Ethnic minority students need more than funding
Here I am once again, talking about an issue that does not seem to go away. The aim to improve Chinese language proficiency among non-Chinese speaking students, such as those from ethnic minority backgrounds, is a matter still unresolved.
In response to demand for more language learning support for these students, the government has, among a range of measures, provided additional funding to schools and introduced the “Chinese Language Curriculum Second-Language Learning Framework” starting from the 2014/15 school year.
Eight years on, how is the policy working?
Its stated objective was to act as a bridge for non-Chinese speaking students to join mainstream Chinese language classes. So it would be fair to ask how many students in fact made the jump. Other indicators of improved Chinese language proficiency, if available, would also be helpful to measure progress. However, given the paucity of data, we are forced to look at proxies for progress indicators.
The first proxy is government expenditure spending to aid non-Chinese speaking students in learning Chinese, in which the government has been generous. For the 2021/22 school year, the expenditure was more than HK$500 million. But, do more resources mean better outcomes?
The second proxy indicator is the number of non-Chinese speaking students who sit the Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) Chinese exam. The number of Secondary Six non-Chinese speaking students in public and Direct Subsidy Scheme schools has increased from 1,186 in 2016/17 to 1,403 in 2020/21. But the number who sit the DSE Chinese examination has remained small, with 106 and 111 in the two corresponding years, an increase of just five. The proportion has actually fallen, from 9 per cent to 8 per cent.
Several reasons may be behind this. It could be that the DSE Chinese examination is a challenge even for Chinese students. It could be the availability of simpler options for non-Chinese speaking students. Or it could be that non-Chinese speaking students are streamed into these alternative courses early in their secondary education without much of a chance to test their ability to learn a higher level of Chinese.
Whatever the reasons, non-Chinese speaking students’ Chinese language proficiency levels, particularly in reading and writing, remain far below par despite 12 years of local schooling.
We need more detailed data to get the full picture. But in the absence of success markers, we will never be sure if the money spent is delivering the intended results.
We need to clearly define the learning outcomes. A learning outcome is a clear statement of what students should be able to do at the end of the learning period. Learning outcomes are not simply the amount of money spent. It would seem obvious that the ability to speak, read and write Chinese to a level that allows a student to get into a university course and compete for jobs on a level playing field should be the desired outcomes.
An outcome-oriented approach, a principle that the new Hong Kong chief executive has pledged, is a good guiding principle.
The Equal Opportunities Commision, in consultation with key stakeholders, made several recommendations on improving the Chinese language teaching for non-Chinese speaking students in an extensive report in 2019. Keeping the focus on the outcome, the report gives suggestions on curriculum, teacher training and examination pathways. To be fair, it is not for the want of trying on the part of the government that the Chinese language proficiency among non-Chinese speaking students continues to be an issue. However, let us not lose sight of the end goal.
The article was published in SCMP on 14 July 2022.