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English or languish
Probing the ramifications of Hong Kong's language policy

Quality Assessment
Section One
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A Structural Approach to Hong Kong's Educational Priorities


A careful examination of the way in which public and private secondary teachers are assigned across academic subjects reveals what is probably the true academic agenda of Hong Kong school administrators. In terms of both the number and quality of trained teachers the overriding emphasis is on technology, commerce, and national identity. The tools required by the individual student to understand his role in society at the local, regional, national, and global levels are not provided or only provided in a context in which they cannot be challenged intellectually. No apparent intellectual foundation for good cross-cultural understanding is present.

Caution: Though certification is an important standard for measuring knowledge and a teacher's ability to transfer it to others, when applied to individual teachers it must be utilised with caution. What is probably a good yardstick for most and therefore the system as a whole, is likely a poor standard of measurement in many individual cases. Thus, those who are quick to find exception with the conclusions of this section, should not be quick to discount the results; rather, they should view their own experience as fortunate and consider what makes them an exception. In many ways the statistics speak for themselves.

Section Index

Discussion and Explanation

The teacher as a classroom leader

The number of hours that a child spends seated with his classmates before a teacher during his grade school career is indeed very large. As teachers exercise important authority over each student and the classroom as a whole, they represent an important constraint on a child's ability to learn. The extent to which this constraint creates a quality learning environment for all students depends of course on many factors including the teacher's knowledge, training, experience, motivation, leadership skills, and personality. Obviously there is much more to teaching than merely being knowledgeable about a particular subject matter. (index)

The teacher as a government employee

There was a time, perhaps not so long ago, when only the children of educated parents or those who could afford to pay teachers were taught the kind of knowledge that one acquires from books. Under such circumstances the teacher answered directly to the parents whose children he was teaching.

For a variety of reasons the individual parent has far less control today over what, how, and by whom his or her child is taught. Not only does the subject matter to which children are exposed requires many teachers, but the teachers are selected by a principal -- not the parent. Parents might still have a say about the treatment of their children, but the teacher, his or her salary, the subject matter, the number of hours spent, and the educational setting are all determined by the school administration and the educational system of which the school forms a part. Teachers salaries are determined based on factors far removed from the classroom including their level of certification, administrative rank, and their school's overall performance on comprehensive examinations administered by the regional government. With the exception of parent-teacher associations and parental influence over their children's domestic study habits caring parents have been largely removed as a determining factor in their children's education. Indeed, education today is often run like big business, and private enterprise now competes with government for a share in the spoils. This is especially true in the case of English language education in Hong Kong and East Asia.

How things became this way is a matter somewhat beyond the scope of this analysis. Certainly one important factor must have been universal compulsory education. Obviously Hong Kong's universal English language requirement is closely associated with this general trend. (index)

Measuring systemic performance

In order to measure the performance of any system one must be clear not only about the goals of the system but also its ability to achieve those goals efficiently. In order to understand what those goals are it is useful to examine the way in which the system's inputs are structured. This section is devoted to one of Hong Kong's educational system's two principal inputs -- namely, its teachers. Hong Kong children are of course the other principal input, but they appear to have little say in their own destiny and do not receive salaries paid for with Hong Kong tax dollars.  Where appropriate Hong Kong's universal English language (UEL) requirement will also be addressed. (index)

Understanding Hong Kong's educational priorities

Before one can measure the effectiveness of a system one must have a clear understanding of its priorites. Rather than parroting government policy that interprets facts in ways that are favorable to government and sets priorities that may or may not coincide with what actually occurs, let us examine the data upon which these policies are based and see what priorities are actually followed.

Under the assumption that each teacher of each academic subject has the same number of students, the number of teachers assigned to each academic subject probably reflects well the importance of each subject to each child relative to all other subjects within the system. Of course, there are many factors that determine class size, and a closer look will likely reveal many exceptions to this simplifying assumption. Nevertheless, what better general indicator is available? Not only is manpower the largest single expense in a typical school budget, but how that manpower is distributed across subject areas must certainly reflect the intentions of government and school administrators with regard to the system's academic goals. In this analysis the system refers to all public and private schools accredited by the regional government of Hong Kong and those responsible for the system's administration -- namely, Hong Kong's Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) and its advisory bodies.

