From Culturally-Driven to Market-Driven Academic Success: Korean “Cram Schools” in the New York Metropolitan Area

By Jean Park

Editors' Note: This is part of a roundtable series,“New Histories of Education in New York City.” For an introduction and overview, click here.

In our final post, Jean Park explodes the “model minority” myth by showing how “cultural” patterns of academic success in Korean American New York are in fact predicated on the existence of academic-support institutions. The “hakwon,” or cram academy, an institution imported from Korea to Queens, guides students into selective New York City high schools, revealing that success in New York City public schooling relies not on “grit,” “work ethic” or the right “culture” at home, but on structural factors that shape opportunities.

Fifty years ago, a New York Times piece titled “Success Story: Japanese-American Style,” became a harbinger for the “model minority” label and its cultural explanation for Asian-American success that still persists today. The author of the piece, William Petersen, attributed Japanese Americans’ successes in spite of the overt racism and persecution they experienced just two decades prior to “their meaningful links with an alien culture.”[1] In recent months, The New York Times and the New Yorker provided more space for discourse surrounding “the invisible Asian;”[2] while giving room for debate amongst scholars, the comments by readers of such publications betrayed their belief in the model minority stereotype, and the continued emphasis on culture as the basis for the achievement of Asian-Americans.

The model minority stereotype is particularly vexing to unhinge from the psyche of the broader American discourse on achievement because it appears to flatter and motivate an entire categorized racial group by assuming its intelligence, work ethic, and obedience as exhibited in the workplace and the school. Though educators and scholars repeatedly state and show how it is a misleading generalization by reminding the broader public of the many distinct cultures, languages, beliefs, histories, tensions within and between each Asian group, the challenge of dissipating the model minority as myth lies in the fact that it covers such groups under one monolithic entity of “Asian-American,” leaving to our imaginations just who these Asians are, and how similar they are to each other in their drive to succeed.

While the breadth and lack of depth characterizing the model minority stereotype remains a problem, the most entrenched element of the stereotype is its emphasis on culture. Confucian values and its hierarchical structure are often cited for the focus on filial piety and academic achievement among East Asians; however, Confucian values cannot be the sole explanation for Asian Americans’ apparent achievements. Moreover, a belief in educational attainment for upward social mobility is not unique to East Asians and their “culture,” but is and has been shared among nearly all immigrant and minority groups. Considering the many shortcomings of relying on a cultural explanation for so-called Asian-American achievement, it is my hope to deemphasize links with an “alien culture,” and instead focus on more structural, tangible, and less tenuous explanations for academic success. Indeed, studies find that “the average scores of Asian American students are relatively higher than those of other student demographics because Asian students typically participate in supplemental education programs that provide additional learning and practice.”[3] By locating the central role an additional academic institution plays in the perceived school success amongst Asian Americans, we can better understand the structural foundations of teaching and learning rather than rely on cultural explanations. More specifically, I will focus on those structural foundations of teaching and learning that directly attribute to the academic success among Korean-American students in New York City’s public schools.

Rather than assimilate to statewide standards and practices of academic preparation, Korean immigrant parents laid foundations for an educational institution imported from their native country. This educational import did not so much “fit” into American practices and standards as much as it solidified and heightened the stakes for academic achievement as measured by test scores. The heightened stakes contributed to a market that demanded more testing preparation centers with the ample supply and continued reliance on metrics, standardized exams to prove how effectively American students were learning. The imported educational institution -– formally known as a “hakwon” and colloquially known as a “cram school” –- is the formative site at which Korean immigrant communities in the New York metropolitan area were able to reform the structure and practices of American schooling provided vis-à-vis cultural transmission. That is, rather than reject the American system of public schooling, or on the other hand, wholeheartedly assimilate to it, Korean immigrant parents raising children in New York City neighborhoods established and supported an auxiliary educational system that instilled Korean strategies and methods of teaching that subsequently accommodated and elevated standards of success in New York City public schools.

With the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, which officially lifted the ban on Asian immigration, the number of South Korean immigrants entering the United States steadily increased, eventually reaching 30,000 in 1976 and continuing to exceed that number annually until 1990.[4] Many South Korean immigrants arriving in the 1970s took residence in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens. Korean parents with school-aged children translated the educational climate in ways familiar to their former, native schooling experiences through hakwons, literally translated as “private educational institutions.” With South Korea experiencing tremendous economic growth in the 1970s, competition for high-profile positions secured by attending the top colleges and universities became increasingly fierce – a trend that has only become more virulent. International math and reading tests consistently show South Korean students as top scorers, and the country has one of the world’s lowest high school drop out rates and highest college completion rates. However, this international acclaim comes with a heavy price. In 2013, the Washington Post examined this cost and found that South Koreans “poured $19 billion into private tutoring [hakwons]…more than half the sum spent on public education”; moreover, it also found that “the academic intensity that fueled the country's economic rise is now blamed for a high suicide rate and a plummeting birth rate, as prospective parents weigh the costs of educating children.”[5] To better regulate the hakwon industry, South Korea’s Education Ministry began implementing policies to reform its “test-dominated college admission system” by following a “U.S.-style process that also consider[ed] talents, creativity and independent learning.”[6] Taking its cues from American admissions officers and methods, the South Korean government tried to curtail the excessive weight placed on rankings and test-scores for college entrance. However, just as the South Korean Education Ministry sought to implement American-style reforms to regulate the hakwon system, Korean immigrant parents in New York sought hakwons that took its cues from and integrated themselves into the American public school system. In this way, their children would get the best of both worlds – the instruction and hours would be better regulated with less intensity and demands on their children, while the structure and practices of the Korean hakwon would give their children more practice and familiarity with standardized tests for specialized school admissions and college entrance in the United States.

