In-soo Song

Ashoka Fellow
In-soo Song Fellow
South Korea
Fellow since 2015
This description of In-soo Song's work was prepared when In-soo Song was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.

Introduction

In-soo restores the primacy of public education to ensure fairness in the education system. For the past four decades, the public education system in Korea has suffered from ever-exacerbating competition culture and the impact of shadow education. Shadow education refers to the activities outside of the schooling system that mimic (“shadow”) activities performed in school. In-soo launched and leads the country’s first nation-wide grassroots movement to innovate the field of education, addressing the issue of excessive competition for university entrance exams and its side-effect of excessive dependence on shadow education, moving to a more level playing field for all socioeconomic classes. To tackle the problem, In-soo employs a unique holistic solution that combines systematic reforms with programs that guide individual households to make wise and sustainable decisions regarding the education and schooling of the future generation.

The New Idea

South Korean society has achieved rapid economic growth over a relatively short period of time. The cost of this growth has been the heightened sense of competition amongst Korean citizens, and a deep worry of falling behind in this competitive environment. Fueled by the anxieties of parents, the private supplementary tutoring market, referred to as “shadow education,” has become so overheated that it has even replaced public education. This has had significant societal cost, with many parents and students suffering from financial burden and emotional and physical stresses. In-soo, as a long-time education reformer, envisions a new system, created by the citizens themselves, who will be empowered to restore the proper place for public education and ensure fairness in the educational sphere. Before In-soo’s work, Korean society did not believe this problem could be solved through a civic movement. Koreans viewed shadow education as an individual choice made within the larger socio-structural contexts of growing dissatisfaction with public education, and a job market that prioritizes specific criteria, like graduating from a handful of prestigious universities. These issues have been considered untouchable areas for individuals to tackle. In-soo chose to break away from the ill-functioning pattern of “civic movements with no citizens” led by educational experts and policymakers, and started a new grassroots movement led by ordinary citizens, including the parents who constitute more than half of the country’s population.

In-soo believes South Korean parents hold the key to solving this problem in the new paradigm: parents who were initially viewed as the “perpetrators or victims of excessive shadow education” were given a new identity as the key to resolving the education problems. In-soo purposefully used the issue of shadow education, which all South Korean parents can easily identify with, as leverage for broader engagement with citizens. He has the unique goal of creating a world where no parent has to spend a dollar for shadow education and not one student will feel compelled to commit suicide due to excessive study burdens by the year 2022. In-soo is helping parents to become more self-aware of and get rid of their own old mindsets, which can then further motivate and empower them to take a lead in fixing and changing the corresponding old systems and practices around South Korea’s deep-rooted education problems. In-soo founded a new organization, The World Without Worries about Shadow Education (WWWSE), as a knowledge sharing platform and network hub to provide new channels and opportunities for ordinary citizens to contribute to major educational changes. In this new paradigm, stakeholders who once held individual battles can now see how they are affected by each other, and can therefore imagine a new education system for the country through collaboration. In-soo created an offline space as an enabling environment where parents, teachers, education experts, journalists and even shadow education professionals can come together to clearly understand each other’s role and devise solutions. The new types of information and insights from these offline gatherings were made available online as well, facilitating nationwide discussions and participation. The participants have even voluntarily spread out into 40 different local networks across the country.

