Here is a great essay by former APS teacher Cindy Lou Howe, who is now an education and diversity consultant in Atlanta. She taught in Atlanta Public Schools from 2003-2007 and in South Korea from 2008-2012.
By Cindy Lou Howe
As Atlanta kids returned to the classroom last month, some friends and I gathered at an Inman Park taqueria for lunch. Two of us are former Atlanta Public School teachers and two of us are currently teaching. I am a former APS teacher who just returned from teaching overseas in South Korea.
As we talked, we discovered striking similarities in our teaching experiences in the U.S. and South Korea. Despite being separated by different cultures, education systems and continents, our experiences dispelled many myths about America’s so-called “failing” public education system and South Korea’s education “model.”
Myth #1: “Korean parents are more committed to their child’s academic success.”
Among industrialized nations, South Korea’s parents routinely top per-child education spending, shelling out $1.8 billion annually to supplement public school curriculum with expensive after-school academies. In contrast, my friends and I lamented our Atlanta students who often come to school without even paper or a number two pencil. For these kids, they are literally missing the tools necessary to succeed.
During my years in APS, I worked at a school whose zip code produced the most prison inmates in the state. My students faced seemingly insurmountable odds; poverty, drugs and crime. That said, when their parents were highly involved in their learning, despite the difficult circumstances, my students performed well.
In Korea, many of my wealthy students also struggled. Eventually I realized that in terms of learning outcomes, Korean parents who work long hours to provide a luxurious lifestyle are frequently as absent as a single parent working two minimum wage jobs in Atlanta. Time and time again we see that parental involvement is the foundation for student success.
Myth #2: “The quality of teachers at overseas schools is higher.”
In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama praised South Korea’s education system and its teachers’ role as “nation builders.” Indeed, Korean culture has historically viewed teachers with respect. In the West, many believe that a private school education trumps a public one. Combine these two factors, and it is not surprising that a friend of mine assumed that Korea’s elite international schools attract the world’s best teachers.
That was not my experience. While working in one of Korea’s top independent schools, most of my colleagues were exiles from American classrooms. Frankly speaking, many would not survive one day in an Atlanta classroom. Teaching abroad, I was grateful for the training and accountability I learned at APS because I knew how to create compelling lessons despite a dearth of resources, and I could identify struggling students and support them.
Ultimately, there is no latitude or longitude of teacher quality. Although many thousands of miles and dollars separate Atlanta public school and Korea private school classrooms, parents on both sides of the Pacific should know that you are essentially getting the same teacher.
Myth #3: “Korean children must be really smart and well-behaved.”
Finally, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching, is that, simply put, kids are kids. There is no geographical or racial bias that yields “good” or “bad” children. Just as some of my Korean students struggled with basic math concepts, I saw students excel across all academic disciplines in southwest Atlanta.
All of this is not to say that America can’t learn a thing or two from South Korea. For instance, among the 15-year-olds in 61 countries who participated in the most recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests in reading, math and science, Korea ranked 1st, 2nd and 4th, respectively. More importantly, 97 percent of Korean 25- to 34-year olds graduate from high school. Of course, the Korean model yields less admirable outcomes, too. In my experience, many Korean students lack creativity and basic problem solving skills. The upshot? Once again, American and Asian education systems can learn from each other.
We, as Atlantans and Americans, need to stop disparaging our schools. Yes, huge challenges persist, but the good news is that children inherently want to learn. As a new academic year is underway, let’s support our kids, our fellow parents and teachers. Let’s celebrate our strengths while being open to successful foreign models. For the first time in 10 years, I am not be in a classroom this fall, but I still believe in the transformative potential of Atlanta Public Schools.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog