The method used is a historical analysis of the route through which education in Japan and South Korea was framed, and then implemented, in the period starting in 1870 (approximately) in the former and 1945 (approximately but especially after the Korean war) or so in the latter. We analyze both policy intention as in various laws, decrees, and policies, as well as implementation. Debates around equality, the interpretation of Western ideas as filtered by each country’s history, are covered. Original policy documents are analyzed as well as literature on the educational history of both countries, including educational and pedagogical issues. Long-term historical statistics and cliometrics are also employed mostly to compare context and results, rather than methods.
South Korea and Japan are chosen because they are, today, high performers both in terms of average achievement and, even more importantly, equality, who went about their reforms with clear intentionality and purpose, and where there were distinct historical pivots that can be pinned to a specific decade or even a single pivotal year. Other high-achieving countries in the West more or less evolved into their systems. Even countries that are often cited as examples for the lower-income countries to emulate, such as Finland, did not set about fundamental reforms with the clear purpose and intentionality that South Korea and Japan did. Side references are made to other cases where intentionality was key, and where there was a clear purpose and bureaucratic organizational effort, such as Prussia. Similar insights are raised through an analysis of speeches and writings of pan-African independence leaders in the 1960s regarding the centrality of education to the nation-building project.
Emerging themes that could be of interest to lower-income countries today include: a) the focus on education as fundamental to national purpose, not just as an abstract commitment to numerical goals such as the MDGs and SDGs (without denying the utility of such goals), b) an intense focus on education as a way of redressing class (as in “education should not just be for the samurai class”) and colonization issues (as in “education is key to help us resist undue economic and military power from the West”) from the past, and hence a focus on equality, c) an intense questioning of what could be learned from the West rather than just acceptance and simple borrowing, and d) a relentless focus on bureaucratic efficiency, planning, and investment discipline in terms of not expanding higher levels until lower levels are universalized (for the sake of equality and quality). The focus is largely narrative and qualitative, but historical statistics are used to document the results obtained, such as the very high degree of equality and also efficiency achieved (in fact, signaling how efficiency and equality may have been helpful to each other), whereby even low-income segments of the population benefit from quality education. The contexts, not just the results, are analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively.