The case for equality in education

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Many parents dig deep into their pockets to finance their children’s schooling, from expensive kindergartens to local/overseas universities, hoping to give them a solid foundation for their future.

A study commissioned by a banking giant last year supports this widely accepted view. Topping the list of 15 countries, Hong Kong parents spend over HK$1 million on education per child, three times the global average, and exceeding that of the UAE, Singapore, Taiwan and China. This finding reflects the ever-rising school fees and growing number of private and schools in Hong Kong.

Are parent and government monies going to the right place? Are education systems developing in the right direction? An in-depth study conducted by Professor Chiu Ming Ming, Chair Professor of Analytics and Diversity and Director of the Assessment Research Centre at The Education University of Hong Kong, sheds light on these matters.

Towards equity and excellence
Professor Chiu’s research on students’ mathematics test scores in 65 regions reveals that the seven well-established and economically equal Asian education systems—Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Macau and Shanghai—produce students with higher interest in mathematics and higher mathematics learning outcomes than students in the US and 57 other regions.

He explained that a country’s wealth is only part of the reason students learn more; equality also affects students’ learning outcomes. “In more equitable education systems, like those in Hong Kong and in Asia, economically disadvantaged students and lower ability students benefit from greater access to resources, resulting in higher achievement overall. This explains why students in Hong Kong do better in mathematics than students in richer Western countries, such as the US or Britain, in which disadvantaged students learn far less than their privileged peers,” says Professor Chiu.

Hence, he urged caution regarding the growing popularity of private schools in the region, which provide more resources to its students who, broadly speaking, come from well-off families. If this trend continues, the school system could become inefficient because, in spite of large investments, the additional resources add little extra value to affluent students’ education. He called on governments to support funding equity to ensure that all students have equal access to educational resources. Within the school itself, principals, teachers and staff can reduce the inequality effect by not showing preferential treatment.

For parents seeking a suitable school for their children, Professor Chiu advised, “Students also learn from classmates, so a good target school should treat students the same and have classmates whose average test scores are slightly higher than those of the student but not too high.” He cautioned against setting the bar too high, “Classmates with much higher test scores could demoralise a student.”

Professor Chiu also found that Asian students’ confidence in solving mathematics problems exceeded their confidence in their mathematics ability and was much lower than American students’ excessively high self-confidence (despite low mathematics test scores). That, in Professor Chiu’s view, helps Asian students both retain self-confidence and avoid overconfidence, thereby accurately assessing the task difficulty, exerting adequate effort, and successfully completing it to learn mathematics effectively.