International Education Reform

The Economist of 17 September 2011 has a detailed three-page story about “the great schools revolution” resulting from “a global battle of ideas.” This has resulted from new masses of comparative data, such as the PISA tests developed by the OECD and first used in 32 countries in 2000, and McKinsey consulting group’s new education research practice, which assesses which school systems improve the most over the years. And computers and the internet seem to have finally reached the point where they could actually make a difference in schools (this hasn’t been true in the past; despite spending a lot of money to put computers in schools, going back to the 1970s in the U.S. when schools bought Apple II computers, there’s been no evidence to date that computers improve learning).

The Economist story also says that “the three great excuses” for bad schools are no longer accepted. They are skimpy government spending, social class, and cultures that don’t value education. The article acknowledges the research suggesting that social class plays a big role in school outcomes, but argues that schools can still make a difference, particularly if the culture emphasizes education (with a reference to Asian cultures, where even poor children study hard and do well on tests).

Then the article identifies four important themes that work to improve schools: decentralization, a focus on underachieving students, providing a choice of different types of schools (they mention charters as the U.S. example), and high standards for teachers. They then provide examples of schools that a recent McKinsey report has identified as high performers: Ontario, Poland, and Saxony (in Germany). The most important are the last two: providing a variety of schools (The Economist‘s economic liberalism leads them to advocate “schools free of government control,” no surprise) and enhancing teacher quality. Is the U.S. ready to double teacher salaries and then grant them autonomy and professional discretion, as is done in Singapore for example? Unfortunately, U.S. schools aren’t going down that path.

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.