From The Economist print edition
Oct 18th 2007
What works in education: the lessons according to McKinsey - How to be top
THE British government, says Sir Michael Barber, once an adviser to the former prime minister, Tony Blair, has changed pretty much every aspect of education policy in
Why bother, you might wonder. Nothing seems to matter. Yet something must. 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:
Those findings raise what ought to be a fruitful question: what do the successful lot have in common? Yet the answer to that has proved surprisingly elusive. Not more money.
Now, an organisation from outside the teaching fold—McKinsey, a consultancy that advises companies and governments—has boldly gone where educationalists have mostly never gone: into policy recommendations based on the PISA findings. Schools, it says you 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" (which is how Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's head of education research, describes McKinsey's approach): schools surely do all this already? Actually, they don't. If these ideas were really taken seriously, they would change education radically.
Begin with hiring the best. 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
The quality of teachers affects student performance more than anything else. Yet most school systems do not go all out to get the best. The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a non-profit organisation, says
A bias against the brightest happens partly because of lack of money (governments fear they cannot afford them), and partly because other aims get in the way. 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.
Asian values or good policy?
McKinsey argues that the best performing education systems nevertheless manage to attract the best. In
They do this in a surprising way. 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—
Nor do they try to encourage a big pool of trainees and select the most successful. Almost the opposite.
Teaching the teachers
Having got good people, there is a temptation to shove them into classrooms and let them get on with it. 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.
Lastly, the most successful countries are distinctive not just in whom they employ so things go right but in what they do when things go wrong, as they always do. 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
But there is a pattern in what countries do once pupils and schools start to fail. The top performers intervene early and often.
None of this is rocket science. Yet it goes against some of the unspoken assumptions of education policy. Scratch a teacher or an administrator (or a parent), and you often hear that it is impossible to get the best teachers without paying big salaries; that teachers in, say, Singapore have high status because of Confucian values; or that Asian pupils are well behaved and attentive for cultural reasons. McKinsey's conclusions seem more optimistic: getting good teachers depends on how you select and train them; teaching can become a career choice for top graduates without paying a fortune; and that, with the right policies, schools and pupils are not doomed to lag behind.