Amanda Ripley

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How to Stop Studying: Korea’s Quest

22nd Sep 2011 posted in Education

When I visited Korea for the book this summer, I met a teacher who makes $4 million a year; I interviewed kids who study 16 hours a day; I had long, fascinating talks with principals, politicians and teachers, all of whom patiently and generously tutored me in the ways of the Korean education system.

But the strangest moment came when I did a ride-along with the local study-crackdown squad. Check out my new Time Magazine story about Korea’s crusade to get its kids to chill out.

On a wet Wednesday evening in Seoul, six government employees gather at the office to prepare for a late-night patrol. The mission is as simple as it is counterintuitive: to find children who are studying after 10 p.m. And stop them.

In South Korea, it has come to this. To reduce the country’s addiction to private, after-hours tutoring academies (called hagwons), the authorities have begun enforcing a curfew — even paying citizens bounties to turn in violators.

The raid starts in a leisurely way. We have tea, and I am offered a rice cracker. Cha Byoung-chul, a midlevel bureaucrat at Seoul’s Gangnam district office of education, is the leader of this patrol. I ask him about his recent busts, and he tells me about the night he found 10 teenage boys and girls on a cram-school roof at about 11 p.m. “There was no place to hide,” Cha recalls. In the darkness, he tried to reassure the students. “I told them, ‘It’s the hagwon that’s in violation, not you. You can go home.’”

Cha smokes a cigarette in the parking lot. Like any man trying to undo centuries of tradition, he is in no hurry. “We don’t leave at 10 p.m. sharp,” he explains. “We want to give them 20 minutes or so. That way, there are no excuses.” Finally, we pile into a silver Kia Sorento and head into Daechi-dong, one of Seoul’s busiest hagwon districts. The streets are thronged with parents picking up their children. The inspectors walk down the sidewalk, staring up at the floors where hagwons are located — above the Dunkin’ Donuts and the Kraze Burgers — looking for telltale slivers of light behind drawn shades.

At about 11 p.m., they turn down a small side street, following a tip-off. They enter a shabby building and climb the stairs, stepping over an empty chip bag. On the second floor, the unit’s female member knocks on the door. “Hello? Hello!” she calls loudly. A muted voice calls back from within, “Just a minute!” The inspectors glance at one another. “Just a minute” is not the right answer. Cha sends one of his colleagues downstairs to block the elevator. The raid begins.

You can find the rest of the story here.