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Hong Kong: In the Crosshairs of the Future

A few weeks ago, I reported on my recent visits to several schools in Hong Kong.  I've just returned from another visit to that city, the purpose of which was to explore the policy context in which those schools developed. We wanted to understand, from the point of view of those who had driven the process as well as those in the schools who had a ringside seat for its implementation, what the policies put forward by the Education Commission in 2000 had been intended to accomplish, how they were experienced by those they were intended to affect, what went right and wrong with the implementation, and what those present at the creation think needs to be done now.

The new Hong Kong government created the Education Commission as the British colonial era came to an end and Hong Kong's new identity as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China began.  The Commission's report was issued in 2000, the result of an extraordinary process in which it conducted more than 300 separate consultations and received more than 30,000 separate written suggestions and comments. Not your usual commission report, it contains a cogent and powerful analysis of the context in which the policy was made and offers as humane a conception of the purposes of education and as persuasive a proposal for achieving those purposes as I have seen anywhere. You can read it here.

I will focus on a few key features. The reforms were driven by the realization that Hong Kong's manufacturing economy, which had provided employment to millions of people with a modest education, was on its way out, being replaced by a financial services industry, consulting and management services and related industries that required far better-educated and much more highly skilled people.  But they also realized that the future, not just of employment and work but of many other things as well, was becoming chronically unpredictable. The education system, which had been designed long ago to produce a small, highly educated elite and provide everyone else with just a very basic education, would no longer be good enough. 

That system, based on an aggressive tracking and streaming design that favored memorization of facts, rote mastery of procedures, narrow specialization and advancement based only on exam scores, would no longer serve Hong Kong's interests.  They would have to redesign the whole system. The secondary schools would not change unless the universities changed their entrance requirements. They would not be able to get students from widely different backgrounds to very high standards without first-rate teachers.  The system would not produce students with the qualities they were after without rethinking the curriculum. That would not matter unless they also rethought how students would be assessed. None of the actors would be likely to change much of anything in reality without major changes in the incentives they faced.

Hong Kong had an excellent teacher corps. For a long time, Hong Kong universities took in less than 1.5 percent of the cohort. Many who did not get in went to the teacher training institutes. When only 1.5 percent of the cohort got into university, the quality of those who went into the teacher training institutes was very high. But over time, when 18 percent got into universities and many of the other top high school graduates went abroad to university, the quality of those who went into teaching declined. The Commission proposed greatly ratcheting up the requirements for entering the profession.

The curriculum and the pathways through the school experience were based on the British system, which strongly encouraged a low standard for most students and a much higher standard for a few, with a narrow path upward for the best students headed for university, who typically specialized in a small handful of subjects in the latter part of high school. The curriculum was focused on the traditional school subjects. Traditional methods of instruction prevailed. 

The whole structure of this system was radically changed.  The curriculum was both broadened and deepened. The old aptitude test at the end of primary school was abolished. Three public assessments were consolidated into only one at the end of the 12th grade. The focus of the curriculum shifted from teaching the standard subjects to providing a set of five learning "experiences," which taken together, would enable students to acquire the whole range of cognitive knowledge and skills, attributes and values that Hong Kong wanted them to have.  Some of those experiences would be provided in the classroom, some on the playing field and others through the extracurricular program and outside the school. 

One way of expressing at least part of the aim was as a T-shaped curriculum, one arm broad enough to prepare the students for the unexpected and the other narrow and strong enough to enable them to hit the ground running with a very high level of preparation in a particular arena.  The new system was meant to shift toward a design that would be heavily project- and problem-based.  A number of subjects previously taught separately were integrated in the form of "combined science" and "integrated humanities," and a new arena called "liberal studies" was created, focused on few broad contemporary issues—like the environment—of concern to the Hong Kong community.

The Commission saw the Hong Kong schools as too much like each other, cut from the same mold, and an old mold at that.  They wanted to shake them up, introduce some competition into the system, provide some relief from the regulatory regime overseen by the central administration. 

These aims will seem familiar to Americans.  The scheme they devised was similar to the idea of charter schools in the United States, but different in crucial ways.  Rather than create new schools, they wanted to limit the opportunity to get regulatory relief to the best of the existing schools.  These were schools that had been established by church-related groups and other private associations and organizations, typically many years earlier, and had excellent reputations. They offered them financial support at the same level as the regular government schools, but as a block grant that they could use as they wished, rather than with the control over line item expenditures that the government exercises over the government schools. Importantly, these schools can also select their students, while the regular government schools must accept the students assigned by the government in a complex system designed to mix students by ability level.  In practice, however, almost all of these schools offer scholarships, some to as many as 40 percent of their students. And the government relieved them of the obligation to teach both Chinese and English and offered them the right to charge for their services.

There was no doubt in our minds that these reforms, on the whole, worked and worked very well. We could see that in the high quality of the schools we had visited as well as the international comparative data for Hong Kong schools.  The vision promulgated by the 2000 Commission report and the people who had produced it was alive and well.  But we were concerned.  Public policy appears to be combining with demographics to cloud the future of education in Hong Kong.

First, while the government required all primary teachers to have university degrees for the first time, it did not pay them at the rate that university graduates should command, which understandably infuriated them.  Second, while the government did broaden considerably the range of learning experiences that teachers are supposed to provide, it did not really reduce the enormous number of lessons they are supposed to teach as prescribed by the syllabi.  The combined effect of these policies has had a very destructive impact on teacher morale, produced a profound lack of trust in the government and sapped a lot of the enthusiasm for the reforms.

Third, the school-age population of Hong Kong has been falling like a rock as the cost of living in Hong Kong has skyrocketed and the fertility rate has declined.  The government's response was a heavy-handed attempt to close the weakest schools.  In the end the schools were not closed, but the debate produced rising anxiety among teachers about job security and further reduced their confidence in the government.

Fourth, the parts of the reform agenda that were intended to loosen up the system and produce more variety and better quality were not working as intended.  The Commission had hoped that the formerly private schools now given more autonomy by the government but largely free of detailed supervision would constitute at least half of the whole school system.  But, as of today, they are only eight percent of the whole.  Among the best schools in Hong Kong, they are performing as well as ever.  But they stand accused of reducing equity in the city, because they enroll many of the most favored and capable students.  In much of the world, this happens because low-income parents, confined to parts of the city in which crime is high and transportation is expensive, struggle to take advantage of the choices offered by school choice systems.  This, however, does not apply to Hong Kong, where crime is almost zero and public transportation is safe, cheap and ubiquitous.  But government has been reluctant to expand the system for fear that schools that lack a strong record of outstanding performance over many years would abuse the autonomy provided to the schools that have been given this freedom to date.

The people who drove the reforms of 16 years ago do not regard any of these setbacks as fatal or irreversible.  Indeed, they see the need for new reforms.  I very much hope they get the chance to make the case for those reforms and I hope Hong Kong listens.  This extraordinary, yeasty cockpit of messy democracy, sitting astride east and west, is in the crosshairs of the forces to which we are all subject, and it is very lucky to have produced citizens who are as good at thinking about what it will take to cope with those changes as any I have met anywhere. 

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