Math Lessons from Hong Kong?

By Sean Cavanagh — May 15, 2009 2 min read
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When you think of Hong Kong, what comes to mind? International financial hub, certainly. Perhaps that spectacular skyline, ablaze in neon. Bruce Lee movies, or, if you’re a younger generation of film buff, maybe John Woo.

Yet if your primary interest is education, there’s a good chance you associate Hong Kong with something else: high-quality math lessons.

Devoted readers of Ed Week know that U.S. policymakers are paying a lot more attention to international assessments these days. Perhaps more importantly, they’re attempting to use data to move into very detailed analyses of what other countries seem to be doing well—and what we could be learning from them.

A new study released by a pair of researchers this past week offers a good example of this detailed analysis. Steve Leinwand and Alan Ginsburg decided to examine the 3rd grade math items tested in a top-performing U.S. state, Massachusetts, against that of Hong Kong, which scores extremely well on international tests, like the TIMSS. They found that Hong Kong’s test focused more intently on numbers and measurement, which they see as two key topics for preparing students for algebra, and for in-depth problem-solving. They also found that Hong Kong’s test required a lot more constructed-response questions than Massachusetts’ did&mdash. Those questions tend to demand more of students. And overall, Hong Kong’s test questions were more challenging, in terms of difficulty and complexity.

In some ways, the study is reminiscent of Bill Schmidt’s analysis of TIMSS data, which has found that high-performing countries tend to teach fewer math concepts, in more depth, than the United States does. See my recent story for more on Schmidt’s work analyzing how math is taught in the high-performing state of Minnesota.

I should note that in their study, Leinwand and Ginsburg emphasize that they’re not holding up Hong Kong as a model—they’re holding up both jurisdictions as models. "[T]he rest of the U.S. states would likely benefit even more by incorporating characteristics of both the Hong Kong and Massachusetts assessments within their own assessments,” they write.

While Massachusetts’ performance on national and international tests is impressive, Hong Kong’s is even better. Roughly 40 percent of Hong Kong test takers reach the “advanced” level on the TIMSS test, nearly twice the proportion that hit that mark in Massachusetts, and four times the percentage that climb that high from the United States, overall.

While we’re on the topic of Asian education, I wrote a story this week that deals with math teaching in South Korea. Specifically, it’s about an American professor named Janice Grow-Maienza and her quest to have Korean texts and lessons that she and a team of people have translated published commercially in the United States. So far, no luck. Like the authors of the Singapore study, Grow-Maienza is not arguing that U.S. officials adopt a foreign curriculum, or any other model, wholesale. Instead, she says, American officials can learn from various pieces of it, such as Korea’s teacher manuals, which she considers especially impressive. Check out her web site of translated Korean materials here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.