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How do school systems improve?


Children in an early year School class room being led by a teacher
A new report, which so far does not appear to have received much attention but is certainly deserving of more consideration, is How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better. This report from McKinsey & Co. builds on the work of an earlier report, How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top (2007), which examined the common attributes of ‘excellent’ school systems.
This time 20 significantly ‘improving’ school systems, as measured by national and international standards of assessment, and which are at different stages across a performance spectrum (from poor to excellent), were examined to see what reform interventions are working—in all some 575 reform interventions were investigated.

There are a number of aspects of this research relevant to what is happening about school reform here in Australia. The first is that although only 20 school systems were investigated, most OECD countries were mapped according to the researchers’ performance scale. This ‘universal scale’ took into account, amongst other factors, a country’s performance in the major international tests of student attainment in which Australia participates—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). TIMSS assesses science and mathematics at Years 4 and 8 every four years; and PISA surveys the reading, mathematical and scientific literacy levels of 15-year-olds every three years. In this latest research, only one country (Finland) was ranked as ‘excellent’ and six school systems (Ontario, Singapore, Estonia, South Korea, Hong Kong and Switzerland) were ranked as ‘great’. Australia fell within the lower half of those school systems classified as ‘good’.
Another interesting aspect of How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better is that, similar to the earlier report, a pattern of interventions common to all improving school systems emerged from the research. Some of these interventions are geared towards a particular development stage and other interventions apply in some way to all improving systems.
The experiences of those school systems identified as improving from ‘good to great’ and ‘great to excellent’ are of greatest interest to Australia; they also affirm Australia’s own school reform agenda. School systems improving from good to great are focussing on improving the quality and status of the teaching profession and school leadership; those improving from great to excellent are moving from central control to school-based interventions that concentrate on ‘peer-based learning and system-sponsored innovation and experimentation’.
Greater school autonomy, another reform proposal currently receiving attention in Australia, was also identified as a feature of school systems moving from good to great. First announced in an ALP 2010 election policy, the Australian Government recently presented its school autonomy proposal to the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs, as reported in article by Justine Ferrari in the Australian (30/12/2010).
The McKinsey report also identified six interventions that occur across all improving school systems, regardless of their performance stage. Again, these reforms are reflected in the current Australian school policy agenda—revising the curriculum and standards, ensuring an appropriate reward and remunerations structure for teachers and principals, building the technical skills of teachers and principals, assessing students, establishing data systems, and facilitating improvement through the introduction of policy documents and education laws.
There are some lessons or questions from the research for Australian school reformers to consider. From interviews with school leaders and policy makers, the researchers found that one of the biggest choices or challenges they faced was to what degree an intervention should be mandated and to what extent should persuasion be used. Across all systems there was a constant balancing act between the two approaches, depending on the circumstances of the intervention.
The school systems that were studied were not only improving but also sustaining that improvement. Collaboration between teachers within and across schools, having a ‘mediating layer’ between the schools and the central administration, and fostering and building school leadership, were all identified as key elements of sustainable school improvement.

A final observation from the McKinsey report relates to the question as to which school systems Australia should be looking to for ideas about school reform. A number of education stakeholders, such as education consultant, Kevin Donnelly, and the Australian Education Union, have questioned the Government’s focus on the New York school system as a model for some of its reforms. It is worth noting here, as shown by the PISA 2009 results, that the US performs significantly below Australia in international assessments of student attainment. As Adele Horin has similarly observed in the Sydney Morning Herald, given Ontario’s ranking by the McKinsey researchers, with only Finland ranked higher, and the performance of some of the Canadian provinces in PISA 2009 (overall Canada significantly outperformed Australia in reading and mathematical literacy), perhaps Canadian school systems are deserving of more attention as models of school reform.

(Image sourced from the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training: http://www.det.nt.gov.au/news/news-summary?root_node_selection=9102)