Why the “$4 million teacher” should not be classified as a teacherpreneur.

This past week our new book, Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave, was published by Jossey-Bass. Teacherpreneurs are classroom experts who are committed to teaching and teach students regularly, but also have time, space, and reward to incubate, execute, and spread their bold policy and pedagogical ideas. You might also have read about the “$4 million teacher” from South Korea—and wondered whether the story of Kim Ki-hoon, penned by Amanda Ripley in the Wall Street Journal (August 3), might serve as a model of teacherpreneurism.

Granted, Ms. Ripley’s catchy and Tweetable headline—“The $4 Million Teacher”—suggests a bold way for those who teach to also lead and be rewarded handsomely for it. She claims that U.S. policymakers and educators have a lot to learn from South Korea, whose “top” teachers “can make a fortune” teaching in afterschool programs called hagwons, which solely focus on intense rote learning exercises and “extreme competition” among students in their test-score race to secure a spot in the nation’s top universities. In South Korea, private tutors like Kim Ki-hoon, who has taught for most of his 20 years in hagwons, now outnumber public school teachers.

In her piece, Ms. Ripley writes:

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

What Ms. Ripley does not reveal is that hagwons promote a “manic obsession” for a few winning students to gain entry into the nation’s most competitive universities. She also ignores the fact that for years South Korean education leaders have been trying to tamp down the hagwons, because of “mounting student stress” and because their knowledge-based economy “requires creativity and innovation,” not intense competition among students and their teachers. She does not alert her readers to the growing recognition in South Korea that these cram schools and the “academic intensity” they fuel are “now blamed for a high suicide rate” and “divided families.”

As for Mr. Kim’s day-to-day work, my colleague Ann Byrd pointed out that Mr. Kim rarely, if at all, teaches. He leads a for-profit company that sells his lectures and instructional materials. Although Ms. Ripley labels Mr. Kim a teacher, she does point out that the “bulk” of his income comes from “the 150,000 kids who watch his lectures online each year” and the publishing company that he manages with 30 employees.

Defining the teacherpreneur

There is much to unpack here, and I have not had an opportunity to read Ms. Ripley’s book as of yet. But in the wake Teacherpreneurs’ release, I couldn’t help but think about whether some might consider Mr. Kim to be a teacherpreneur. He’s a “-preneur,” certainly—perhaps an education entrepreneur—but a teacherpreneur?

Absolutely not.

And here’s why. Teacherpreneurs incubate and execute bold ideas while still teaching students. They spread their expertise to teaching colleagues so that more students benefit from quality practices and policies. Teacherpreneurs must be well compensated, but establishing a new income stream for underpaid professionals is not the primary goal of teacherpreneurism. The goal is not to pit individuals against one another to see who can make the most money. Instead, it’s about rewarding a new culture of schooling, marked by highly personalized 21st-century learning for students, as well as growing opportunities for collaboration among teachers.

Teacherpreneurs are first and foremost highly skilled teachers, who adapt to instruction and work closely with students, families, and communities in doing so. It seems that Mr. Kim’s work ignores the best interests of students and communities, instead contributing to unhealthy competition and expectations. Teacherpreneurism is about creating student-centered pedagogical and policy reforms in the best interest of public education.

Ms. Ripley points out that Mr. Kim makes as much as he does because most private tutors of the hagwons do not make much at all. She does point out that the system in which they work is “ruthless,” but in no way does she alert readers (at least in her WSJ piece) to the dangers of education entrepreneurship gone amok—a few “winning” students and teachers further dividing an already isolated group of professionals.

Ms. Ripley rightfully notes that education for today and tomorrow needs to support students’ ability to think critically and adapt to changing circumstances. But she does not make clear that South Korea’s teacher-reward system and the hagwons’ emphasis on rote learning actually undermine the teaching of these skills.

Unlike Ms. Ripley, I do not think that Mr. Kim’s approach will help the United States build a workforce with 21st-century skills or support a system that gives all students equal opportunities to reach their full potential.

For that, we need teacherpreneurs.


*Images attribution: Mushon Zer-Aviv

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