South Korean Teacher Makes $4 Million a Year

August 7, 2013

In this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal, journalist and author Amanda Ripley, profiled a teacher in South Korea who makes $4 million a year. Yes … $4 million. His name is Kim Ki-Hoon and he teaches in one of South Korea’s private, after-school tutoring academies called ‘hagwons’ where his lectures are videotaped then available for purchase on the internet. Mr. Ki-Hoon is paid according to his demand (which, evidently, is pretty high) in what Ms. Ripley calls “a free market for teaching talent.”

These private tutors are essentially ‘free agents’, meaning they don’t receive a base salary—their pay is based on performance. So, how is their performance evaluated?

Ripley writes, “Performance evaluations are typically based on how many students sign up for their classes, their students’ test-score growth, and satisfaction surveys given to students and parents.”

In South Korea, students truly are the customers. If you are a highly-respected teacher in a hagwon, countless numbers of students will pay for your services, which, as Mr. Ki-Hoon has demonstrated, can become quite lucrative. Most importantly, they are getting results.

South Korean students routinely outperform students in the United States on international tests. However, this wasn’t always the case. Ripley writes, “Sixty years ago, most South Koreans were illiterate; today, South Korean 15-year-olds rank No. 2 in the world in reading, behind Shanghai. The country now has a 93% high-school graduation rate, compared with 77% in the U.S.”

A startling statistic that Ripley uncovers is that South Korean parents spend $17 billion a year on tutoring services similar to Ki-Hoon’s, while American parents spend approximately $15 billion a year on video games. According to Ripley, in South Korea, “if parents aren’t engaged, that is considered a failure of the educators, not the family.”

So, what can the United States learn from high-performing countries like South Korea when it comes to educating our kids? Ripley has embarked on finding the answer to this question in her upcoming book, The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way, which will be released on August 13.

Ms. Ripley will be providing keynote remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s upcoming education summit, Connecting the Dots, on September 17 to share what she has learned while researching the book. The annual summit will bring together leaders in business, education, and workforce development to discuss issues which are vital to America’s competitiveness.

Register here.

Mark D'Alessio is manager of communications for the USCCF's Education and Workforce program.