I was in Hong Kong recently, having breakfast with two good friends, both of them key players in the development of Hong Kong’s education system, which has for years topped the world’s student performance league tables. The conversation turned to comparisons of the education systems in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and the United States. All three of us had, at various times, had plenty of opportunities to get familiar with all of these systems.
The conversation turned to the drivers of consistently high student performance. We focused on the role of expectations—the expectations that teachers and parents have for the students—as a very important explainer of big differences in student outcomes.
It seems clear that Hong Kong’s Asian cultural heritage combines with its colonial heritage to create very high expectations for Hong Kong students. The British did not bring with them a mass education system. At the time their schools were set up, there was no mass education system in Britain. As elsewhere in the British Empire, the leaders of the colonial administrations brought with them the church-related schools that they themselves had been educated in to educate the cream of the crop of the local population who would themselves play elite roles in local government and business. Then government started aiding these private schools, only later building new government-funded schools. This was not unlike what happened in Australia, except that in Australia, most of these aided private schools were Catholic schools for ordinary folk, whereas in Hong Kong, they were Anglican or Episcopal schools for the elite. Over time, the Hong Kong colonial government got progressively more control over the aided schools in exchange for the government’s financial support, but the original character of the schools was largely preserved and heavily influenced the character of the whole system. The elite church schools the British government brought to Hong Kong were conceived first and foremost as conveyors of values and builders of character, but they also expected their graduates to be ready to meet the intellectual demands of Oxford, Cambridge, the University of London and Sandhurst, Britain’s military academy. When Hong Kong built is own mass education system, much later, these schools were incorporated into the mass education system and, indeed, set the tone for that system.
What this makes me think about is implicit standards and their origins. What I mean by this is the question as to how expectations for students get formed, not by government, but by the whole society. In the case of East Asia as a whole, expectations are importantly a function of the way the ancient exam system worked. The exams were for the elite and deliberately set very high. The good jobs were in the civil service and the military and the only way you could get them was to go through the keyhole of the exams. In Hong Kong this history blended with the English “public” school tradition, where the exams were also for the elite and the implicit standards were also set very high. In Asia, the view has been that anyone can achieve at high levels, as long as they put in enough work. So the expectation is that any student can do well on elite standards if that student works hard enough in school.
What dawned on me, of course, is how different Hong Kong’s history is on these points from the history of the American education system. What I have just described is almost the converse of American history. In the early part of the 20th century, a battle was fought over control over the high school curriculum between the elite universities and the public school reformers. The classical university ideal advocated by the Committee of Ten in the early years of the 20th century on behalf of the universities was embraced by a handful of selective admissions high schools in the larger cities. But with the vast influx of immigrants from the American South and from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the progressives won out and the common schools were no longer expected to educate everyone to elite standards.
The victory of the progressives was cemented by American psychologists in the 1940’s who proclaimed that high academic achievement was the result of innate ability, and therefore out of reach for the ordinary students. Ordinary schools were for students who were not expected to reach high academic standards because the society had concluded it was neither necessary (the progressives) nor possible (the psychologists). In a country that was deeply suspicious of elites anyway, setting high academic standards was perceived as in some way anti-American.
So the vast majority of high schools ended up adopting a curriculum perceived as much more practical and democratic, one intended for students most of whom would go right into the workforce after high school, students who really needed not much more than basic literacy, socialization and at least the beginnings of practical preparation for an occupation in the growing cities.
The result of these different histories was, I realized, a gigantic gap in expectations and standards, between Hong Kong and most of the United States, both for students and their teachers.
It is interesting what happens when you look at the subject of teacher quality through this lens. My breakfast companions acknowledge that, using attainment as the metric, teacher quality in Hong Kong is way behind teacher quality in the United States. But that is the wrong metric. One of them has taught in Australia and has extensive experience in the Untied States. In both places, he was astounded at the difference in teacher content knowledge and in teachers’ knowledge of content-related pedagogy. Hong Kong teachers are superior to both the U.S. and Australia in this regard. He attributes this to a difference in expectations that runs deep—in the schools and in the teacher education institutions. This difference in expectations is multidimensional. First, it has to do with depth of content knowledge, but it applies as well to depth of pedagogical content knowledge. Related to these two, one of my companions thinks that American and Australian teachers are much more likely to think about student engagement in terms of student excitement that may or may not be related to any specific learning objectives. They place a high value on spontaneity. Asian teachers want their students to be engaged and excited, but they are far more interested than American teachers in having their students learn something specific related to the subject they are studying, something that teachers are expected to teach and students are expected to learn. It is in that context that Asian teachers work hard—typically in teams—to carefully plan exciting lessons.
We need, of course, to keep in mind that when Asian educators look at American schools, they often find themselves admiring the openness and spontaneity of American classrooms and the way in which these qualities can, in the right circumstances, provide a foundation for confidence, creativity and enterprise among the students that Asian educators often have a hard time encouraging in their students. But, I must say, when I visited a number of Hong Kong schools, there was plenty of confidence, creativity and enterprise.
We can see here the origins of the relatively low expectations that American and perhaps Australian teachers typically have for their students and for their own content and pedagogical knowledge. All teachers are, to a large extent, the product of the high schools they attended. And, in most countries, teacher quality is a function of the slice of the high school graduates that go on to become teachers. In this way, education systems are constantly reproducing themselves. The high school graduates of one generation become, eventually, the teachers of the next one. The great difference in expectations for students between Hong Kong and most of the United States was constantly translated into a major difference in teacher quality, which then results in an even greater difference in student expectations and achievement in the next generation. The difference in expectations for students and the way this translates into similar differences in teacher quality accounts, I suspect, for a very large fraction of the difference in performance between Hong Kong students and most American students. It would also account for the fact that this difference in performance persists despite the fact that Hong Kong does not have the strong uniform influence of government policy on schools that we can see in Singapore. Universally high expectations and a well developed informal system of sharing practices among education professionals effectively masks the differences one would expect to find in a system in which government control of the schools is relatively weak.