American education for Korean families

I just got the news: One of my intercultural mentees – a student from Korea who struggled to adjust to the U.S. – has been accepted to her top college! After an uphill journey through high school, she now stands on the summit of her success. Let’s take a closer look at some of the challenges she experienced and see if there are any lessons for other families.

American high school means American culture

Many Korean families assume that high school is easier in the U.S., but American cultural norms can be very uncomfortable for Korean students. For example, teachers expect students to look directly into their eyes, ask questions, express opinions, and participate in class discussions. They also expect students to take initiative, demonstrate personal responsibility, manage their time, and deliver presentations with poise.

Unfortunately, this culture gap can undermine academic achievement. For example, my student felt so awkward with these expectations that she shut herself away. Her teachers began to see her anxiety as a behavioral issue and asked her parents to come to the school for meetings. In response, her parents begged her to study harder (that is, memorize more). Feeling helpless and hopeless, she started fantasizing about moving back to Korea.

Koreans who come to the U.S. should spend some time thinking about how American school might be different and anticipate a transition period. Parents can ask their school for recommendations on how to succeed in their classrooms, or ask teachers to describe what a good student looks like here. It can help students to hear reassuring messages like, “In the U.S., you have to learn a new way to be a good student” or “It’s okay if it takes time.” This lets them know that they aren’t disappointing their parents while they grow.

American school is often writing-intensive

Many American teachers expect a specific writing style. Following a five-paragraph essay template and using a direct, authoritative voice, students should make a claim and construct a linear, logical argument on some topic. Although it is mechanical and simplistic – and even many Americans complain about it – the goal is to help students learn to integrate facts and opinion in a compelling and original analysis.

However for my Korean student, this model was bewildering. She felt childish having to spell things out in such straightforward terms; at the same time, it seemed brazen and audacious for her – a young adult! – to be making an argument at all. She also felt confused: Wasn’t the purpose of school for wise teachers to give students information, not for ignorant students to tell the teacher what they thought about things?

Composition is a complex skill that takes years of practice. Korean parents can make arrangements for their child to get extra practice and coaching, either at school or with a tutor. They can help their students absorb the model by asking questions like “What is your topic?” “How did you introduce your topic?” “What is your opinion about that topic?” “What examples or evidence do you have to support your opinion?” and “How did you conclude your essay?” If your student cannot answer clearly, they need to do more work.

American high schools assign steady homework

Also difficult for Koreans is that American schools give regular, incremental homework. From a U.S. perspective, this lowers the stakes, because a diligent student can gain a steady supply of points for work submitted throughout the semester. Schools also believe that this prepares students for the workforce, as many jobs require employees to keep track of a revolving set of projects and deadlines. Additionally, by grading work frequently, teachers can observe gaps in the students’ comprehension before a final test.

To my Korean student, who was used to slow and steady studying, the U.S. model of constantly churning out written work felt busy and pointless. She didn’t want to anger her teachers by putting down a wrong answer, so she often left parts of assignments blank. Unfortunately, this cost her in two ways: Not only did she lose a lot of points, which made her grades fall, but teachers saw her as lazy rather than careful and conscientious.

Parents can help by asking their students two questions every night: What homework do you have today, and what homework do you have coming up in the near future? A very important part of the American school experience is learning how to plan ahead and manage time, so teachers expect parents to have these kinds of conversations. Parents can also emphasize that making a guess or putting a partial answer is usually better than leaving homework blank. Depending on the teacher, it might be possible to receive partial credit; at the very least, the teacher will clearly understand the student’s ability. On the rare occasion that a student cannot even start the work because he or she is completely confused, it is appropriate to send a short note explaining the situation to the teacher.

American teachers grade by points

American teachers typically determine a student’s quarter or semester grade by adding up all of the points that he or she earned out of the total that were possible. These points come from tests, homework, class participation, and even attitude. Teachers may have some discretion to allow a struggling student to complete makeup work or do additional work for “extra credit,” but it is still up to the student to earn his or her grade.

This rational, objective stance came across to my student as inhumane. She didn’t understand why her teachers – who held ultimate power and knew how hard she was working – would choose to fail her. In working with other Korean families, I have also seen parents mistakenly assume that their connection with me + my connection with the school and teachers would result in a good grade. American relationships don’t work this way; it is viewed as showing favoritism, being unethical, and teaching kids a bad lesson.

