South Korea: tutors can be millionaires

Education columnist Bill Costello commented on the free market for cram school tutoring in South Korea. A crude bottom-line on how the Korean tutoring market works is to look at top-teacher compensation (outlined in this July 2, 2009 Reuters report):

The top online math tutor, Woo Hyeong-cheol, makes $4 million/year

The top online English tutor, Rose Lee, expects to make $7 million/year (pictured lecturing above)

In the tutoring market the competition is intense to deliver results, so the tutoring companies innovate at a feverish pace. They use everything they can think of to achieve the best results for the lowest per student cost: software learning aids, networked learning/lectures, and very importantly — superb teachers.

The highest paid instructors in Korea last year earned about the same as top sports stars. How? By tutoring 50,000 students in a “virtual classroom” using innovative technologies and sharply honed teaching skills. At least that is how Woo Hyeong-cheol produces the results and income that pays his $4 million. I don’t know how Rose Lee teaches, but it must be similar in scale — thousands of students in a “class”.

Korea seems to have discovered that teacher quality is (much) more important than class size. During his 2010 South Korea trip, Costello interviewed Lim Cheolil, associate professor of education at Seoul National University, who explained that

South Korea actively raises the status of teaching as a profession by doing two things. First, it makes entry to teacher training very selective. Teachers are recruited from the top five percent of each high school graduate class. Second, teachers are paid generous starting salaries of 141 percent of GDP per capita, which is significantly above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 95 percent.

Here they are discussing Korea’s conventional classroom instruction — where it seems that valuing teacher quality produces results (I’ve not yet found any objective studies demonstrating relative quality of the Korean schools). Bill Costello again:

Making teacher training selective and paying teachers high starting salaries attracts the strongest candidates to the teaching profession,which is important because teacher quality significantly impacts student outcomes.

South Korea is able to pay teachers high starting salaries because it employs relatively fewer teachers than other nations. As a result, the student-teacher ratio in South Korea is 30:1, compared to the OECD average of 17:1.

It’s a smart tradeoff because studies show that teacher quality has significantly more impact on student outcomes than class size. Dollar for dollar, it’s better to attract a small number of outstanding teachers with high starting salaries than to attract a large number of mediocre teachers with lower starting salaries—even if that means having a high student-teacher ratio.

In summary, unlike American teachers unions who are focused on inputs, seniority, benefits and class sizes, the tutoring competitors are focused on outputs = results.