The education system in Korea is highly rated. It is often placed top (recently beaten by Finland) and has rarely placed outside the top 5. It is also no secret that students in Korea work insanely hard. From elementary school through to high school, the students are almost forced to study, and will spend around 9 or 10 hours a day studying (elementary) to 12+ in high school.
Most people here have passed through the western style of education. Students will start around 9am and finish around 3 (different countries have different times, but its roughly this). That's roughly 6 hours of school. Then after that there will be projects and homework which flesh out the time more to 8 or 9 hours depending on the country that you studied in, and also what you decide to study later on. However, in Korea, students will go to school around 9, finish at 3, do their school homework until they go to Hagwons, which are usually an extra hour of study in a specific field of study, then do the homework for that. This applies to elementary and middle school. So students from the age of 6-15 will study up to 11 hours if they do an hour homework for each of the areas (school and 2 hagwons). It sounds too much, and in honesty it is.
Up to middle school, students are studying more than they get relaxation time. Most of us here remember fondly our time of running out and playing sports with friends, relaxing and watching movies and playing video games. Children here get very little of this down time, but that's the way it is in Korea.
High school is a completely different kettle of fish. My (soon to be) wife's father is a high school teacher, and he is in work from 7 am till 11pm (depending on the rota), and students are doing those hours 6 or 7 days a week. They do their lessons, then they have monitored study time which usually ends with students catching up on sleep, as they have homework and free study too, and are monitored by teachers to DO these hours, and not skimp out on that extra bit of study. High school is between the age of 15-18 (when UK students go to College) and they study around 15 subjects including math, english, science and other languages. It's insane amount of work!
The amount of studying burns students out. Imagine being at university, and studying for 12+ hours a day. It would have KILLED me and many of my friends. We probably would have dropped out, and just said fuck it and accept a job in a field where we work 8 hours and that's it. But the students have no choice, to maintain that top 5 education rating. The adults in Korea also have the mindset that 'we did it, so can they'. Back then, they needed that to help pull them up out of a poverished nation to where they are now. Now, not so much.
To prove that students are burned out, lets look at the top universities. If their high school and below system is so great, surely their university system is ranked highly too.
#37 Seoul National University (SNU) South Korea 82.2
#63 KAIST - Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology South Korea 71.8
#97 Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) South Korea 66.8
Those are the top 3 universities in Korea. There are almost 150 universities here, and their 3rd best just about breaks the top 100. Why do they drop so badly from top 3 for high school and below, and dropping down to those rankings for university. The students are burned out. After 12 years of insane study, the students are done. They can't continue anymore, they are tired with the education system that has sucked the life out of them. Now let's look at the top 10 universities in the world.
#1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) United States 100
#2 University of Cambridge United Kingdom 99.8
#3 Harvard University United States 99.2
#4 UCL (University College London) United Kingdom 98.7
#5 University of Oxford United Kingdom 98.6
#6 Imperial College London United Kingdom 98.3
#7 Yale University United States 97.5
#8 University of Chicago United States 96.3
#9 Princeton University United States 95.4
#10 California Institute of Technology (Caltech) United States 95.1
Now compare that to their high school and below rankings
United States: 17th
United Kingdom: 25th
The education systems with a mid level review end up with the best higher education rankings. The students in these countries are not worked to death, are not forced to study for 12+ hours a day and their universities end up higher. We can see with this small example, how university in these countries are severely out-performing Korea.
Next part I will discuss content and focus in different countries (most likely Kr Vs. UK)
USA shows up 31 times in the top 100, and the UK shows up 18 times in the top 100.
University rankings taken from: http://www.university-list.net/rank.htm
High school education rankings taken from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/dec/07/world-education-rankings-maths-science-reading
Korean rankings taken from: http://www.4icu.org/kr/