In order to meet the desperate need and aspirations for change in the educational field in South Korea, WWWSE is expanding its national influence, financed purely by the donations from its over 3,700 active members whose monthly membership fees cover most of its annual budget of about 1.3 billion Korean Won (approximately $1.2 million). Based on the active participation of ordinary citizens, WWWSE carried out a series of strategic interventions involving activities of petition for legislation and campaigns for education reforms. In 2009, In-soo and his organization made a critical contribution to the 2 trillion Korean Won (approximately $1.9 billion) reduction in the total households’ expenditures on shadow education by changing the admission requirements and criteria of the foreign language high schools and special-purpose high schools in South Korea. Also, in 2014, a new law was passed at the National Assembly as a direct result of his organization’s legislation movement, which called for the prohibition of “preceding education” -the teaching and testing of students ahead of the regular academic curriculum in public education spheres. In-soo also emphasizes the need for change on the ground, within schools, in addition to these institutional and policy level changes. Along with his organization, he is leading a national campaign called “Stop Lining Up Our Students” which identifies the long-standing ill practices in schools that have reinforced school’s unhealthy culture of excessive competition. Such a culture has encouraged discrimination and has led to degrading treatments towards students with low academic performance. In-soo and his organization are working with 16 city and provincial education offices throughout the country, recently signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Gangwon Provincial Education Office and North Jolla Provincial Education Office, as channels for disseminating new information and wholesale partners to expand their influence around the country.

The Problem

Excessive competition for university entrance exams affects the lives of children starting from when they are toddlers. More and more parents send their children to English-speaking preschools, international middle schools, science/foreign language and other special-purpose high schools, and eventually the so-called “SKY Universities (Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University)”, a pipeline that is assumed to be the only means to ensure the success of their children. Most South Koreans agree that it is easier to get a better job with a good educational background. As such, education is closely connected to economic achievements in South Korea. Under such circumstances, most students inevitably suffer from an inferiority complex or fear of failure, except for only a handful of top performing students who can make it to the top-tier schools/universities. According to Statistics Korea, four out of ten teenagers from the age of 13 to 19 who have felt a suicidal impulse answered that grades and admissions were the cause of said impulse. This is an example that directly shows how much teenagers are suffering from academic work and stress. In addition, according to the 2013 Comprehensive Survey of Children in Korea by the Ministry of Health & Welfare, children over the age of 9 gave 60 points (average: 80 points) out of 100 for the quality of life. This was lowest figure among OECD member states. The shadow education industry rapidly grew by preying upon such social sentiments of anxiety. 2013 statistics by the Ministry of Education show the shadow education market in South Korea amounting to 18.5 trillion Korean Won (approximately $17 billion), which is about 2% of South Korea’s GDP.

Behind the unnecessary and excessive shadow education sparked by fierce competition, there is the crumbling public education system. With the diminished trust in the country’s public education system, more parents feel uncertain whether their children will be able to go to a good university and get a good job if they were to “just go to school” without receiving supplementary tutoring. This anxiety has opened the way for shadow education to replace public education, beyond just complementing it. Some parts of the public education system itself have also lost the balance in fairness, by including academic contents that are outside of the regular public education curriculum into their admission tests. Therefore, without fundamental changes in the current public education system, South Korea cannot ensure equal access to quality education, but instead promotes unfair competition in the name of education. In the meantime, citizens can easily feel overwhelmed when confronted with the complicated task of rebuilding a public education system. However, stakeholders including school parents, teachers, policy makers and education experts must all collaborate to induce systematic change in the South Korean society. But, such an opportunity for collaboration has not been provided. Existing civic movements have strived to solve various education issues of their interest, but no organization has attempted to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problem of university admissions competition and the myriads of other related problems upfront. In-soo believed a “master organizer” was needed to form a new education system by bringing these different stakeholders together.

Historically, South Korea is also entering a critical phase. Students with good grades from an education system that focuses on cramming and memorization are no longer regarded as talents. There are new signs that companies now focus on qualities such as autonomous decision-making, character, creativity, and problem-solving skills that cannot be shown in academic grades. South Korean society needs a revolution that goes against outdated systems such as the poor quality of public education, hierarchical university rankings, and an emphasis on educational background in the recruitment market.

