All-state orchestra members at Caddo Magnet High, Shreveport
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Following are excerpts from the article, "What works in education: the lessons according to McKinsey."
Australia has almost tripled education spending per student since 1970. No improvement. American spending has almost doubled since 1980 and class sizes are the lowest ever. Again, nothing. No matter what you do, it seems, standards refuse to budge (see chart). To misquote Woody Allen, those who can't do, teach; those who can't teach, run the schools.
There are big variations in educational standards between countries. These have been measured and re-measured by the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which has established, first, that the best performing countries do much better than the worst and, second, that the same countries head such league tables again and again:
what do the successful lot have in common? Yet the answer to that has proved surprisingly elusive. Not more money. Singapore spends less per student than most. Nor more study time. Finnish students begin school later, and study fewer hours, than in other rich countries.
Schools, it says*, need to do three things: get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind. That may not sound exactly “first-of-its-kind”: schools surely do all this already? Actually, they don't. If these ideas were really taken seriously, they would change education radically.
There is no question that, as one South Korean official put it, “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Studies in Tennessee and Dallas have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, they end up in the top 10% of student performers; if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom. The quality of teachers affects student performance more than anything else.
Almost every rich country has sought to reduce class size lately. Yet all other things being equal, smaller classes mean more teachers for the same pot of money, producing lower salaries and lower professional status. That may explain the paradox that, after primary school, there seems little or no relationship between class size and educational achievement.
You might think that schools should offer as much money as possible, seek to attract a large pool of applicants into teacher training and then pick the best. Not so, says McKinsey. If money were so important, then countries with the highest teacher salaries—Germany, Spain and Switzerland—would presumably be among the best. They aren't. In practice, the top performers pay no more than average salaries.
For understandable reasons, teachers rarely get much training in their own classrooms (in contrast, doctors do a lot of training in hospital wards). But successful countries can still do much to overcome the difficulty.
Singapore provides teachers with 100 hours of training a year and appoints senior teachers to oversee professional development in each school. In Japan and Finland, groups of teachers visit each others' classrooms and plan lessons together. In Finland, they get an afternoon off a week for this. In Boston, which has one of America's most improved public-school systems, schedules are arranged so that those who teach the same subject have free classes together for common planning. This helps spread good ideas around. As one educator remarked, “when a brilliant American teacher retires, almost all of the lesson plans and practices that she has developed also retire. When a Japanese teacher retires, she leaves a legacy.”
For the past few years, almost all countries have begun to focus more attention on testing, the commonest way to check if standards are falling. McKinsey's research is neutral on the usefulness of this, pointing out that while Boston tests every student every year, Finland has largely dispensed with national examinations. Similarly, schools in New Zealand and England and Wales are tested every three or four years and the results published, whereas top-of-the-class Finland has no formal review and keeps the results of informal audits confidential.
But there is a pattern in what countries do once pupils and schools start to fail. The top performers intervene early and often. Finland has more special-education teachers devoted to laggards than anyone else—as many as one teacher in seven in some schools. In any given year, a third of pupils get one-on-one remedial lessons. Singapore provides extra classes for the bottom 20% of students and teachers are expected to stay behind—often for hours—after school to help students.