On November 29th I joined a webinar hosted by McKinsey & Company “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.” I was so taken by the information relayed that I immediately sought out a copy of the report and have, since then, carved out some time to read through it with pen and highlighter in hand. For me, the report was enlightening and reinforced much of what I have come to appreciate about the complexity of education reform.
The publication of the PISA rankings soon after had educators and reformers shouting choruses of “Finland!” and “Shanghai!” – as if the answers to the problems in education we are seeking could be found in a “simply this” solution. There is nothing simple about education reform and the findings from the McKinsey report explores the complexity of comparing successful education reform strategies across multiple systems.
“What our analysis reveals is that despite their different contexts, all improving school systems appear to adopt a similar set of interventions, one that is appropriate to their stage of the journey [my emphasis added].” McKinsey & Company Education: How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better”
It’s the stage of the journey that matters the most. In this report school systems are ranked into a particular performance stage: poor to fair; fair to good; good to great; great to excellent. Interventions that work well in the poor to fair stage will fail miserably in the good to great stage. The bottom line?
“Educators in a moderately performing system would be better off in seeking inspiration from similar systems that are managing to improve, rather than from those that are configured and positioned very differently, even if they are the world’s best-performing ones.” McKinsey & Company Education: How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better”
So what works in Finland (Finland and Shanghai were not part of the McKinsey study) is not going to have the same impact on a system at a different performance stage. And what worked in Shanghai might have popped them onto the leaderboard of high achievers but it is no guarantee that they will demonstrate a continuum of improvement. Giving teachers more autonomy in the classroom, for example, makes sense only if they are grounded in the system pedagogy to begin with and are on the journey from great to excellent. School systems that are at the lower end of the performance stage require tighter controls over teaching and learning processes.