Recent McKinsey report culls from the successes of worldwide school reformers
What makes school reform succeed? A report recently released by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company suggests that school reform is most effective when under-performing school systems identify where they are on the “school improvement journey” and select interventions particular to that stage. The report surveyed 20 school systems from across the world that have achieved various degrees of significant gains.
According to McKinsey, many successful school reformers do not know exactly why they succeeded. Despite recent worldwide doubling and tripling of spending on education, outcomes have not risen in tandem. The participating school systems were selected from a group that McKinsey termed to have achieved significant gains since 1980 across developed and developing countries. Systems were selected to look at a cross-section of public and private, small and large, and the list was divided into “sustained improvers” and “promising starts.” Participating systems were located in areas including California, Armenia, South Korea and Jordan.
Perhaps the most important step in school improvement is selecting goals relevant to a system’s current situation, as the report states, “school system leaders…are all too often told what to do from a starting point that is different from their own.” The report indicates that system improvement from any starting point must include first identifying current student outcomes, then an “intervention cluster” of appropriate and targeted student interventions and lastly an adaptation of the intervention cluster into existing system culture, politics and structure. This intervention cluster must itself be specific to the current state of student outcomes; in a poor-to-fair achieving system, for example, interventions should focus on helping students grasp literacy and math basics, whereas in a great-to-excellent achieving system, interventions should introduce peer-based learning programs and opportunities for system-sponsored innovation and experimentation.
While some of these conclusions may seem obvious, the report is likely to be especially useful for reformers and educators looking to place themselves in a larger context of improvement stages. Ideally, it will contribute to framing an evolving approach to education reform. The report highlights several peripherally related findings, including that high spending does not necessarily relate to higher student achievement — but a capacity for self-examination and individualization of interventions does.
It’s particularly exciting to see a firm like McKinsey focused on a positive-outcomes-based approach that recognizes successes and changemakers and seeks to build upon and replicate those. McKinsey hopes the report will “support policymakers, school system leaders, and educators in understanding how systems with starting conditions similar to their own have charted a path to sustained improvement” in order to increase the possibility of replicating these improvements.
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