms of quality remains unresolved. Even with a common curriculum, teachers who implement it vary in their training and qualifications. The gap is most salient between kindergartens and childcare centers as well as between public and private institutions. While kindergarten teachers are well educated, those in childcare are generally educated at a lower level; a kindergarten teacher certificate is obtained from the Department of Early Childhood Education at colleges authorized by the Ministry of Education. However, a childcare teacher certificate can be acquired through various routes, including community colleges, professional training institutions, and cyber courses by obtaining 51 credit hours, as listed in the law. Kindergarten teachers need to major in early childhood education or child studies, while childcare teachers do not necessarily need to major in early childhood education.

Therefore, even though contemporary Korean ECEC reforms, such as the Nuri Curriculum, aim to improve the quality of ECEC services and to ensure all children a fair start in their early learning experiences, critical issues of equity and accessibility need to be worked on further.

Critical Reflections on the Stories from East Asia: Ways of Problematizing and Rethinking Education as Investment Narratives

In the quest for quality provision of ECEC, issues concerning affordability, accessibility, and accountability have become global concerns. Currently, the governments in all of the East Asian countries discussed above face similar sociocultural and economic challenges. The governments in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea have come to an interesting synchronization in their efforts to improve their ECEC systems by subscribing to a neoliberal imaginary in the name of increasing accessibility, promising affordability, and ensuring the quality of preschool education for all. Ball has pointed out that “education is just one manifestation of a global reworking of the economic, social, moral, and political foundations of public service provision and the development of new kinds of political responses to social disadvantage” (2012, p. 15). Thus, our collective critical analyses and reflections on the stories from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea are to understand how neoliberal logic is at play to fabricate social imaginaries through a dominant reform narrative of ECEC as investment in East Asia.

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