Economist, October 20th 2007, p.74-75
“What works in education: the lessons according to McKinsey
There are big variations in educational standards between countries. These have been measured and re-measured by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which has established, first, that the best performing countries do much better than the worst and, second, that the same countries head such league tables again and again: Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, South Korea.
Those findings raise what ought to be a fruitful question: what do the successful lot have in common? Yet the answer to that has proved surprisingly elusive. Not more money. Singapore spends less per student than most. Nor more study time. Finnish students begin school later, and study fewer hours, than in other rich countries.
Now, an organisation from outside the teaching fold—McKinsey, a consultancy that advises companies and governments—has boldly gone where educationalists have mostly never gone: into policy recommendations based on the PISA findings. Schools, it says*, need to do three things: get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind. That may not sound exactly “first-of-its-kind” (which is how Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s head of education research, describes McKinsey’s approach): schools surely do all this already? Actually, they don’t. If these ideas were really taken seriously, they would change education radically.
Begin with hiring the best. There is no question that, as one South Korean official put it, “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Studies in Tennessee and Dallas have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, they end up in the top 10% of student performers; if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom. The quality of teachers affects student performance more than anything else.
[…] Teaching the teachers
Having got good people, there is a temptation to shove them into classrooms and let them get on with it. For understandable reasons, teachers rarely get much training in their own classrooms (in contrast, doctors do a lot of training in hospital wards). But successful countries can still do much to overcome the difficulty.
Singapore provides teachers with 100 hours of training a year and appoints senior teachers to oversee professional development in each school. In Japan and Finland, groups of teachers visit each others’ classrooms and plan lessons together. In Finland, they get an afternoon off a week for this. In Boston, which has one of America’s most improved public-school systems, schedules are arranged so that those who teach the same subject have free classes together for common planning. This helps spread good ideas around. As one educator remarked, “when a brilliant American teacher retires, almost all of the lesson plans and practices that she has developed also retire. When a Japanese teacher retires, she leaves a legacy.”
[…] But there is a pattern in what countries do once pupils and schools start to fail. The top performers intervene early and often. Finland has more special-education teachers devoted to laggards than anyone else—as many as one teacher in seven in some schools. In any given year, a third of pupils get one-on-one remedial lessons. Singapore provides extra classes for the bottom 20% of students and teachers are expected to stay behind—often for hours—after school to help students.
None of this is rocket science. Yet it goes against some of the unspoken assumptions of education policy. Scratch a teacher or an administrator (or a parent), and you often hear that it is impossible to get the best teachers without paying big salaries; that teachers in, say, Singapore have high status because of Confucian values; or that Asian pupils are well behaved and attentive for cultural reasons. McKinsey’s conclusions seem more optimistic: getting good teachers depends on how you select and train them; teaching can become a career choice for top graduates without paying a fortune; and that, with the right policies, schools and pupils are not doomed to lag behind.