Graph 6 (new window) shows the number of teachers active in each major subject area.
Each subject area is listed according to the number of teachers, who claim that area as his or her principal subject taught. The subject areas have been ranked in ascending order from top to bottom according to the total number of teachers associated with each. As these data were taken from a comprehensive survey that includes all teachers, sampling error is not an issue. Measurement error due to teachers teaching in more than one subject area is likely to be present, but not significant, because multi-subject area teachers engage in varying subject combinations.

With regard to the UEL requirement the most distinguishing feature of this chart is the relative position of English literature and the English language. English literature ranks at the top of the list with only 152 teachers and the English language appears at the very bottom with a whopping 5703 teachers. This point will be examined in some detail in the next section.

Close inspection of this graph reveals what appears to be five major subject-area subgroups. The most important subgroup labelled The Big Three in table 6 (new window) comprises the subject areas: English language, Chinese language, and mathematics. The average number of teachers per subject area in this subgroup is 5206 -- more than twice the average number of teachers for the second most important subgroup labelled Hong Kong generic. On average this latter group engages only 2475 teachers per subject area. All subgroups, including the additional subgroups labelled Colonial heritage (1505 teachers), College bound (1044 teachers), and In search of a life-style (413 teachers), exhibit a decline in the average number of teachers per subject area as one ascends along either graph or table. The breakpoint between each subgroup, if not clearly visible in graph 6 becomes more apparent in table 6, where the average number of teachers per subject area in each major subgroup is listed. A smaller average number of teachers per subject area can mean fewer teachers, more subject areas, or both; it is not necessarily an indicator of a subgroups relative importance. For example, the College bound subgroup ranks number four (fourth from the bottom) with regard to the average number of teachers per subject area, but ranks number three (third from the bottom) in the number of teachers who belong to the subgroup.

The number of teachers assigned to each subject area in each school must represent an explicit decision on the part of each school administrator. The number of teachers assigned to each subgroup and the average number of teachers per subject area in each subgroup reflect the underlying values of those who make the decisions. The number of teachers assigned to each subject area across the entire educational system is the aggregate result of all decisions. As the government establishes the
curriculum guidelines, administers the major qualifying examinations that each student must pass in order to advance through the system, and monitors individual school's conduct and performance, its influence on the decision making of individual school administrator's must be substantial, though not always direct or even crucial.

Although the name assigned to each subgroup is somewhat ad hoc, together they appear to reflect well what the author believes to be the hidden priorities of the Hong Kong educational system and the underlying social structure that this system nurtures and sustains. (index)

Hong Kong's five principal subject-area subgroups

In order of Hong Kong's own priorities, based not on stated government policy, but rather on the structural components that constitute Hong Kong's educational system, let us now examine each of the major subgroups in more detail. In order to facilitate this analysis graph 7, graph 8, and graph 9 consolidate the information found in table 6 and graph 6 by providing a clear comparison of all subgroups based on three separate and distinct criteria including the proportion of subject trained teachers, the average number of teachers per subject area, and the total number of teachers.

The Big Three

In descending order of priority let us begin with the subgroup labeled The Big Three at the bottom of
table 6. This group surpasses each of the other subgroups in terms of both the number of teachers (graph 9) and average number of teachers per subject area (graph 8). Relative to the subgroup labelled Colonial heritage there are more than three times as many teachers. As reading, writing, and arithmetic -- the essential three Rs of basic education -- are a major priority in any system of basic education, the large number of teachers teaching mathematics and Chinese language should surprise no one. What may surprise someone who is not a native Hong Konger or East Asian is the prominence of the English language in this subgroup. Not only is it included among The Big Three, but it ranks above the Chinese language and mathematics in terms of the number of teachers per subject area. As a former British colony one might attribute this arrangement to Hong Kong's colonial legacy. Only six years have passed since the sovereign power of Hong Kong switched from Great Britain to China and structural change takes time. This does not appear to be the case; however. Rather than gradually reducing the number of English language teachers Hong Kong's Education and Manpower Bureau is seeking to improve their quality. In so far as nearly 95% of all Hong Kongers are ethnic Chinese and speak the same mother tongue (see graph 11) this structural persistence not only needs to be explained, but must be well-justified. Unfortunately it is not, and this is the challenge that the HKLNA-Project poses to the Hong Kong government and many Hong Kong citizens who support their government in this regard.

