The global talent race

We have a lot of anxiety in the United States about the quality and effectiveness of our educational system, particularly at the elementary and secondary levels. And the anxiety is justified. A large percentage of our school-age population lives in high poverty neighborhoods, and they are served by schools that fail to allow them to make expected progress in needed academic skills, including especially reading, writing, and math. And we have high school dropout rates in many cities that exceed 25% — leading to the creation of large cohorts of young adults who lack the basic skills necessary to do productive work in our society. So at a time when personal and social productivity depends on problem-solving, innovation, and invention, many of our young people in the US haven’t developed their talents sufficiently to make these contributions.

How does this problem look from an international perspective? Other countries and regions seem to have taken more seriously the macro-role that education and talent will play in their futures, and are preparing the ground for superior outcomes on a population-wide basis. Here is one example — Hong Kong. Though part of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong retains a degree of autonomy in its social policies, and education is one of those areas where Hong Kong government can take special initiatives.

There is a pervasive feeling in Hong Kong that educational success is absolutely crucial. School children are strongly motivated, their families support them fully, and the city is trying to ensure that all children have access to effective schools. And there is a lot of civic focus on the quality and reach of the Hong Kong universities as well.  Business and civic leaders recognize the key role that well-educated Hong Kong graduates will play in the economic vitality of the city in the future. And university leaders are keenly interested in enhancing the quality of the undergraduate and graduate curricula  Here is a valuable survey report by Professor Leslie N.K. Lo, director of the Hong Kong Institute of Educational Research at Hong Kong Chinese University ( The report documents the priority placed on quality of education by the authorities, even as it raises concerns about the effective equality of education in the city. Here is a report on the state of education research and reform in HK (  The report raises the possibility that Hong Kong’s educational system is skewed by income and language: low-income families attending Cantonese-speaking schools may not get a comparable education to that provided to middle- and upper-income families in English-speaking schools.  But it isn’t easy to find detailed educational research that would validate this point.

One very interesting data point concerning the equality of access provided by Hong Kong education can be located in the distribution of family incomes among students in Hong Kong’s elite universities.  Basically the data indicate that the Hong Kong universities are reasonably well representative of the full income spectrum of the city.  About half of students in the elite universities in Hong Kong come from families in the lower half of the income distribution (or in other words, the median student’s family income is equal to the median family income of the city).  This compares to a markedly different picture in selective public universities in the United States, where the median student family income is at about the 85th percentile of the US distribution of family income.  In other words, universities in the United States are over-represented by students and families from the higher end of the income distribution; whereas the Hong Kong university student population is relatively evenly distributed over the full Hong Kong income distribution.  (These data are based on a summary report prepared by researchers at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.)  

This statistical fact gives rise to a suggestive implication: that students of all income levels in Hong Kong are roughly as likely to attend Hong Kong’s elite universities.  And this contrasts sharply with the situation in the United States, where attendance in elite universities is sharply skewed by family income (Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Thomas Jefferson Foundation Distinguished Lecture Series)).  

The issue is important, because in the world-wide race for talent cultivation, those countries that do the best job of cultivating the talents of all their citizens are surely going to do the best in the economic competition that is to come.  Countries that waste talent by denying educational opportunities to poor people or national minorities are missing an opportunity for innovation, creativity, and problem-solving that can be crucial for their success in the global environment.  And if Hong Kong, China, and other East Asian countries are actually succeeding in creating educational systems that greatly enhance equality of opportunity across income, this will be a large factor in their future success.

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