How does a school system with poor performance become good? And how does one with good performance become excellent?
These were the questions policymakers and education leaders asked us after our 2007 report How the World's Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top, in which we examined the common attributes of high-performing school systems. In this new report, How the World's Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, we attempt to answer these questions.
We analysed 20 systems from around the world, all with improving but differing levels of performance, examining how each has achieved significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes.
Based on more than 200 interviews with system stakeholders and analysis of some 600 interventions carried out by these systems - together comprising what we believe is the most comprehensive database of global school system reform ever assembled - this report identifies the reform elements that are replicable for school systems elsewhere.
The report's findings include the following eight highlights:
1. A system can make significant gains from wherever it starts - and these can be achieved in six years or less. Student outcomes in a large number of systems have either stagnated or regressed over the past 10 years. However, our sample shows that substantial improvement can be achieved relatively quickly. After just six years on an improvement journey, Latvian students produced levels of performance that their predecessors would have shown only after more than half a year of extra classroom time.
2. There is too little focus on "process". Improving system performance ultimately comes down to improving the learning experience of students. School systems do three types of things to achieve this goal - they change their structure by establishing new institutions or school types, altering school years and levels, or decentralising system responsibilities; they change their resources by adding more education staff or by increasing system funding; and they change their processes by modifying curriculum and improving the way that teachers instruct and principals lead.
3. There is a consistent cluster of interventions that moves systems from poor performance to fair, a second cluster of interventions achieves the move from fair performance to good, a third cluster from good performance to great, and yet another from great performance to excellent.Systems moving from fair performance to good focused on establishing the foundations of data-gathering, organisation, finances and pedagogy, while systems on the path from good performance to great focused on shaping the teaching profession so that its requirements, practices and career paths are as clearly defined as those in medicine and law. 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.
4. A system's context might not determine what needs to be done, but it does determine how it is done. Though each performance stage is associated with a common set of interventions, there is substantial variation in how a system implements these with regard to their sequence, timing and roll-out - there is little or no evidence of a "one-size-fits-all" approach to reform implementation. Our interviews with system leaders suggest that one of the most important implementation decisions is the emphasis a system places on mandating versus persuading stakeholders to comply with reforms. While all improving systems make substantial use of data to inform their reform programmes, only a subset of our sample systems translate this into quantitative targets at both school and classroom level, then share this information publicly. In contrast, Asian and eastern European systems refrain from target-setting and make only system-level data available publicly. Instead, they prefer to share performance data with individual schools, engaging them in a private dialogue about how they can improve.
5. Six interventions occur equally at every performance stage for all systems. Our research suggests that six interventions are common to all performance stages across the entire improvement journey: building the instructional skills of teachers and management skills of principals, assessing students, improving data systems, facilitating improvement through the introduction of policy documents and education laws, revising standards and curriculum, and 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.
6. Systems farther along the journey sustain improvement by balancing school autonomy with consistent teaching practice. While our study shows that systems with poor and fair performance achieve improvement through a centre 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 centre increasing the responsibilities and flexibilities of schools and teachers to shape instructional practice - one third of the systems in the "good to great" journey and just fewer than two-thirds of the systems in the "great to excellent" journey decentralise pedagogical rights to the middle layer - districts, for instance, - or schools.
7. 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. In 15 out of the 20 systems studied, two or more of these "ignition" events were present before the launch of the reform efforts. By far, the most common event to spark the drive to reform is a change in leadership: every system we studied relied on the presence and energy of a new leader, either political or strategic, to jump-start its reforms.
8. Leadership is essential not only in sparking reform but in sustaining it. Two things stand out about the leaders of improving systems. First, their longevity: the median tenure of the new strategic leaders is six years and that of the new political leaders is seven years. Second, improving systems actively cultivate the next generation of system leaders, ensuring a smooth transition of leadership and the longer-term continuity in reform goals. This second observation lies at the heart of how a handful of our studied systems (among them Armenia, the Western Cape and Lithuania) have managed reform continuity despite regular changes of political leadership. The stability of reform direction is critical to achieving the quick gains in student outcomes outlined above.
The fundamental challenge school system leaders face is how to shepherd their systems through a journey to higher student outcomes. While there is no single path to improving performance, the experiences of all the 20 improving school systems we studied show that strong commonalities exist in the nature of their journeys.
Dr Mona Mourshed is a partner with McKinsey & Company at its Middle East office in Dubai, where she co-leads the global education practice. Chinezi Chijioke is an associate principal at McKinsey's Johannesburg office. Sir Michael Barber is the head of McKinsey's global education practice and the founder of the Education Delivery Institute in Washington, DC.