How To Improve Schools

I’m reporting this from Shanghai, where I gave the keynote talk this morning to a conference of educators at East China Normal University. I’ve just learned of the McKinsey report “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.” After studying twenty countries, they identified eight key take-home messages:

1. A school system can make significant gains from whatever level it is currently at, and in six years or less.

2. There is too little focus on the processes of learning in today’s debate; instead, the public debate is focused on school system structures and on resources. This was exactly the argument we were making in the Global Policy Forum last week; see my previous post.

3. Each particular stage of school improvement requires its own unique set of interventions. In other words, you can’t just keep doing the same thing for six years, you have to adapt along with the changes.

4. A system’s context determines not what must be done, but rather how it is done. One example the report cites is whether to “mandate” or “persuade” changes.

5. Six interventions are common at every stage of the performance journey: Building the instructional skills of teachers and the management skills of school leaders; assessing students; introducing data systems; facilitating improvement through the introduction of public policy documents and laws; revising standards and curriculum;  and ensuring appropriate reward systems for teachers and principals.

6. Poor performing schools improve more by centralized control and scripting of teachers, but once schools perform better, they need to grant more autonomy and flexibility to teachers to gain further improvements.

7. Leaders take advantage of changed circumstances to ignite reform (often in response to external crises).

8. Leadership continuity is essential. In systems that have shown dramatic improvement, the average tenure of the principal is six years and the average of the politicians involved, seven years.

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