Hong Kong: A Kaleidoscope of Education Reform Efforts

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Hong KongBy Debra A. Hill, Immediate Past President, ASCD

ASCD staff and a small group of ASCD members have participated in four study tours to gain insight into education reform efforts and explore learning, teaching and leading practices and policies around the world.

Back in the fall of 2013, the study tour took us to the beautiful world of Hong Kong, China. Our team consisted of Gene Carter, ASCD Executive Director and CEO; Judy Seltz, ASCD Deputy Executive Director; Tony Frontier, university professor, author, and photographer; Ryan Twentey, Outstanding Young Educator Award winner, and high school graphic arts/tech teacher and amateur photographer; Mable Twentey, Ryan’s mom and a native of Hong Kong; Marc Cohen, high school principal, Outstanding Young Educator Award winner, and past board member; Sara Shubel, K–12 school superintendent, past board member, and past ASCD President; and myself, Debra Hill, K–8 educator, university professor, and ASCD Immediate Past President.

Many of us often think of Hong Kong as a magical place in Southeast Asia where East meets West and life is good. Even the lyrical tone of just saying the name “Hong Kong” can bring a smile to one’s face. During this visit, we had the pleasure and opportunity to observe and explore many elements of Hong Kong’s changing landscape. We discovered that Hong Kong is a kaleidoscope of education reform efforts, and many of their methods and challenges mirror what we experience here in the United States. A kaleidoscope can be described as a complex, colorful, and shifting pattern or scene or a complex set of events or circumstances. That is the picture in my mind of what education reform in Hong Kong represents.

Our study group had an array of visiting experiences that ranged from visiting a preschool/kindergarten class with children ages 6 months to 5 years old, through having lunch with secondary students, with multiple stops along the way. We visited a school that had made substantial gains in attendance and test scores, given the levels of poverty there, and we visited private schools that overlooked beautiful mountains and waterways and where students are destined for the top colleges and universities. We spoke with teachers, headmasters, and principals; government officials; and advocates for the people, students and administrators, university colleagues and family—all with an avid interest in education and its future development in Hong Kong.

A highlight of our trip included an educational seminar moderated by Edmond Hau-Fai Law, a longstanding ASCD member and supporter, with assistance from Eva Su. The Hong Kong Institute of Education, one of the largest providers of teacher education in Hong Kong, hosted this seminar, which addressed three key questions:

  1. What should today’s schools be doing to best prepare students to participate in a global society?
  2. How do we ensure a high-quality teaching force, both now and in the future?
  3. What are the attributes of an effective teacher?

These questions sounded very familiar from our work with the Common Core State Standards and issues of teacher preparation and evaluation.

Tony and Ryan presented their perspectives, and we also enjoyed hearing from university professors David Coniam and  John C. K. Lee and principal Joyce Fungming Sit. Each brought a contemporary viewpoint and gave concrete examples that addressed the topics for the session.

We discovered that both Hong Kong and the United States have similar issues in providing high-quality education for all children, despite differences in poverty levels and population diversity. We observed the struggle of teachers to address the teaching, learning needs, and challenges of diverse learners. We heard cries for equality among students, ethnicities, and learning styles and a desire to address these issues and meet the needs of a diverse clientele while leveling the educational playing field. Retooling the assessment and labeling system that continues to cater to the elite, excludes a large portion of the population, and may be stifling the creativity of 21st century learners was another common theme that resonated with our team. The notion of moving forward and holding back and emphasizing the tension between “old school thinking” and a progressive move forward appeared to be an underlying theme.

Here are some facts about education in Hong Kong:

  • $79.1 billion was approved for public spending on education (the United States does not quite meet that mark proportionally).
  • Since the 2008–09 school year, the government has extended free education from 9 to 12 years (becoming more similar to our K–12 system)
  • Vocational education is being promoted for senior secondary-school students as an alternative to college and secondary higher education.
  • The three types of school structures include
    • schools operated by the government (similar to our public schools supported by local taxes;
    • subsidized schools, which are financially supported by the government but run by volunteer bodies who use the curriculum and assessment systems “recommended” by the government (similar to our charter schools); and
    • private schools, which use their own curriculum, may receive some government assistance, and may be related to religious groups (similar to our private and parochial schools); however, students also take the government exams.
  • High-stakes testing rates and ranks schools. Band 1 schools have the highest rating. Success in these schools is viewed as a necessity for entrance into the best colleges and universities around the world. Competition to do well on the exams and get in the best schools is very high (similar to our high-stakes ACT and SAT scoring).
  • Kindergarten not required, but there is an interest in early childhood education, beginning as young as 6 months.
  • Chinese is the language of instruction in most schools; however, second language acquisition, especially English, is also encouraged.
  •  A commitment to the arts is also evident. (Not so much so in U.S. schools.)

While the ASCD Study Tour Team immersed themselves in the culture—and the weather challenges—of Hong Kong, we also connected with dedicated educators who were passionate about the future of all 21st century learners. If you have not read Dr. Carter’s article in the July 2013 issue of ASCD’s Education Update newsletter, where he highlights Yew Chung International School (one of the sites we visited), I encourage you to do so.

I believe I speak for the entire team when I say that it was a spectacular and awe-inspiring adventure in learning, we appreciate the opportunity we had, and the Hong Kong kaleidoscope is beautiful to behold.

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