Hagwons as restaurants

An economist at Harvard recently discussed how market forces could improve education if schools were more exposed to those forces.  At least, that’s what I think he did; to be honest I have read only dissections of his discussion and found them interesting, particularly as they relate to hagwons in Korea. Quotes are from Metaphor Hacks and I learned of the article via the Lousy Linguist.  The economist, Ed Glaeser, compared schools to restaurants, which he feels are strongly affected by competition.

So first we have the quality of the food. This would seem to map quite nicely onto quality of education. But it doesn’t. Or at least not in the way Gleaeser and his like would like.  Quality of the food that can impact on competition is a surface property. We cannot also always trust people that they can judge the quality apart from the decor of the restaurant or its reputation – just like with wine, they are very likely to judge the quality based on a  review or the recommendation of a trusted acquaintance. In Glaeser’s analogy, we’re not really talking about the quality of food but the quality of the dining experience. And if we project this onto the quality of a school, we’re only increasing the scope of the problem. No matter how limited and unreliable, we can at least judge the quality of the overall dining experience by our own reaction to our experience. But with schools, the experience is mediated through the child and the most important criterion of quality – viz an educated human being at the end – is deferred until long after the decision on quality has been made. It’s like judging the quality of a restaurant we go to for an anniversary dinner by whether we will be healthy in 5 years.

It’s quite likely the most popular restaurants don’t serve anything particularly healthy or prepared with regard to the environmental impact. Quality is only important to them as one of many competitive advantage. They also use a number of tricks to make the dining experience better – cheat on ingredients, serve small portions on large plates, etc. They rely on ‘secret recipes’ – the last thing we want to see in education. And this is exactly the experience of schools that compete in the market. They fudge, cheat and flat out lie to protect their competitive advantage.  They provide the minimum of education that they can get away with to look good.

I have worked for some great hagwons; ones that were run with the goal of educating the students.  I also had the misfortune of working for a hagwon that would be well-described by the final two sentences of the quote.

I think we need to look at two or more metaphors when describing education.  The last two sentences really describe, mean-spiritedly, any large corporation  I am no expert on stocks or securities, but I think any publicly-traded company is required to provide share-holders with the maximum possible profit.

On the other hand, any individual working directly with clients has a very different approach and view. In keeping with the above food analogies, teachers might best be compared to the individual chefs or wait-staff or hot-dog-trolley worker.  These people need to provide what they think are the best quality products for their clients that they can.

Any metaphor can be stretched too far and teachers aren’t really like food service people; for example, we interact with our clients for extended periods and we usually don’t market the product ourselves.  Still, the above article and its spot-on description of hagwons is eerie.


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