Gyeongsang province is located on the southeastern corner of the Korean peninsula, near the busy port city of Busan. By area, the province is slighter smaller than Connecticut, at just over 4,000 square miles.
Both have a similar population of roughly 3.5 million people. Both put a strong emphasis on education. And both worlds came together last week for a special visit.
A team of education officials from the province, led by Deputy Superintendent Seong Soo Park, came to Cheshire on May 23 to discuss how, despite being some 7,000 miles apart, the two educational systems could find common ground for productive future collaborations.
The main purpose of the visit, which was a joint effort of the Gyeongsangnam-do Office of Education, Cheshire Public Schools, and ACES International, was to develop the framework for a teacher exchange. Such a program would likely see two teachers from each country spending time abroad learning classroom techniques from a mentor, as well as experiencing a different culture.
While the agreement’s technical details have not yet been finalized, a memorandum of understanding was signed by Cheshire Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Solan and Deputy Superintendent Park.
The agreement is meant to “strengthen their bonds of friendship and cooperation, and commit to the promotion of various educational exchanges for the benefit” of both parties.
Park previously lived in Trumbull as part of an educational exchange program with that district, so he has some familiarity with Connecticut schools. He remarked, through a translator, that he appreciated the long history of public education in the state. Park added that he felt there were many areas of possible cooperation between the respective districts.
“It has been a wonderful experience to visit impressive schools,” including Dodd Middle School, Humiston High School and Norton Elementary, Park said. He also commented on how truck he was by the presence of computers in every classroom, being used by every student — a significant difference from 12 years ago when he was last in Connecticut.
Park’s duties include supervision of over 1,000 schools, over 30,000 teachers, and more than 400,000 students, from infants to high school-aged.
According to an informational packet prepared by the District, Gyeongnam received 6.3 trillion won, or just under $4.8 billion — about 88% of its funding — from the central government in 2023. Connecticut, by contrast, receives about $12 billion yearly from various sources.
One notable difference between the educational systems, Park said, is the heightened emphasis in South Korean schools on “assessments and evaluations.”
This approach seems to have worked well for South Korea by some measures. According to the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, South Korea is one of the world’s “Top Performers” in education.
One important aspect of South Korea’s success, per the NCEE report, is the status of the nation’s teachers. “The passage of the Special Act on the Improvement of Teachers’ Status in 1991 enhanced the status of the teaching profession by guaranteeing job protections, competitive salaries, and authority and input into educational matters. Today, teachers in Korea enjoy high social status, job stability, and high pay.”
Park noted however that due to the strong emphasis on testing it could be “very difficult for educators to develop a student’s personality and express their professional skills.”
He said achieving “more liberty” for teachers was one goal for his district as it looks toward the challenges of the future.
Commenting on Cheshire’s social-emotional learning focus, Park added that it was important to have a balance between the “social pressures” associated with achieving test results and academic performance and the development of creativity and innovative thinking.
To that end, Gyeongnam Education has begun to emphasize individual learning in its promotional materials. A pamphlet prepared by the Office of Education states that among its goals is “fostering independence so that (students) may thrive in any situation,” as well as “education that makes all places a school and all people teachers.”
It is language that syncs with Cheshire public schools’ oft-repeated slogan of creating “life-long learners.”
From Solan’s perspective, taking mutual lessons from the success of South Korean schools is important as well.
“We’re always looking at areas where we can improve on what we’re doing. It’s a global economy, and we want our students to be able to engage and compete on a global scale,” he said.