The Strategy

In-soo’s core strategy in addressing the problem of education is two-fold: first, when it comes to the behavior of parents making unreasonable choices about shadow education, his approach is to inform them of how the shadow education market actually operates. The informative approach dispels the miscomprehension that leads the parents to make unwise choices. As for the systematic and structural problems that cannot be resolved through individual households’ choices alone, In-soo’s approach is to create lasting, meaningful changes in policies and practices. In-soo believes changing the prevailing thought pattern itself – namely, the fact that parents themselves prefer unhealthy policies and practices to healthy, sustainable ones – is the first step to uproot those policies and practices. What he proposes is a virtuous cycle of values: conscientious citizens gather to effect real changes in education policies, and those policies can help shape the public mindset to produce even more conscientious citizens. Accordingly, In-soo has mobilized and collaborated with multiple stakeholders to ignite change in all three arenas – mindsets, practices and systems - which have been mutually reinforcing factors behind the excessive admissions competition and shadow education burdens.

Above all, In-soo saw the participation of ordinary citizens - including parents themselves - on a large scale was the key to solving this widespread problem. This is why he used the term “shadow education” in the name of his organization, even though what he aims to change is much broader and more profound. Slogans such as “Reformation of Public Education,” “Abolition of Admissions Competition” and “Abolition of School Prestige Society” can be regarded as big discourses that dismiss the participation of ordinary people who feel either indifferent or lethargic towards them. On the other hand, the issue of “shadow education” is a problem that feels close to almost every citizen as one of the choices a person makes in a daily life, for which parents and children alike need to allocate a substantial portion of their limited resources and time. In-soo believed that by using shadow education - an important issue of private sphere - as a leverage point, he could bring parents into a movement to resolve the key problems in the public education and the social structure (e.g. excessive competition for college admission, ineffective public schooling system, rigid pecking order of secondary and higher education institutions, societal overemphasis on an individual’s educational background) that are in fact the root causes of the problematic shadow education.

First, In-soo carefully designed the main principle of his movement to be seen as a rational and empirical approach in the eyes of ordinary people, staying away from being ideologically charged or demonizing the shadow education industry as a whole. Instead, In-soo provided the assistance many parents needed to become reasonable and informed consumers for shadow education as an entry point to his movement. WWWSE created the nation’s first lecture series program regarding shadow education issues, of which chief example is “Lighthouse School.” Available both online and offline, “Lighthouse School” does exactly what its names suggests – it helps parents navigate the uncertain path to successful education, by answering some of the most bothering questions that parents have regarding shadow education. For instance, In-soo tried to provide answers to the most frequently asked questions about shadow education such as “Isn’t preceding education necessary for difficult subjects like math?” and “Shouldn’t I follow the roadmap of shadow education institutes to successfully enter a special-purpose high school?” with objective and reliable data in an efforts to demystify the truths and untruths about shadow education. Each year, 400 participants sign up for “Lighthouse School” and now accumulatively 30,000 South Korean parents liberate themselves from the sway of shadow education services, whose chief marketing strategy consists in convincing the parents of the necessity of shadow education to ensure their children’s academic success. In addition, In-soo’s organization operates “No Worry Counseling Net,” an online counseling service that offers various education programs such as advising on ways to study without depending on shadow education. The next stage involves assigning “ambassador” roles to citizens including parents who have participated in various education programs of WWWSE and have gone through their own internal mindset shifts. For example, “Lighthouse School” graduates hold Lighthouse gatherings with local members in their own communities. Currently, such Lighthouse groups hold biweekly or monthly gatherings in 40 cities across the country. To effectively tap into the existing networks of parents in the neighborhoods, “The World Without Worries about Shadow Education” recommends its members to purchase booklets at a minimal price that contain demystifying information about shadow education and also useful insights from the lecture series such as the ones with eye-catching titles of “What a Waste: Fees for Shadow Education Institutes!”, “What a Waste: Vain Efforts with English!” and “My Future Career Discovered!” and pass them onto their neighbors and friends. As a result of these ambassador parents’ voluntary participation, these booklets have reached 2 million people in South Korea. These activities have produced positive results in transforming the parents into rational, well-informed consumers, as can be seen from the discernible decrease in the household expenditures on shadow education, and certain forms of shadow education services are visibly on the ebb.

