Here’s the good news: According to a new international study, school districts can substantially improve student performance in as little as six years, whether they’re located in Brazil or Boston, Latvia or Long Beach.
“How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better,” a new longitudinal report from McKinsey & Co., looked at how schools in 17 diverse nations improved the educational outcomes for their students over periods ranging from four to more than 25 years. In addition, the researchers looked at the school districts in Boston and Long Beach, Calif., and a charter school network. The report found common strengths in all the systems, despite the considerable diversity in such things as size, culture, and resources.
That’s the good news. The more difficult news is this: These countries and the individual school districts are, by and large, exceptions. Elsewhere throughout the world schools are experiencing “a lot of stagnation, a lot of inertia,” co-author Mona Mourshed said Dec. 7 at a conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss the report.
As if to underscore that point for the United States, the results of the international PISA tests (Program for International Student Assessment) were released coincidentally the same day, and they showed that while the science performance of U.S. student climbed to near the middle of the pack of the nation surveyed, math achievement remained in 25th place overall (or 17th place in statistically significant numbers) out of 34 nations.
“The brutal truth is, our country is nowhere where it needs to be educationally,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the conference.
“The only thing our children lead the world in is self-confidence,” he added. “We’re Number One in self-confidence. We’re 25th in math. There’s a massive disconnect there.”
But the McKinsey report showed that — regardless of differences in wealth, political systems, educational structure, culture, and a host of other factors that distinguish educational practices around the world — school system can improve dramatically by implementing six interventions. These “clusters of interventions” have more to do with the process of educating students than either the resources available to the system or its structure and are valid whether a school system moved from “poor” to “fair,” (including Chile, Jordan, Armenia), fair to “good,” (England, Latvia, Boston, and Long Beach), good to “great” (Singapore and South Korea.), or great to “excellent” (Finland).
However, the particular cluster of interventions that get schools from, for example, poor to fair as opposed to good to great, are very different.
“What made you successful in the last journey will not make you successful in the next performance journey,” Mourshed said.
Highly prescriptive curriculum and accountably systems may be effective for improving very low-performing school systems, but the top performing ones achieve their gains through giving schools and teachers more autonomy. For example, school systems moving from poor to fair dedicated 54 percent of their professional development interventions to technical skill training, 38 percent to coaching, and nothing to peer collaboration, the report said. At the other end of the spectrum, Finland, the system moving from great to excellent, dedicated 25 percent of its intervention to technical skills, 18 percent to coaching, and 14 percent to peer collaboration.
Even more dramatic were the differences in accountability systems. The poor-to-fair systems were heavily reliant on standardized assessments — 85 percent of their evaluation interventions compared to just 29 percent for great-to-excellent system. The lowest group dedicated virtually no resources to school and teacher self-evaluations, compared with 42 percent for the highest performing system.
NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant said one critical component of reform is having the kind of community support that effective school boards and administrative teams provide.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said during the conference that the results underscore the need for “a culture of collaboration” in schools. In these high-performing schools, she added, principals ask: “‘What do you need to do your job?’ Not If you don’t do this, you will be fired.’”
Duncan underscored the importance of community support and added that another key component is the involvement of — and high expectations of — parents. He recalled that he and President Obama were recently talking to the president of South Korea when Obama asked him about his biggest challenges.
“My biggest challenges are — my parents are too demanding,” he replied.
“We laughed,” Duncan recalled. “But we also winced.”