23 SES 16 C, Varieties of Schooling
This research explores the lived experiences of graduates from Foreign Language High School (hereafter referred to as FLHS), recognized as ‘elite’ schools in South Korea. By interviewing college students who graduated from those high schools, this study investigates how they make sense of their past experiences and negotiate with social discourses on privileged high schools, and how this affects their view on themselves and social, educational issues in Korea.
A growing number of researchers have paid to attention to elite schools within the context of globalization in many parts of the world (e.g., Gatzambide-Fernandez 2009; Khan 2011; Koh and Kenway 2012; Maxwell and Aggleton 2016; Tsao, Hardy and Lingard 2018; Weenink 2008). These studies have mainly revealed the role of elite schools in reproducing privileges and social inequities in the context of increasingly competitive and globalized education system. Despite this global interest in the social function of elite institutions, the Korean case has yet to be reported to the global community of education researchers.
As a matter of fact, FLHS has created heated debates over the role and necessity of elite high schools in Korea. FLHSs were first established in the early 1990s as selective high schools under the goal of producing future experts in foreign languages, regional studies and international relations. The proponents of FLHSs have argued that to maintain Korea’s competitive power in the era of globalization and knowledge-based economy, it needs schools that provide quality education focusing on foreign language skills and global studies (Hong 2010; Sung, Park, and Choi 2013). This discourse of excellence was further reflected in the “May 31st Presidential Reform Proposal”, which was submitted by the Presidential Committee for Educational Reform in 1995. Consequently, diverse educational reforms such as school diversification and school choice have been employed. Within this context, FLHSs have attracted high-achieving students with high English skills and rapidly gained a reputation amongst middle-class families, as the schools send a great number of graduates to prestigious universities. On the other hand, there has been a growing attack against these schools, since they absorb high achieving middle-school students and worsen the gap between elite high schools and general high schools.
In this context, this research examines what motivated students to attend FLHSs and how they make sense of their educational experiences and the surrounding social contexts. A majority of the existing studies on elite schools have focused on those school’s social function in class reproduction, paying little attention to how students interpret their school experiences. This research, on the other hand, seeks to go beyond class reproduction framework and understand how the students of FLHS contribute to the reproduction of and/or challenging educational inequalities in South Korea by exploring their narratives. Furthermore, most of the existing studies on elite education focus on traditionally and historically elite high schools in Western settings such as the US or the UK. FLHSs, on the other hand, have only recently emerged as a response to neoliberal and globalization discourses and subsequent school choice discourses (Sung 2011). In this regard, this research may shed additional light on how neoliberal and globalization discourse not only affect the educational practices of established elite schools but also give rise to the emergence of new types of elite schools.
In addressing the above questions, this research makes use of qualitative interview data collected from seven graduates of FLHSs. As the main goal of this research is to explore how students’ understandings of their school experiences in FLHSs affect their views on themselves and social issues, we decided to interview graduates of FLHSs instead of currently enrolled FLHS students. In addition, we selected college students enrolled in prestigious universities in South Korea. By virtue of attending elite high schools and elite universities, these students are likely to hold leadership positions in various fields in the future (Warikoo 2018); as such, exploring their narratives can provide insights into how they come to construct understanding of themselves as elites or future leaders and what social implications such identification might carry. All the research participants were either college juniors or seniors at the time of the interview, and we interviewed four female students and three male students; all research participants self-identified as coming from middle or upper-middle class. While all the research participants could be broadly identified as majoring in liberal arts, their specific majors differed somewhat; out of the seven research participants, one majored in business management, one double majored in business management and computer sciences, two in political sciences and the other three in international relations. We conducted in-depth narrative interviews with the interviewees in Korean between September 2018 and March 2019. Each interviewee was asked the same set of questions about the reasons for attending FLHS, their school experiences including school culture, peer relations and teaching, and their career pursuits and future aspirations. Each interview lasted about 90 minutes and we conducted follow-up interviews with each interviewee when further clarification on previous responses was needed. All interviews were audio-recorded with the consent of the interviewees and transcribed verbatim for analysis. Referring to the process of data analysis in qualitative studies (Corbin and Strauss 2008; Miles and Huberman 1995; Riessman 2008), all the interview data were carefully analyzed, compared, coded and categorized.
First, it was revealed that the students’ decision to apply to FLHS was largely driven by their parents’ educational aspirations (and anxieties). Their parents, especially the mothers, had been greatly involved in micro-managing their children’s learning activities. As such, the preparation to enter FLHSs began early on in systematic ways; most participants said that they had an experience of living abroad prior to entering high schools or attended exclusive private English-language programs. The participants underscored that, through such experiences, they recognized the fact that English is imperative not only for global communication but also to succeed in South Korea. They internalized the belief that they should go to FLHS, a decision initiated and reinforced by their parents. Second, the research participants identified positively with their high school experiences in general. While acknowledging that sometimes the school atmosphere became severely competitive, they admitted competition as a necessary condition for high academic achievement. At the same time, these students evoked on public discourses on general high schools to draw a boundary between themselves and students attending general high schools. They perceived themselves as hard-working, self-motivated, and well-demeaning students in opposition to those in general high schools who lack interest, less motivated and less disciplined. They further relied on these stereotypes to justify their decision to attend FLHS and defend themselves from the public criticisms against FLHS. They did not seem to be aware of structural advantages that they might have enjoyed. Lastly, in terms of outlooks on their future careers, even though wide variance appeared among the participants, they all seem to have positives beliefs. They were aware that achieving their aspirations requires perseverance to compete with other students who are also ‘working very hard.’ In spite of this acknowledgement, they generally remained optimistic and assured about their future career plans.
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