View Full Version : How the world's most improved school systems keep getting better

12-10-2010, 10:22 AM
McKinsey & Company recently released an education report that analyzes twenty school systems from around the world, all with improving but differing levels of performance, and examines how each has achieved significant, sustained and widespread gains in student outcomes, as measured by international and national assessments. This report is the follow-up to the 2007 publication "How the world's best performing school systems come out on top."

Based on over 200 interviews with system stakeholders and analysis of some 600 interventions carried out by these systems, this report identifies the reform elements that are replicable for school systems elsewhere as they move from poor to fair to good to great to excellent performance.

The eight highlights from this report include:

A system can make significant gains from wherever it starts – and these gains can be achieved in six years or less.

There is too little focus on ‘process’ in the debate today. Improving system performance ultimately comes down to improving the learning experience of students in their classrooms. The public debate, however, often centers on structure and resource due to their stakeholder implications.

Each particular stage of the school system improvement journey is associated with a unique set of interventions. This suggests that systems would do well to learn from those at a similar stage of the journey, rather than from those that are at significantly different levels of performance. It also shows that systems cannot continue to improve by simply doing more of what brought them past success.

A system’s context might not determine what needs to be done, but it does determine how it is done. There is little or no evidence of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to reform implementation. Our interviews with system leaders suggests that one of the most important implementation decisions is the emphasis a system places on mandating versus persuading stakeholders to comply with reforms.

Six interventions occur equally at every performance stage for all systems: (1) building the instructional skills of teachers and management skills of principals, (2) assessing students, (3) improving data systems, (4) facilitating improvement through the introduction of policy documents and education laws, (5) revising standards and curriculum, and (6) ensuring an appropriate reward and remuneration structure for teachers and principals. Though these interventions occur at all performance stages, they manifest differently at each stage.

Systems further along the journey sustain improvement by balancing school autonomy with consistent teaching practice. While our study shows that systems in poor and fair performance achieve improvement through a center that increases and scripts instructional practice for schools and teachers, such an approach does not work for systems in ‘good’ performance onwards. Rather, these systems achieve improvement by the center increasing the responsibilities and flexibilities of schools and teachers to shape instructional practice.

Leaders take advantage of changed circumstances to ignite reforms. Across all the systems we studied, one or more of three circumstances produced the conditions that triggered reform: a socio-economic crisis; a high profile, critical report of system performance; or a change in leadership. By far, the most common event to spark the drive to reform is a change
in leadership: every system we studied relied upon the presence and energy of a new leader, either political or strategic, to jumpstart their reforms.

Leadership continuity is essential. Two things stand out about the leaders of improving systems. Firstly, their longevity: the median tenure of the new strategic leaders is six years and that of the new political leaders is seven years. Secondly, improving systems actively cultivate the next generation of system leaders, ensuring a smooth transition of leadership and the longer-term continuity in reform goals.

To read more of the report, click on the Executive Summary (http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/Social_Sector/our_practices/Education/Knowledge_Highlights/%7E/media/Reports/SSO/Education_Intro_Standalone_Nov%2026.ashx) or Full Report (http://ssomckinsey.darbyfilms.com/reports/EducationBook_A4%20SINGLES_DEC%202.pdf). A webinar (http://clients.mediaondemand.net/mckinsey/2010/schools/) is also available.