Given that hakwons, providing private instruction, were nearly required for South Korean students to compete in their public schools, South Korean immigrant parents viewed hakwon attendance as a similar requirement for their American-born children in the American educational landscape. Prior to 1986, “only a handful” of hakwons were listed in Korean yellow-pages, but ten years later, there were over three dozen listed in the New York area, many of which operated as independently-owned, small businesses.[7] The proliferation of hakwons in New York was due in part to its targeted advertising in Korean-language newspapers – namely, by printing lists of “their graduates who have been accepted to New York City’s specialized high schools” and prestigious colleges – and by word-of-mouth.[8] Buttressed by parents’ belief that attendance at one of the “Big Three” of New York’s specialized high schools would greatly increase the chances of their students getting into top-ranked colleges and universities, hakwons became firmly entrenched in the community for their sole focus on test preparation, particularly its focus on New York’s SHSAT – Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.[9]

While the main draw of hakwons was its emphasis on SHSAT test preparation, hakwons gave its teachers discretion in using their own teaching materials and resources, and with the ability to “modify their curriculum according to the local district standards,” hakwon teachers provided more personalized instruction to their students as well as a preview of topics their students might see in the following academic year.[10] While the specialized instruction was appealing to Korean parents, the founders of hakwons sought to provide instruction that went beyond test preparation that would also appeal to Korean families. One such founder, Sung Yoo, of Seed Learning Center in Cresskill, NJ, wanted to foster “cultural awareness among Korean-Americans by offering elective classes on subjects like Korean percussion and Asian-American history.”[11] Founders of hakwons reiterated that the objective of such institutions was not only to “teach the students test-taking skills, as do places like the Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Centers, but also to push the students beyond what they learn in public schools.”[12]

In addition to offering more extensive and specialized programs, the American-based hakwon had more practical appeal as well. For working parents, the hakwons in Flushing provided invaluable baby-sitting services on the weekends, as they would operate on Saturdays, usually for the entire day, with class instruction open to grades 3 through 12. Not only did hakwons incidentally provide daycare services through its day-long instruction, but they also tended to be cheaper than other established test preparation franchises. And above all, hakwons seemed to work. With the continued use of standardized tests in schools, for admissions and measurements of achievement, the hakwons helped prepare Korean-American students to perform well on tests through continued drilling, practice, and instruction. With over 100 independently-owned hakwons now listed in the Korean directory, the educational import of the hakwon has firmly entrenched itself in the Korean community of New York’s metropolitan area, as well as the larger population. In New York, with parents all-too-aware of “the increasing competitiveness of the college entrance process, the introduction of more rigorous national curriculum standards, and a lack of faith in local public schools,” the $4.5 billion tutoring and test-preparation industry – from independently-owned hakwons to global franchises like Kaplan and Kumon – is forecasted to only grow.[13]

While the viability of the test-preparation industry depends on the continued reliance on standardized exams and high-stakes testing for admissions and school success, it is worth asking whether the hakwon would continue to thrive should such high-stakes be removed. Additional questions also follow: Would hakwons, as Korean educational imports, and their instructional methods benefit non-Korean student groups, or would non-Koreans be alienated? What of the Korean students who do not enroll in hakwons and their reasons for doing so? How might hakwons in the Korean communities of Flushing, Queens, differ from those of Bergen County, New Jersey, where another sizable Korean-American population exists? And, most troubling yet perhaps relevant, how might have Korean-Americans, by attending hakwons, contributed to the perpetuation and prevalence of the model minority stereotype?

By emphasizing structural foundations for teaching and learning as advanced and practiced in the hakwon system, we move past superficial and cursory assumptions about Korean-Americans in the history of education in the United States. By importing and applying the educational experiences they had in South Korea to their children’s educational experience in New York, Korean immigrant parents provide an important dimension in our understanding about Asian American academic achievement as well as challenges our long-held assumptions of a culturally-driven meritocracy. Only time will tell whether the hakwon, as an educational institution imported to the country, constitutes progress in the broader American educational landscape, or becomes a dangerous hurdle in the fulfillment of a vibrant republic promoting equal opportunity for all so intrinsic to the mission of American public education.

Jean Park is a Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia's Teacher College.

[1] William Petersen, “Success Story: Japanese-American Style,” New York Times (1966).

[2] George Yancy and David Haekwon Kim, “The Invisible Asian,” New York Times, October 8, 2015.

[3] Yeoah Kim, Diss. (2008) “The Educational Role of Mathematics Ha-Gwon in the Korean American Community,” Teachers College, p. 69.

[4] Kim, Hyun Sook, and Pyong Gap Min. “The Post-1965 Korean Immigrants: Their Characteristics and Settlement Patterns,” Korea Journal of Population and Development 21, no. 2 (1992): 121-43.

[5] Michael Alison Chandler, “Crackdown on S. Korean ‘Cram Schools’,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ashley Dunn, “Cram Schools: Immigrants’ Tools for Success: Immigrant Success, Built on Cram Schools.” New York Times, Jan. 28, 1995.

[8] Ibid.

[9] New York City has nine specialized high schools, of which eight base admission solely on SHSAT scores. The “Big Three” are Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical School, with Stuyvesant admission requiring the top SHSAT scores.

[10] Yeoah Kim, “The Educational Role of Mathematics,” (2008), 98-100.

[11] Michael Luo, “For Students of Many Backgrounds, A Study Tool from the Far East,” New York Times, Oct. 20, 2003.

[12] Dunn, “Cram Schools” (1995).

[13] Kyle Spencer, “Some New, Non-Asian Faces in the Classrooms of 'cram schools' in U.S.,” International Herald Tribune, April 4, 2013; Melissa Korn, “Princeton Review to Sell Test-Prep Unit,”Wall Street Journal March, 27, 2012.