At the same time, In-soo has transformed the current school admissions system, which as it stands now does little but reduce the role of public education. One of the structural problems that fuels the demand for unnecessary shadow education is the way certain schools test students on academic content that are not taught within the existing public education curriculum, instigating the recourse to shadow education services thereby. For instance, as some foreign language high schools started using very advanced levels of English as part of their admissions tests, even elementary school students were affected, with many rushing to receive shadow education to prepare themselves to learn higher-level English that they could not learn in middle school through public education. Thanks to the initiative of WWWSE to rectify this situation, the admissions systems of these foreign language high schools have gone through significant changes to reflect the actual public education curriculum, and as a result, the nation’s total households expenditures on shadow education saw its first ever reduction in the last 20 years.

In-soo believes that if the admissions systems of high schools and universities as well as the recruitment criteria of major corporations are changed at policy level, this will lead to a multiplying effect. In this line of thinking, there are seven specific goals that his organization would put into practice, to achieve the most strategic interventions in key areas: 1) Enacting Special Law for Promoting the Normalization of Public Education to prevent schools from teaching materials in advance that would normally appear years later 2) Deterring the private English education market to eliminate unproven early-childhood English education advantages in our society 3) Introducing a high school system with no hierarchy to alleviate the pain of admissions competition among middle school students, but ensuring good quality education so that all students are prepared for the future 4) Transforming the current format of school exams from multiple choice to essay/writing 5) Improving the hierarchical system of universities based on the grades of its incoming students 6) Promoting “100 Good Universities” that students can choose to enter based on their true interests and 7) Prohibiting discriminatory recruitment practice of companies favoring only applicants with top academic backgrounds. So far, the first goal has come to realization successfully. For the rest, In-soo is again engaging a wide range of citizens including parents as the key change agents, taking advantage of the fact that many of the lawmakers themselves are parents in order to broaden the basis of social consensus around these issues.

As the organization’s 7 goals are meant to create a huge change in the society’s structure and environment, their realization surely will take time. Accepting the citizens’ demands for immediate action instead of waiting for legal or institutional changes, In-soo also focuses on making change at school sites to address the practices that require amendments. For example, responding to the outdated and inhumane practices of schools that line up students according to their grades for school meals, WWWSE conducted a national field survey and identified 18 major cases of such “line-up practices,” and is currently executing a national campaign that demands 16 municipal and provincial education offices and school authorities to reform such practices.

In-soo has detailed plans to overcome the four major obstacles (excessive competition for college admission, ineffective public schooling system, rigid pecking order of secondary and higher education institutions, societal overemphasis on an individual’s educational background) in South Korean through changes in the dimensions of mindset, policy and practice. He is encouraging the participation of more institutions and individuals to execute such plans and strategies in a full scale. To create an influential hub of the necessary collective effort, In-soo from the start nicknamed his organization “Citizens’ Ministry of Education.” Hoping WWWSE to serve as the citizen sector equivalent of the public ministry, he set the goal of hiring at least 50 staff members – 10% of the number of civil servants hired by the Ministry of Education – to ensure he has enough manpower to create large-scale impacts. Already 30 staff members are working with him, which is not a small figure for an NGO. Furthermore, WWWSE currently has 3,700 supporters, 30,000 newsletter subscribers, and 36,000 online members. In addition, it has recently signed MOUs with the education offices in Gangwon Province and North Jeolla Province to increase public participation by providing various contents and programs to schools in the respective areas.

The Person

In-soo was greatly influenced by his mother. She was the breadwinner of his poor family, and expected her teenage son to behave like a responsible adult – In-soo could not afford to play the rebel as most teenagers do. His mother overcame financial difficulties with new ideas and was the “first” to do many things in his neighborhood. She opened the first clothing store, the first stationary store, and the first chicken business in his town. Many neighbors learned from her business tactics. In-soo believes his poor past helped him build character. Because of the financial difficulties, however, he was forced to go to a teacher’s college, which requested the lowest tuition fee, although he had never considered becoming an educator.

