During the last 2 decades, the Republic of Korea (herein Korea) has made great strides in educating children with developmental disabilities. Being a native of Korea and having visited there since 1989 to conduct several collaborative research projects with educators and researchers, I have been amazed to observe the rapid pace of special education improvements. This article provides a brief history on special education in Korea and highlights some of the current practices in special education there, as well as major challenges the country needs to overcome to assist children with developmental disabilities in attaining optimal educational outcomes.

Brief History of Special Education in Korea

The Special Education Promotion Act, the first Korean special education legislation, was signed into law in 1977. This law mandated that individuals with disabilities be provided with free public education and related services (Seo, Oakland, Han, & Hu, 1992). The law, however, did not have a meaningful impact on the lives of individuals with disabilities until the 1990s. Prior to that time, Koreans strived to establish basic standards of living for the general public, and, thus, the welfare of persons with disabilities was not a priority, as is the case for many developing countries. After Seoul hosted the Games of the 24th Olympiad in 1988, Korea became better known to the world and progressively enjoyed economic prosperity. The advancement of the economy enabled individuals with disabilities to advocate for their right to services through demonstrations, mass media, and the Internet, to the extent that the Korean government was obliged to dependably affirm or reauthorize the special education law. For example, from 1990 to 2000, the special education law was reauthorized four times. These reauthorizations ensured that public schools were held both responsible for identifying children with disabilities and accountable for providing educational services for those identified. In many aspects, the Special Education Promotion Act is similar to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; 1990) of the United States, given that the IDEA has provided philosophical and conceptual foundations in establishing the latest incarnation of Korea's Special Education Promotion Act. For more information about provisions of the Special Education Provision Act, see “Special Education in South Korea” (Park, 2002).

Current Practice of Special Education in Korea

As a result of the enactment in Korea of the Special Education Promotion Act, a disability-based classification system was established and refined by each of the reauthorizations. The current system identifies eight disability categories: (a) mental retardation, (b) physical disability, (c) behavioral disorder, (d) learning disability, (e) visual impairment, (f) hearing impairment, (g) language disorder, and (h) health impairment. Recently, each school district was compelled to establish a Committee of Special Education (CSE) in compliance with the reauthorization of the law. Although the CSE delegates its authority to each school within the district, it is responsible for overseeing each school that identifies and implements special education and for mediating the disputes that may arise between the school and the parents. The CSE in each school consists of a special educator, social worker, principal, assistant principal, medical doctor, and the parents. It has played a significant role in improving the education of children with disabilities.

According to Korea's Ministry of Education and Human Resources (2007), approximately 62,500 children (Ages 3–17 years) received special education and related services in 2006. This estimate is approximately 3% of the children in school and is about a 15% increase compared with those who received special education in 2000. As recently as the 2004, the Special Education Report to the Korean Congress indicated that children receiving special education consisted of only 57% of children who had been eligible for special education. Among children receiving special education, approximately 50% are diagnosed with mental retardation (MR) and only 10% with learning disabilities. Note that these proportions are in reverse to those of the United States. In addition, Korea began to diagnose learning disabilities in the last several years, and, thus, it is reasonable to assume that their prevalence will increase rapidly in the near future.

The U.S. concept of least restrictive environment has been applied to determining educational placements for children with developmental disabilities in Korea. As a result, special education classrooms have been established in regular schools. As of 2006, there were 5,204 self-contained special education classrooms in 4,171 regular schools for partial inclusion of K–12 children. According to the Ministry of Education and Human Resources (2007), about 10% of the children with disabilities were fully included in regular classrooms, over 50% in special education classrooms, and the rest in special education schools in 2006. The number of fully included students in 2006 almost doubled compared with 2000, although the number of children in other types of classrooms remains unchanged.

Although learning environments for children with developmental disabilities have been improved considerably in Korea, meeting social and academic needs for children with disabilities remains a great challenge. Educators, parents, and researchers believe that the current practice of inclusion is limited primarily to physical inclusion, for the most part, and that the social and academic goals of children with disabilities are not reached in regular classrooms. Essential special education concepts such as collaboration, curriculum modification, and accommodation for children with disabilities have been discussed among educators. However, these concepts do not yet appear to have been put into practice.

Korea has produced a tremendous number of professionals in special education within the last 10 years. As of 2006, more than 11,000 teachers were certified in special education and taught in public schools. More than 5,000 paraprofessionals have assisted special education teachers in various types of classrooms since 2004. However, there is a remarkable shortage of practitioners and administrators in public schools who possess the skills necessary to accurately diagnose and design programs for children with developmental disabilities. Note that the population of Korea (geographically the size of Indiana) is more than 48 million, with nearly 20% under the age of 14. The major cause for having relatively few qualified professionals derives from the fact that the majority of special education programs are in the developing stage, and, thus, a standard-based curriculum is not offered across the universities.

