McKinsey & Company has cataloged 525 different types of actions that school systems attempt, and most of them work, but in different situations. Many of the interventions are different depending on the stage of the schools. McKinsey breaks school systems into 4 different categories, dependent on student achievement: poor, fair, good, and great.
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Poor systems routinely turn out students who do not read and write, and who cannot do rudimentary math. Their teachers are generally low skilled as well. Poor systems that are progressing to fair ones generally make progress with a top down approach, establishing relatively rigid class and lesson structures so that lower skilled educators can still achieve a minimum but uniform level of student achievement. Their goal is students achieving basic literacy and numeracy.
Fair systems have students who understand the rudiments of reading and math. They progress by providing more student performance information, setting pedagogy models and organizational structure, securing appropriate financing, and increasing accountability. Their goal is to get the foundations in place.
Good systems have students who are reasonably proficient and meet academic standards. These systems progress to great by establishing and reinforcing the professionalism of their educators with occupational structures and procedures similar to those of medicine or law. Their goal is to inculcate professionalism.
Great systems uniformly produce highly functioning graduates. They continue to improve by increasing local and individual responsibility, with more peer based learning for professionals and students, and encouraging innovation and experimentation. Their theme is to improve through peers and innovation.
The interventions for the first two levels tend to be top down, while the higher levels look to empower educators and students. As the report points out, you can prescribe adequacy, but you unleash greatness.
Six types of interventions tend to span all levels:
- Revising the curriculum
- Ensuring an appropriate reward and remuneration structure
- Building technical skills for educators
- Assessing students
- Establishing data systems
- Creating policy documents and laws
While many school systems attempt to implement these interventions, successful implementations (those that move a system from one level to a higher one) have six attributes:
- Leaders have selected, and members of the school system follow, a critical mass of interventions that together will move the district forward. There is not just one quick fix, and it's not trying to do everything at once. Assessing the situation and then selecting a cluster of interventions that can be done well that will move the school system to the next level.
- Leaders contextualize the interventions to the school system, generally through interactions with other stakeholders, to get the critical buy-in. Leaders have to obtain the support of stakeholders, and they do this through a combination of context, persuasion, and mandates. Leadership is a key ingredient for success, and the leaders need to balance how they communicate, what issues become matters of negotiation, and what issues are dictated.
- The systems maintain the integrity of the interventions over time; they stick with the interventions over years so that they can achieve the desired results. Educators have to internalize the new teaching processes, changing the way they think about teaching, and this takes time.
- There are structures that allow teachers to share practices and the system to disseminate and scale them.
- Teachers understand and buy in to a professional career path, understanding that continuous learning, sharing, and adopting what works is part of their responsibility.
- New leaders are cultivated, so that the leadership of the system is self-sustaining and self-reinforcing.
While the average superintendent in an urban district in the US currently stays at the position for an average of three years, the report points out that this is a formula for failure. This combination of six success factors requires change from quite a few stakeholders, many of whom will normally strongly resist change. All the systems that have overcome that inertia have initiated change with the introduction of a highly energized competent leader who stays for an average of at least six years, but that is generally not sufficient. Most also have experienced either some political or economic crisis or a publicized analysis or report that is highly critical of the system.
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Hope for improvements in our school systems thus lie with some external event triggering a desire for change in the community or school system; the ascendency of a good leader; following the six attributes of success; and being conscious of the school system's level.
Somehow, that doesn't sound so complicated.