Improving the world’s best school systems – a reminder of McKinsey

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: February 10th 2012

From time to time there are substantial reports on the status of education and it is always interesting to return to them well after publication to re-read and reflect on their observations. In 2010, McKinsey did a follow up to their 2007 report on improving school systems. Re-examining their comments and observations, makes for an interesting read.

Much of the writing below simply takes comments straight from the executive summary of the report titled How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better. Whether you read the whole executive summary or reflect on their observations, it provides lots of food for thought.

A system can make gains from wherever you are – Substantial gains can be accomplished in little time – from 2 to 6 years. Improvements can start from any student outcome level, whatever the geography, culture or income.

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.” To do this, schools change structure, they change their resources, and they change their processes by modifying curriculum and instructional practices.

Each particular stage of the school improvement journey is associated with a unique set of interventions – “all improving systems implement similar sets of interventions to move from one particular performance level to the next….systems would do well to learn from those at a similar stage of the journey rather than from those that are significantly different levels of performance.” Systems cannot continue to improve by doing more of what they have done in the past.

A system’s context might not determine what needs to be done, but it does determine how it’s done – there are significant variations on how things get implemented with regards to sequence, timing, and roll-out. There is little evidence of a one size fits all approach to reform.

Systems further along the journey sustain improvement by balancing school autonomy with consistent teaching practice – research on poor performing systems shows that focusing on improving instructional practice helps, but such an approach does not work for systems in “good” performance onwards. Rather these systems achieve improvement by increasing the flexibility and responsibility of schools and teachers to shape instructional practice. Two thirds of those on the “good to great” journey “decentralize pedagogical rights to the middle (e.g. district) level or schools.”

Leaders take advantage of changed circumstances to ignite reforms – “of all the systems studied, one or more of three circumstances produce the conditions that triggered reform: a socio-economic crisis; a high profile, critical report of system performance; or a change in leadership….Every system we studied relied upon the presence and energy of a new leader…to jumpstart their reforms.”

Leadership continuity is essential – leadership is critical not only in sparking the reform, but in sustaining it. The median term of leaders who provided new strategic direction is six years, that of 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.

Whatever you take from the report, whether it’s about improving instruction, continuity of leadership or the steps to improve, the thing that stuck out most for me was about how dynamic school environments are. There clearly is no one size fits all, each step in the change process requires care and you must be willing to be adaptable and tenacious in pursuit of change. But it can be done, and the report shows many good considerations as we all look toward improving our systems from wherever they currently stand.