Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Reforming education The great schools revolution

A very insightful, in-depth article in the Economist on school reform around the world, with four keys to success:

Above all, though, there has been a change in the quality of the debate. In particular, what might be called "the three great excuses" for bad schools have receded in importance. Teachers' unions have long maintained that failures in Western education could be blamed on skimpy government spending, social class and cultures that did not value education. All these make a difference, but they do not determine outcomes by themselves.

The idea that good schooling is about spending money is the one that has been beaten back hardest. Many of the 20 leading economic performers in the OECD doubled or tripled their education spending in real terms between 1970 and 1994, yet outcomes in many countries stagnated—or went backwards. Educational performance varies widely even among countries that spend similar amounts per pupil. Such spending is highest in the United States—yet America lags behind other developed countries on overall outcomes in secondary education. Andreas Schleicher, head of analysis at PISA, thinks that only about 10% of the variation in pupil performance has anything to do with money.

Many still insist, though, that social class makes a difference. Martin Johnson, an education trade unionist, points to Britain's "inequality between classes, which is among the largest in the wealthiest nations" as the main reason why its pupils underperform. A review of reforms over the past decade by researchers at Oxford University supports him. "Despite rising attainment levels," it concludes, "there has been little narrowing of longstanding and sizeable attainment gaps. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds remain at higher risks of poor outcomes." American studies confirm the point; Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington claims that "non-school factors", such as family income, account for as much as 60% of a child's performance in school.

Yet the link is much more variable than education egalitarians suggest. Australia, for instance, has wide discrepancies of income, but came a creditable ninth in the most recent PISA study. China, rapidly developing into one of the world's least equal societies, finished first.

Culture is certainly a factor. Many Asian parents pay much more attention to their children's test results than Western ones do, and push their schools to succeed. Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea sit comfortably at the top of McKinsey's rankings (see table 2). But not only do some Western countries do fairly well; there are also huge differences within them. Even if you put to one side the unusual Asians, as this briefing will now do, many Western systems could jump forward merely by bringing their worst schools up to the standard of their best.

So what are the secrets of success? Though there is no one template, four important themes emerge: decentralisation (handing power back to schools); a focus on underachieving pupils; a choice of different sorts of schools; and high standards for teachers. These themes can all be traced in three places that did well in McKinsey's league: Ontario, Poland and Saxony.

On the whole, though, the rise of charter schools in American cities has brought dynamism to one of the tougher areas of reform. These are schools aimed at the poorest parts of society, where aspirations are often low. Letting new providers in also attracts people who are interested in education and have a talent for organisation, but no taste for bureaucracy.

A mass of data shows that both profit and not-for-profit innovations can work. Diversity of supply in schools concentrates minds on what kind of teaching is best, particularly in challenging places. It also offers the freedom to set working conditions outside the restraints of local authorities and the teachers' unions, giving heads more capacity to tailor schools to the needs of their particular pupils. In America's Aspire charter schools, which have done best in the rankings, teachers follow strict guidelines to chart each pupil's progress. Aspire's motto is "College for Certain"; higher education is made the ambition of teachers and pupils alike.

The key to success

Of the four chief elements of schools reform, diversity of supply is by far the most striking. From New York to Shanghai to Denmark, schools free of government control and run by non-state providers are adding quality to the mix. To date, they seem most successful where the state has been unwilling or unable to make a difference. It is still not clear whether creating archipelagoes of Free Schools and charter schools will consistently drive improvement in other institutions, or whether that is wishful thinking.

What is clear, however, is that the shiniest new academy will struggle without decent teachers. An emphasis on better teacher quality is a common feature of all reforms. Countries like Finland and South Korea make life easier for themselves by recruiting only elite graduates, and paying them accordingly. Mr Gove has said that he wants to raise the degree threshold for teachers and offer "golden hellos" in areas of shortage, like science and language teaching. America has experimented at state level with merit pay and payment by results, but often in the teeth of opposition from the teachers' unions.

In schools reform, structural progress—new sorts of schools, reorganised old ones, new exams—can happen very fast. Better teachers take much longer to form. They should be made the priority.


Reforming education

The great schools revolution

Education remains the trickiest part of attempts to reform the public sector. But as ever more countries embark on it, some vital lessons are beginning to be learned

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