In-soo started his career as a teacher in the nineties. At his first school, he was ordered to gather a total of 3 million won in illegal donations from the school parents of his home class. Such donations were used to pay for self-study sessions, school principal benefits, faculty meals, and travel expenses. In-soo refused to participate in such unethical practices and did not collect donations. As he continued to refuse unjust demands, he embroiled himself into serious, bitter conflicts with school authorities, and realized the importance of working in harmony with other people, while still being able to make the right choices. He came to understand the impossibility of working in isolation – it was too idealistic of him to believe he could guard his values against unjust customs and practices all by himself. The experience lead him to bring more teachers to participate in his efforts to change the school. The next year, he started gathering teachers with a shared vision of “good teacher, good education,” and allied with other small- and medium-sized Christian teacher groups, to launch <Good Teacher Movement> in August 2000 with 1,200 teachers. As the movement not only restored a strong sense of mission in the participating teachers, but also responded to the widespread distrust of schoolteachers, <Good Teacher Movement> was welcomed and praised by the public at the outset. As he took up more responsibilities, In-soo eventually left his teaching job to work as a full-time Director of <Good Teacher Movement>. It was a difficult decision. The movement, however, was soon confronted by a major challenge – it was nearly impossible for thirteen distinct groups and organizations to work together for a common vision seamlessly. Members debated over the issue of priority: Were they to focus on the value of togetherness and solidarity, or on the concrete, real-world action to effect education reforms? Rather than pretending such internal tensions did not exist, In-soo chose to open the debate up for open conversation. He organized a committee to address this question, and consulted an external organization to figure out the best solution for the situation. Eventually, <Good Teacher Movement> as a joint organization drafted a Statement of Vision that focused on the balance of autonomy and unity, thereby securing the foundation to evolve into a full-fledged organization with a concrete mission. The experience proved transformative for In-soo as well. As the leader of <Good Teacher Movement>, he demonstrated his aptitude as an active problem-solver in the education sector as well as the director of a non-profit organization. While working for <Good Teacher Movement>, he led a variety of campaigns and projects, including the home visit program (whereby teachers were encouraged to visit the families of each and every student in their home class); the guardianship program (that matches a teacher with a student to serve as a personal mentor); the course evaluation system (with students themselves as the evaluators); the letter-writing campaign (which made teachers to write letters to all parents to explain they would not take bribes or small gifts, as was customary in the eighties and nineties). Above all, In-soo assisted in adopting the teacher evaluation system that focused on the satisfaction rate of students and parents, as well as the principal appointment policy so that a teacher acknowledged by parents and the local society could become recommended for a principal position. Such principals are now leading innovation schools, and the new systems he has helped set up are creating various social impacts.

In 2003, he left <Good Teacher Movement> to another leader and started looking for new ways to change the education system. He came to the conclusion that university admissions competition was a problem that had to be solved. At the same time, however, knowing that it would be a long, painstaking struggle that might last several decades, he was reluctant to actually initiate the project. During a church retreat, the pastor during his sermon mentioned that the university entrance competition and shadow education problems had not been solved because no one person in the whole country had so far taken it as their calling and dedicated themselves entirely to solve this issues. In-soo was shocked to hear this sermon. Having determined that it was his calling to become the person to solve the nationa-wide problem himself, he established WWWSE. At the same time, he knew that the battle could not be won if he fought by himself. He therefore chose Ms. Jee-Hee Yoon, a prominent parents’ movement leader, as co-leader of the new movement he was embarking on.

As a social entrepreneur for the past twenty years, In-soo has solved serious education issues in Korean society. Amidst a complicated conundrum with shadow education, college entrance competition, and academic elitism issues, he strives to make his vision become the new norm of the society. At the same time, he has revised and supplemented his strategies by humbly listening to various opinions from stakeholders.