In terms of certified teacher qualifications
(graph 7) only the subgroup labelled College bound ranks higher than The Big Three1. Certainly the high priority placed on Big Three subject areas speaks well of at least one aspect of Hong Kong's educational system. (index)

Hong Kong generic
This subgroup ranks number two in terms of the number of teachers assigned to it. Chinese history, computer studies, and general science constitute the subgroups three subject areas. Though more teachers (see table 6) are assigned to Chinese history than to either computer studies or general science, the number of teachers assigned to each subject area is quite high relative to other subject areas not included in The Big Three.
In terms of teacher quality (graph 7), however, this subgroup ranks fourth behind The Big Three, College Bound, and In search of a life-style. The extraordinary priority placed on this subgroup in terms of teacher number and the obvious neglect with regard to level of certification suggest high level exposure and low level awareness. Low quality, high level exposure caters to awareness that others understand -- not an ability to apply that awareness in a meaningful way for oneself.

The high priority placed on Chinese history is not unusual, as history is an important tool employed by all national governments to insure loyalty and legitimize authority. The strong emphasis on computer studies reflect Hong Kong's commitment to information technology and desire to remain competitive internationally. The extraordinary priority given to general science insures public awareness with regard to technological transfer, innovation, and implementation, and together with Chinese history and computer studies instills regional pride in Hong Kong's high level of technological advancement and insures a built-in tolerance for the important long term social and environmental sacrifices necessary to insure the short-term profit gains, industrial, commercial, and financial competitiveness, and rapid rise to riches of Hong Kong's entrepreneurial elite.

In the end the Hong Kong child learns that being Chinese is a good thing, and that computers and science are important to its leaders. Control over his own political destiny and his ability to manipulate information and the world around him are left to others, however. (index)

Colonial heritage
Though number three in terms of average number of teachers per subject area, this subgroup represents the bottom of the barrel. Not only does it include the fewest number of teachers (graph 9), but it demonstrates the worst quality in terms of teacher certification (graph 7). Included in this group are ethics and religion, geography, and history. As Chinese history is contained in the subgroup Hong Kong generic, history in this subgroup must cover more worldly topics such as human evolution, imperial conquest, the Enlightenment, colonial expansion, the British empire, the industrial revolution, the rise of nationalism, recent regional and world wars, the creation of the United Nations, urbanization and modernisation, economic development, and the general destruction and degradation of our social and biological environments.

As over 60% of all Hong Kong children are enrolled in primary schools that are affiliate with some religious faith, the absence of subject training in ethics and religion among Hong Kong secondary school teachers is somewhat baffling2. Perhaps school administrators believe that the interpretation of religious teachings is not something to analyse and debate. Certainly the best place to learn religious, ethnic, and racial tolerance is not among members of your own religion, ethinic group, or race, but among the general public where all walks of life tend to meet. When this is not possible, however, what better place is there to learn tolerance than in a classroom under the guidance of a well-trained teacher? The abysmally low level of teacher certification in these areas (12.7% public schools and 11.6% private schools) certainly does not support the often flaunted international character of Hong Kong society3.

The overall mediocre rating (51% subject trained) for the Colonial heritage subgroup is salvaged by the subject area geography for which 74.8% (public schools) and 79% (private schools) of all teachers are subject-trained. These high figures explain at least in part why geography is one of the subject areas examined for entry into a local university. Certainly it reflects the high priority that Hong Kong educators place on Hong Kong's reputation as a regional and world trade and financial center. One might expect that Hong Kong secondary school students have a better notion of geography than say their USAmerican counterparts. (index)

College bound
Though fourth on the list of major subgroups in terms of average number of teachers per subject area (graph 8), this group receives the highest quality rating; a full 87% of all teachers are subject-trained in their principal subject taught (graph 7). This subgroup also ranks third (graph 9) in the total number of teachers assigned to any subgroup -- 17.6% of all teachers4. Perhaps it is not coincidence that
there are just about as many teachers assigned to the College bound subgroup as there are students who receive post-secondary formal training in Hong Kong.

