The current global environment is vibrant, volatile and highly competitive. Many developing societies and emerging economies are seeking to establish ways in which they can gain advantages at the international level but also lay the basis for strong societies with exemplary economic, social and moral foundations. Towards this end, these countries are investing energies in building a skilled citizenry and socially mobile, achievement-driven, populations. One such society is the rapidly changing Republic of Korea. One of the catalysts for change in Korea has been argued to be education. Educational access has been linked to changes in economic status and to potentially the undermining of inequality and flattening of class hierarchies. Some authors argue that Korea has been gripped by an ‘education fever’ and others argue that persisting educational inequalities reflect differences largely in terms of social capital – rather than economic capital.
This thesis uses quantitative survey methodology to explore differences in the educational achievement of Korean high school students. Eleventh (11th) grade students in three ‘achieving schools’ with varied characteristics were subjects of the study. The purpose was to establish the factors driving achievement in these schools. It was believed that the identification of various factors which influence high achievement on the part of some students might offer insight into how low achievement can be addressed and the base of exceptional educational achievement broadened. Parents and teachers were also respondents in this study.
Social capital and its physical, relational, structural, and cognitive dimensions present the conceptual and analytical tools of the study. These concepts were explored in terms of the ideas of the founding theorists – Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam – and applied to three different domains: family, school and community. The findings suggest that high achievement is linked centrally to familial social capital. Boarding school, whether students who live at home have both parents present, and mothers collecting information from school serve as significant determinants of achievement. Together, Korean mothers and fathers can and do carve important outcomes when they are actively engaged in their children’s learning. As far as school social capital is concerned, physical background and public school status were deemed important. Residential district was the most significant component of community social capital.
At a theoretical level, the study finds Coleman’s arguments most relevant in the Korean context, in particular his views on parental involvement and socio-economic status and the ways in which networks of trust and reciprocity augment achievement. The study makes an original contribution in the way it adapts theory and builds novel evidence in the Korean context. The study concludes with a list of key recommendations.