Asia is sometimes the envy of the west in terms of education. Part of that success is due to the private tutoring industry. South Korea's after school academies are called hagwons. They're a $17 billion a year industry, and the most popular tutors are multi-millionaires. On a recent visit to the capital of Seoul, we discovered there's a social cost to the cram culture.
Jong Chang is former top education official in South Korea. He and our translators brought us to the wealthy Daechi Dong area in Gangnam Gu. The area is nicknamed Mecca of private education for the 950 hagwons here -- housed in high rise office buildings.
Sharyl: So this is a busy district for hagwons?
Translator: Yeah this is like biggest hagwon district in Korea from elementary to high school after they finish school they come here.
Nearly every Korean child attends hagwon after school -- starting around age 7. Many kids study 9-15 hours a day, seven days a week.
One student said she started attending hagwon around age 7.
Sharyl: Did you attend hagwon school?
Sharyl: Can you tell me about it, what you learned and what you thought of it?
Boy: Not good.
Sharyl: Not good? Because of pressure?
Sharyl: Do you think you learned a lot?
Sharyl: Is it necessary to attend Hagwon to get into college?
Boy: I don't think it's necessary.
Sharyl: How late do they attend after school until…
Sharyl: That's a long day.
Jay: Yeah so the city government step in. Before then like 2-3 years ago, some hagwan they open until like at 1am.
Sharyl: One in the morning?
Jay: That's why city government step in and stop it.
That high-pressure academic culture is blamed in part for a new trend that started in 2013. Suicide overtook transportation accidents as the leading cause of death for young Koreans.
Sharyl: We hear it's very hard and a lot of pressure?
Boy: It is a lot of pressure for Koreans so I don't really think it's like a good culture but it's like a must for Koreans to like get through life and go to a good university so we don't really have a choice.
Sharyl: I hear some good things it's a good education, but I also hear some kids commit suicide they get under such pressure have you heard of that?
Boy: We did have that but like I feel like that's really a big problem in our society.
Translator: It's necessary evil. It's one of the necessary evil in here.
Sharyl: A few people today told me they feel it's a necessary evil.
Ra Jong-yil: I would call it unnecessary evil. It's completely unnecessary.
Ra Jong-yil is a former South Korean diplomat and now a university professor.
Sharyl: What is your opinion of the value of hagwon?
Ra: I'm very negative. I'm very negative about that.
Sharyl: Why is that?
Ra Jong-yil: It's not education. Our job, our profession is educating people. It's different from training people. And what hagwon, or as you call it, academy, so-called academies, are doing just sort of cramming certain type of knowledge which makes them, enable them, to pass a certain exam better than the other students. Competitive kind of sort of training they're doing. So it's against education, the whole spirit of education.
Sharyl: How has this culture gotten so pervasive in South Korea?
Ra Jong-yil: I think the whole problem started with rapid economic development of South Korea. People become more competitive. Competition for better job, better sort of credentials, so-called better specs.
Sharyl: Do you hear stories about, or do you know students who have felt under such pressure that it's been damaging to them?
Ra Jong-yil: Yes. Horror stories, really. The children of a tender age, they have to go through all this.
In 2014, South Korean children were found to be the least happy in a study among developed countries. The government cited the stress of the country's educational pressure cooker. But for all the critics, there are students who say they have great teachers and a positive hagwon experience.
Sharyl: Did you go to school during the day then go to academy after school?
Sharyl: Many hours?
Guy: Four hours average. Four hours.
Sharyl: Four hours after school?
Guy: Yes. Six to ten.
Sharyl: Did you learn a lot?
Sharyl: Are you glad you attended?
Guy: Yes some classes great.
Jay: Even if they have a really hard, you know, like a long day schedule, but they still very joyful. And then they, somehow, they kind of find out how to enjoy their life even if they have a big pressure. That's what's good about those kids in Korea.
A note of perhaps perverse inversion. Across Asia, many reformers are pushing to make schools more American, to stress more creative thinking, over rote memorization. In America, some reformers are pressing to make schools more 'Asian', because of their score performance.