The high qualifications of this subgroup should surprise no one, as grade school education and academia in general are a meritocracy the world over. Students compete for the best grades possible, and those that receive the best grades, advance the furthest and highest through the system. Accordingly, it is natural in the absence of intervention from outside authorities for the best trained teachers to be assigned to the best trained students and vice versa. This scheme of things blends well with what appears to be the natural flow of people and ideas in Hong Kong society -- the "unruly many" are sacrificed on behalf of the obedient and disciplined ruling few. This is a recurrent theme in Hong Kong society and educational system for which we will find ample evidence as we move along. (index)

In search of a life-style
This subgroup distinguishes itself from the other subgroups in so far as it contains the largest number of subject areas 14 and the smallest average number of teachers per subject area -- only 413 (see table 6). With regard to the total number of teachers only the subgroup Colonial heritage has fewer. In search of a life-style includes those subjects that are probably not available to every student. This subgroup also provides teachers, who teach these subjects, a certain degree of autonomy vis-à-vis their peers. The subject areas of this subgroup give students, who are not college-bound, a break from the assembly-line filtering proceedures associated with more standard subject areas. These subject areas also give students a chance to explore different avenues of self-expression and professional development, and even prepare some for a life different from that to which all of us are condemned at least in part -- that of the anonymous data point and statistical profile.

In graph 10 this subgroup's subject areas are further classified into four minor subgroups including Buisness and commerce (gold), Civic duty and social awareness (brown), Non-recreational leisure (yellow), and Work skills (orange)5. The number of teachers and their level of subject training are provided for each minor subgroup, and these compared with teacher quantity and quality for the major subgroup as a whole. The subject areas corresponding to each minor subgroup can be found in table 10. By way of further comparison both major and minor subgroups are compared with the subject area English language taken from the major subgroup The Big Three.

The teacher quality among these minor subgroups is not uniform. Though not as low as the subject area Ethics and religion examined under the heading Colonial heritage above, subject training in Civic duty and social awareness ranks at the bottom of this subgroup with only 31% of all teachers having received either degree or non-degree subject training. In contrast subject trained teachers in the minor subgroup Non-recreational leisure tops the list with 83% of all teachers having received subject training. Among the subject areas examined in this section and the major and minor subgroups associated with each only the major subgroup College bound ranks higher in teacher quality than Non-recreational leisure. Obviously the Hong Kong educational system places important emphasis on leisure activity for at least a small number of Hong Kong students. (index)

The big picture written small
If the number of teachers and their level of certification in the principal subjects they teach is a good indicator of the way in which Hong Kong school administrators prioritize knowledge for the purpose of educating Hong Kong children, then we are left with the following.6
In terms of subject matter Hong Kong administrators provide a solid foundation in mathematics and Chinese language and history to all students. Those, who are likely to continue their formal education beyond secondary form V and contribute to the region's technological and economic advancement, are provided with the best education possible. Little attention is paid to nonmarket, social value that cannot be obtained within the narrow framework of one's own religious beliefs or family circle. With the exception of economics and geography the social and behavioral sciences are ignored. Though many students receive an introduction to science, information technology, and non-Chinese history, their understanding of what they have learned is probably shallow. Please see the introduction for this section for additional summary and concluding remarks written small. (index)

1 Obviously the quality of a teacher's certification is only one measure of his or her ability to perform well in the classroom. All other factors equal, however, the better a teacher's certification the better his or her probable performance is likely to be. For the purpose of measuring the system's overall priorities and performance the comparison provided in graph 7 is probably the best available. See Glossary under Special terms for definitions of subject-trained and nonsubject-trained teachers. (text)

2 In 2001 just under 60% of all Hong Kong primay day school students were enrolled in a religious affiliated primary school, more than 50% were enrolled in a primary school affiliated with a Christian faith. With only minor change the same pattern holds for Hong Kong secondary school enrolment. Source: Department of Education (Education and Manpower Bureau) Planning and Research Division, Statistics Section. 2002 (April). Enrolment statistics 2001. Table 3.7 Classes, accommodation, and enrolment in primary day schools by religious background of school, 2001, p.58. Table 4.5 Classes, accommodation and enrolment in secondary day schools by religious background of school, 2001, p.91. (text)

Department of Education (Education and Manpower Bureau), Planning and Research Division, Statistics Section. 2002 (May). Teacher Statistics 2001. Table 4.17 Distribution of secondary school teachers in post by subject taught by sector and formal training, p.100. (text)

4 This figure is derived by summing vertically across the number of teachers assigned to each subgroup, dividing this total into the number of teachers within subgroup College bound, and then multiplying by 100. See table 6 for values. (text)

5 Non-recreational leisure refers to leisure activities that are not included under the heading physical education. Physical education is included in the major subgroup College bound and can be viewed in either graph 6 or table 6. (text)

6 As the next section is devoted entirely to the way in which the English language fits into the big picture described in this section, it will ignored for the moment. (text)

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