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An unintended result of the new policy has been an exodus from state schools to private schools. The number of first-graders entering public schools declined by a total of 3% over the past four years, while the number of children enrolled in private schools rose by 10%. The surge in demand for private education has been a boon for swanky establishments like Satoe Gakuen in Saitama prefecture outside Tokyo, where an annual tuition fee of $12,000 buys an extraordinary range of facilities. Never mind science labs, the school has its own planetarium as well as science teachers qualified to doctorate leveland all this is for an elementary school. "Parents are spending more on their children and there's a move to private education at a younger age," says vice principal Michio Kaneko. If parents can't afford private schools, they can at least dispatch their kids to after-school classes. "Most of the parents who send kids here are dissatisfied with the standards of [public] education," says Sachiko Kishi, a Kumon teacher in Tokyo. So despite the best efforts of the government to reduce study loads, many parents are working their kids harder than ever.
If Asian education is to be reformed, then, the battles must be fought in homes and hearts. The children of Seoul's Haja Center are familiar with this already: many of them had to fight their parents merely to be allowed on the premises. Take a quick walk around this experimental high school and it's easy enough to see why. Run by Yonsei University and the Seoul Alternative Learning Community Network, the Haja Center (the word haja translates as "Let's do it!") charges $40 to $150 a month for the kind of coursesfilmmaking, fine art, web design, music recordingthat would darken the countenance of many a Korean mum or dad. Unlike the Minjok Leadership Academy, there are no students dressed in the garments of a previous century, speechlessly prostrating themselves before visitors. Instead, groups of denim-clad, iPod-toting youths come and go from a rowdy cafeteria and look you in the eye if they notice you at all. Teachers are not even called teachers but pandori, meaning "facilitator" or "venue operator." For children traumatized by the rigors of the conventional education system, this is a blissful refuge. "Three or four years ago, children would come to us clearly exhausted from fighting their parents," says Chung Yeon Soon, who until recently was the Network's deputy director before assuming a research position at Korea National Open University. "But these days, some parents seem more able to empathize with their kids. There are happy cases now, in which parents and children actually come to visit the center together."
There is cautious optimism in other parts of Asia too. Vasavadatta Sarkar, a New Delhi schoolteacher, observes: "There's no question that children are under mounting pressure, but there's a new generation of parents who understand that there are new career options open to their children." Partha Iyengar, an analyst at the Indian offices of IT consultancy Gartner, agrees. "The present form of education has helped the Indian IT industry create a world-class resource pool that is easily trained in well-defined processes and disciplined enough to follow those processes to a T," he says. "But it is also very ill-equipped to nurture [independent thinking]. If there is a concerted effort to produce more creative students, we will be well placed. Otherwise, India runs the risk of fading back into oblivion."
Iyengar's emphasis on the need for marketable skills is axiomatic to every Asian parent. It may not be couched in the same economic jargon, but it's a favorite theme of mealtime homilies and bedtime lectures. The only problem is that many parents are approaching the topic from an outdated perspective. In the new economies, the real spoils will go to the creativesthe quick-witted entrepreneurs and innovators, not the compliant milksops with ambitions restricted to the traditional professions. Education reform will come about only when this is more widely recognized by parents across Asia. Hirohito Komiyama, author of several books on the Japanese education system, explains: "Students who undergo mindless cramming tend to have a low EQ [a measure of emotional intelligence], and those who don't learn to socialize or communicate with others cannot succeed in the current corporate world, which increasingly seeks well-rounded individuals." South Korean educator Chung adds: "Education used to be the only way a person could move up in society, and the parents of our children are of a generation that grew up in just such a culture. But they are trying to impart 20th century values to 21st century children."
And if none of this resonates with parents, what about a straightforward appeal to human kindness and empathy? Says Esther Tan of Nanyang Technological University: "Although having children who do well will make them proud, most of the parents I encounter genuinely want the best for their children rather than [looking] to boost their own egos." Change will depend on the ability of parents to admit this more readily, to let go of their fixations with status and social superiority, and to recognize their children not as appendages but as individuals.
Even in China, where the desire to equip children to compete is so all-consuming, there are those who realize that the pressure has gone too far, that there is a desperate need for everyoneparents and kids aliketo kick back and take a deep breath. Feng Shulan, principal of Yayuncun Number 2 Kindergarten in Beijing, says she has repeatedly resisted demands from parents to push her students harder than she believes is good for them. "Sometimes, we have to lecture the parents about what's appropriate for their kids," says Feng. "I tell parents it's also important for them to simply spend time with their kids. I tell them it's important for the kids to be happy." If we forget that, we've surely forgotten the most important lesson of all.