Korean parents can help their children succeed by reminding them that good grades are earned or lost a little bit every day – and not only through exams.  Teachers are generally willing to talk to parents and students about how to raise their grade, but to be most effective, these conversations should take place early in the semester. Be aware that when teachers make concessions, their expectations of the student increase. If students seem ungrateful for the help, the teacher might not give them another chance.

Americans don’t know much about Asia and Asians

Most Americans don’t know very much about Asia – and what they think they know may be incomplete, outdated, or just wrong. They are usually ignorant about Korean history, and will probably not be aware of the differences between Korea, China, and Japan. There is also a stereotype of Asians as the “model minority.” This means schools may assume that all Asian kids are automatically geniuses and overlook places where they need help.

These ways of thinking impacted my Korean student. Her teachers were unsympathetic with her for missing Korea because, in their minds, there was nothing to miss. They were unprepared for the realities of today’s immigration from Asia and unwilling to help her develop a productive transcultural identity  where she could be equally comfortable and effective in the U.S and Korea. Worse, because they expected her to fit the model minority, they were impatient and annoyed when she struggled with her classes.

In my experience, teachers are interested in who their students are as human beings. However, it is difficult to know what one does not know, and teachers may unwittingly make incorrect assumptions based on unexamined biases. Each family will have to decide how to handle this. Some prefer to save face by pretending problems do not exist, some find ways to help schools see their students as individuals instead of generic Asians, and some look for opportunities to teach the community about their home country. Perhaps, depending on the circumstances, they might alternate between all three.

American education is political

Americans are hotly divided about education these days. Some parents want more rigor and accountability, while others fret that testing has taken over and displaced creativity and holistic development. Meanwhile, there are very heated debates about issues such as diversity, multiculturalism, immigration, and ESL (English as a second language).

Korean families are typically not concerned with these issues – but as the saying goes, “when whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken.” For example, my student was ensnared by ESL rules that said she had to do everything by the same standard as native speakers once she passed an English proficiency test. This sounds reasonable in theory, but in practice it meant doing things like delivering a ten-minute presentation analyzing the role of women in ancient Greek and contemporary American society – without any note cards.

Korean parents may want to consider the political environment before choosing a state and a school. They should ask about the rules governing ESL; it is especially important to know the consequences before taking any assessments. Above all, they should understand that American schools expect parents to advocate for their kids, within reason. If Korean parents are upset about some aspect of their student’s education, it is completely acceptable to politely discuss the problem with the school.

American school is not standardized

In some ways, my student’s experience may be typical – but in other ways, perhaps not. This is because education in the U.S. is not centrally controlled or funded. This means that we do not have a standardized, national curriculum and the quality of education varies widely, even in the same city.

For Korean parents, it is thus hard to get a clear picture about how school works, let alone what their kids are supposed to learn in each grade. When they turn to each other, it can feel like the blind leading the blind, and they might end up more confused. Some people also use these conversations as a chance to compete and make themselves look better. In my student’s case, this made her parents feel even more desperate and worried.

I encourage Korean parents to remember that American education is so varied that some advice may be right in one context but unsuitable in another. Before selecting a school, look beyond rankings and prioritize what is most important for you and your student. You may want to find out what the school’s philosophy is, what kind of involvement they expect from parents, and what kinds of activities and services are available for your student’s talents and needs For example, my student chose to go to an arts-oriented school; another student I worked with previously selected a school with a science focus because he wanted to be a doctor. Parents who are worried about their child being ready for college should review the admissions requirements at different universities, and schedule a meeting with the high school counselor if it seems their student is not on track.


My student faced numerous obstacles because of the cultural differences between the U.S. and Korea. Ultimately, her university acceptance made her family feel that all of their sacrifices were worthwhile – but before that happened, they experienced many sleepless nights. In speaking with other Korean families, I have observed that my student’s situation was not so unique, but fit a pattern of cross-cultural misunderstandings that many encounter here. I hope that Korean families who are considering a move to the U.S. will reflect on these struggles so that they can be fully prepared for their journey.

Good luck with your plans, and please let me know if I can help!







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