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SHOULD WE THINK OF STUDENTS AS CUSTOMERS?

August 23, 2013

Food for thought this weekend. Everyone knows that our educational system needs improvement. A recent essay in the Wall St. Journal by Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way,” about the South Korean tutoring academies, reveals the power of marketing – thinking of students as customers.

Sixty years ago, most South Koreans were illiterate; today, South Korean 15-year-olds rank No. 2 in the world in reading, behind China. The country has a 93% high-school graduation rate. America has a rate of 77%; in Oregon it is closer to 60%. Here are some interesting observations from Ripley’s essay.

The power of the South Korean educational system is not public education, but the shadow education systems, tutoring services (private tutors now outnumber schoolteachers). One English teacher Kim Ki-Hoon earns $4 million a year. Why?

Because he is paid according to the demand for his skills, since students pick their own teachers. The Internet has turned his video lectures into commodities, available online for $4 an hour. Private tutors are also more likely to experiment with new technology and nontraditional forms of teaching.

The Korean private educational market follows a classic marketing model – it makes the teacher the product that maters the most to customers (the student and parents). To find the best teachers, the system relies on student surveys (customer feedback). In 2010, researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found these surveys surprisingly reliable, but most American schools don’t use them. Here is a shocker: Korean parents spent more than $17 billion on tutoring services in 2012, while Americans spent $15 billion on video games that year.

Ripley concludes that several truths are becoming universal: “Children need to know how to think critically in math, reading and science; they must be driven; and they must learn how to adapt, since they will be doing it all their lives. These demands require that schools change, too—or the free market may do it for them.”

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