The shortage of qualified professionals, however, might be substantially improved in the near future. Unlike in the United States, special education has recently become one of the highly preferred majors among students and admission to special education programs at any Korean university is extremely competitive. Unlike the United States, teachers are highly regarded by all facets of society and their jobs are very secure. Over 20 Korean universities annually produce approximately 800 candidates (Park, 2002), and almost all candidates obtain employment status on graduation. In addition, the number of doctoral degree recipients in special education has rapidly grown in the last several years. Interestingly, the majority of these Korean doctorate-level professionals received their degree in the United States. These cross-pollinating professionals have contributed tremendously to the advancement of Korean special education. For example, the U.S.-educated professionals have introduced a variety of well-established theories and practices in special education, initiated and enhanced research skills and methods, and introduced assessment scales first developed in English, ensuring the translation validity of those scales to be used with the Korean population (as a step in cross-cultural validation of norms). The advanced technology readily available in Korea also enables teacher education candidates and educators to easily access information from the United States and other industrialized countries. Last, over the past several years, I have noticed an increase in the number of Korean professionals participating in international conferences of special education in the United States and other countries.

Challenges

Several challenges should be addressed immediately if Korea is to advance special education to the level of the United States. The challenges include, but are not limited to, the issues regarding (a) early intervention, (b) collaboration, and (c) transition services.

The current special education law in Korea does not guarantee free early intervention from birth to 3 years old. This has caused a great concern for educators and parents who acknowledge how pivotal it is to provide early intervention to young children with developmental disabilities. For example, several studies (e.g., Cho, Singer, & Brenner, 2000) have reported that many parents take it upon themselves to set aside a significant proportion of the family budget for early intervention programs when these resources are available. Unfortunately, these studies also indicate that such programs are not readily available in the towns where many families reside. Thus, parents often travel long distances to access the services that their children need. In one study, financial costs and the burden of transporting their children to special education programs were reported as the major cause of distress to many parents (Cho et al., 2000). A significant number of children have not had the privilege of receiving early intervention because their parents have scarce financial means and limited knowledge of special education. It is estimated that only 60% of 3–5 year olds with disabilities are currently receiving special education in Korea. Though no accurate estimate is available, the percentage of early intervention recipients would be smaller than 50%. On a positive note, the Ministry of Education and Human Resources in 2006 announced a reauthorization plan for the Special Education Promotion Act that would mandate free, public, early intervention by 2010. Considering how significantly early intervention impacts the development of young children with disabilities, the plan ought to be realized without delay.

Inclusion has become a common educational practice, and the number of children being fully included rapidly increases, but no system has arisen for educators to effectively collaborate with each other. As a result, inclusion appears to do more harm than good. Educators and researchers have noted the lack of collaboration among professionals as one of the major impediments to successful inclusion. This issue is fundamentally related to the lack of training that general educators receive in the area of special education. As a result, teachers neither possess adequate knowledge about children with disabilities nor do they have the instructional and behavioral management skills to teach these children. Furthermore, no system is in place in public schools where special educators can provide their expertise to inclusion practitioners. Thus, the majority of children with developmental disabilities do not appear to obtain social and academic benefits presumed to be offered in inclusive classrooms.

A good illustration of how inclusion is currently being practiced is from a mother's expression of frustration, as it appears on a Korean blog. Her child, who attended an inclusion classroom, was the target of constant harassment and bullying by his peers. The mother raised this issue with the teacher and demanded that she deal with it. In response, the teacher warned the bullies to leave the victimized child alone. Unfortunately, not only the bullies but also all the other classmates stopped talking to the child to avoid getting into trouble with the teacher or becoming the target of the bullies themselves. In the end, the mother felt that her son would have been better off being bullied than suffering complete social isolation. There was no information on how relieved the child was not to be bullied. This claim may be regarded as an extreme example. However, the mother's frustration may be understood when considering that interdependence is a value greatly emphasized in Korean culture. To promote the quality of inclusion implementation, training general educators and establishing an effective collaborative system between general and special education are other challenges in special education that Korea needs to address promptly.

Last, no provision for transition services is stated in the Special Education Promotion Act, although the law recommends that school districts offer vocational training or postsecondary education. To my knowledge, a very small number of high schools in urban areas have begun to offer job training to children with disabilities. A combination of poor job-training quality and industrial companies not being obliged to provide employment to children with disabilities results in few employment opportunities for these children. There have been active discussions among researchers as to which transitional models of the United States should be adopted and how these should be implemented. However, no specific plan for implementing transition services has been initiated. If the ultimate goal of special education is to prepare children with disabilities to attain successful community integration, schools must take on this essential role.

Conclusion

The field of special education in Korea has substantially improved in the last several years with an accompanying tremendous potential to grow. Economic prosperity and technological advancements have enabled persons with disabilities and their advocates to insist on equal rights in education, and, consequently, the Korean government is appropriately responding to them. However, several challenges in special education ought to be promptly addressed. Koreans have strived and rapidly accomplished establishing economic prosperity and boosting education and business enterprises to international levels. The success and enthusiasm experienced in those areas have begun to spill over into special education reform. There is no doubt that the current thrust of efforts in improving special education in Korea will be salient in enhancing the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities in the near future.

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Author notes

Author: Su-Je Cho, PhD, Assistant Professor, Fordham University, Graduate School of Education, Division of Curriculum and Teaching, 113 West 60th St., New York, NY 10023. scho@fordham.edu