Hong Kong's Lessons for U.S. Education

School choice still stirs up debate in America, but Hong Kong has put it to work with strong results, writes Boston Consulting's David C. Michael

Some of the same qualities that have made Hong Kong's economy one of the top performers in the world also have produced a world-class education system. America would be well-served to take an open-minded look at Hong Kong's approach.

Hong Kong is well known for its open economy, enjoying the top spot on two indices of global economic freedom: Economic Freedom of the World, published annually by Canada's Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think tank, and the Index of Economic Freedom, published annually by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank.

These annual surveys show that economic freedom isn't an abstract concept. As Fraser Institute scholars noted in September, when the 2006 report was released, nations in the top quartile in economic freedom have an average per capita gross domestic product of $24,402 and an average per capita growth rate of 2.1%, while those in the bottom quartile average $2,998 per capita and -0.2% annual "growth" rate. Economic freedom and economic success go hand in hand.

Math Numbers

While Hong Kong's economic accomplishments are well known by now, fewer people realize that its attitude toward business is reflected in other important areas as well, with similar results. Most notably, its school system.

Education reform ideas that are the subject of bitter division in the U.S. are not only considered noncontroversial in Hong Kong, they're credited with producing one of the world's most successful school systems—a system whose students consistently outperform American students.

Consider student achievement in science and math. According to the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which, since 1995, has been conducting the "Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study" (TIMSS), Hong Kong students consistently score among the world's best in science and math, well ahead of U.S. students.

In science, for example, U. S. eighth-graders were outperformed by eighth-grade students from Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Estonia, Japan, Hungary, and the Netherlands in the most recent (2003) TIMSS survey. In math, U.S. eighth-graders were outperformed by students from 14 countries: Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, Estonia, Hungary, Malaysia, Latvia, Russia, the Slovak Republic, and Australia.

Scholastic Market

So what is Hong Kong's formula for creating top-performing schools? Basically, the same factors that help produce winning businesses: choice and competition.

In the U.S., there are just 19 "school choice" programs in the entire country, serving approximately 100,000 students in 11 states and Washington, D.C. Efforts to expand this are being spearheaded by the conservative Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, established by the Nobel Laureate and his wife, but opposition from teachers' unions and other members of the education establishment is fierce.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, every student has a choice of schools. This is one of the defining businesslike qualities of a Hong Kong education. School choice in Hong Kong is made possible by a voucher system, known as the Direct Subsidy Scheme, in which students and parents choose their schools and the government pays.

Standard Curriculum

There are basically three types of schools in Hong Kong: those run by the government, the type of school known in the U.S. as a public school; government-subsidized schools operated by independent nonprofit and religious organizations; and nonsubsidized private schools, run by private organizations.

Most Hong Kong schools are fully financed by the government (and therefore provided free to the students)—but very few are actually operated by the government. Indeed, of the 674 government-funded primary schools now operating in Hong Kong, only 38 are directly run by the government. Of the 524 government-funded secondary schools, just 36 are government run. All government-funded schools follow standard curriculum guidelines.

More importantly, students have a choice of schools to attend.

While the actual selection process varies, as a practical matter, the typical primary-school student in Hong Kong will have a choice of three or four different schools, all fully funded and free of charge. The typical U.S. student attending public schools has no such choice. Hong Kong's schools stand out for other reasons as well:

Competitive environment. Since schools must compete for students in order to receive the financing that follows the students, they have an incentive to perform at the highest possible level. In Hong Kong, students are consumers, and they and their parents can vote with their feet.

Strict standards. While the government doesn't run most schools, it sets strict performance standards, conducts regular (and strict) inspections, and will shut schools down if they don't meet the requirements. In March, 2005, for example, the government ordered the closure of 20 underperforming schools. Every headmaster faces the credible threat of having his or her institution shut down if it fails to meet government standards.

Clarity of purpose. Education in Hong Kong is overseen by the Education & Manpower Bureau, making explicit the link between education and jobs, the needs of the students and those of employers.

Better use of resources. Most urban school systems in the U.S. have layer upon layer of bureaucracy: a superintendent, numerous deputy superintendents, special offices for "special education," lawyers to negotiate with the teacher unions, centralized purchasing, facilities and maintenance offices, and on and on. Hong Kong's system of autonomous schools eliminates most of this, freeing up more resources for teaching. As a result, the student-teacher ratio in Hong Kong's primary schools is 18.5 to 1.

Strong curriculum. While apologists for the U.S. education system attribute the success of many Asian children to cultural factors, that's only a part of the story. What the children are expected to learn is far more important.

My nine-year-old niece, for example, was one of the approximately 373,700 students who attended a Hong Kong primary school last year. She was admitted to the free but independently run school by competitive examination, a rarity in the U.S. these days.

The school follows a government-set curriculum that's no cakewalk: She's required to master two languages (Chinese and English) to full fluency, study a musical instrument, study science and math, wear a uniform, perform well academically, and behave.

Controversial Concepts

Hong Kong's education system is now producing class after class of graduates well-positioned for the needs of the future global economy. They are multilingual, diligent, disciplined, worldly, excel in the basics, and have a realistic sense of competition on a global scale.

The Hong Kong education system includes concepts many Americans consider controversial, at least when it comes to education: choice, competition, involvement of private and religious groups in a subsidized system, pressure to perform placed both on schools and students, and insistence on multi-language fluency. Yet Hong Kong has moved well beyond the controversies into full and successful implementation of these concepts.

The Hong Kong system produces results that command our attention. America should learn from these impressive results.