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What Makes an Academic Superpower?

Who can resist reading an article with the headline "The $4 Million Teacher" (The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 3)? The essay in question describes how Kim Ki-hoon earns $4 million annually for the services he provides in South Korea's private, after-school tutoring academies that are known as hagwons.

The hagwons are a manifestation of the obsession of South Koreans to get their children into the best universities. Hagwon tutors who get low survey ratings or attract too few students are placed on probation. Those who do not improve are fired. Supporters maintain this creates incentives for teachers to perform. I have no doubt that such a system can produce students who post impressive scores on any standardized test. But whether this makes South Korea an "academic superpower" is debatable because there is a distinct difference between a testing meritocracy and a talent meritocracy.

In the final analysis, I think a talent meritocracy is far more important. It is a product of intellectual capital, which determines how well knowledge affects economic development and prosperity. In this regard, the U.S. is No. 5 in the world, with South Korea No. 21, according to National Intellectual Capital: A comparison of 40 countries (Springer, 2010) by Leif Edvinsson of the University of Lund in Sweden. Only Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark, in that order, bested the U.S. Edvinsson attributes rankings largely to the willingness of countries to invest the highest percentage of their gross domestic product in education.

Intellectual capital - not test scores - is what provides one country with a competitive advantage over another. Yet it is the latter that is assumed to be a proxy for the former. I don't agree. If schools in the U.S. are as bad as critics assert, then why do they graduate students who go on to make valuable contributions to the economy? I'm not an apologist for all public schools. They range from excellent to execrable, as I've often written before. But the worst schools are almost always in neighborhoods with appalling rates of poverty. Students enter kindergarten already four months behind in reading and math, and never catch up. The huge deficits they bring to class through no fault of their own are hard to remedy by even the best teachers. It's more than mere coincidence that the four countries ahead of the U.S. in intellectual capital are countries with low rates of childhood poverty.

Nevertheless, we persist in the fiction that schools can be Lourdes, where miracles are performed on a daily basis by extraordinary teachers. The results that high flying schools produce are indeed impressive and praiseworthy, but I do not believe they are venues for intellectual capital.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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