Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Getting to Excellent

A data-rich, methodical, and transparent report prepared by McKinsey offers the passionate follower of education much to consider. Unlike, say, the Boston Foundation's pamphlet, this 124-page, rigorously detailed study gives serious policy wonks food for thought. The methodology is carefully detailed, not hidden. The data is easy to weigh and follow.

The most fascinating aspect of this report (PDF) is tracing how school systems develop and improve from one stage of performance to another. One of the more interesting findings is that what works for a school system seeking to spread literacy needs something different from a system seeking to prepare students with 21st century thinking skills.

So how does this affect Massachusetts? Well, of the international spectrum of system provided, Boston is mentioned as a much improved system in the nation's pre-eminent public education structure -- Massachusetts. So how does a system such as Boston, that is good, or great, improve?

"Move the locus of improvement from the center to the schools themselves; the focus is on introducing peer-based learning through schoolbased and system-wide interaction, as well as supporting system-sponsored innovation and experimentation."

Decentralize. Experiment. Professionalize and respect teachers. Provide ways for teachers to collaborate for results, not compete for dollars. Further in the guts of the report, the research team mentions the following imperatives:

In the final frontier of school improvement, the journey from great to excellent, systems focus on creating an environment that will unleash the creativity and innovation of its educators and other stakeholder groups. At this point in the improvement journey, system educators are highly skilled and have a body of agreed routines and practices that have become innate to how they work.

The intervention cluster for the journey from great to excellent serves further to enhance the educators’ responsibility for looking after each other’s development; the systems give their teachers the time, resources, and flexibility to reflect upon and try out new ideas to better support student learning.


When teachers achieve a higher level of skill, as is the case in good to great and
great to excellent improvement journey stages, such tight central control becomes counterproductive to system improvement. Rather, school-level flexibility
and teacher collaboration become the drivers of improvement because they lead to innovations in teaching and learning. The center learns from these school-based innovations and then encourages their use in other schools across the system. Higher
skill teachers require flexibility and latitude in how they teach in order to engage in such innovation and to feel motivated and fulfilled as professionals.

In case you were wondering about those systems that are better than good, the report identifies four. Only Finland is rated excellent in this report; Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea are great.

As mentioned in the last post, all systems are decentralizing at the precise moment that the United States is starting to march in lockstep to Washington DC's tune. Obama wants states, districts, even schools and teachers to compete for dollars; this report mandates that collaboration as superior. Obama wants to tighten control over what is taught on a daily basis; this report mandates the contrary. Obama pushes for an unprecedented level of centralization in this country; the data say this will hurt our students.

This report merely confirms what is widely understood:

  • A large and growing body of data indicate how to improve public education in this country.

  • Those responsible for running education in this nation and state insist on doing the exact opposite.

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