OECD just published Andreas Schleicher’s World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System which is free to read online or as downloadable PDF.
There is a great chapter, Debunking some myths, which shows that the poor can do well in school, that immigrants do not adversely affect overall performance in schools, that more time spent learning is not correlated with more learned, and other interesting facts.
But in this post, we are going to focus on the attributes of high performing school systems. If we can figure out what a good system does, perhaps we can use that model to improve or transform poorer performing ones.
Leaders in societies with high performing schools make the effort to convince citizens that investing in education is investing in the future, and that they will have a better future the society competes globally based on the quality of their labor rather than the price of their labor. A higher percentage of education spending is on what happens in the classroom.
There is a wide-spread belief that every child can learn. Societies that have advanced from screening students by or segregating students with different abilities show higher achievement. Instead of debating standards, they set high standards and expect mastery by all students and adjust the time and pedagogies so that all students meet them. Moving from a system based on layers, screening, and segregation to one where all students are expected to achieve mastery takes concerted effort in communities as well as in the schools themselves. To directly quote:
But the bottom line remains: no education system has managed to achieve sustained high performance and equitable opportunities to learn without developing a system built on the premise that it is possible for all students to achieve at high levels – and that it is necessary for them to do so.
Systems demand rigor and higher-order thinking skills of all students. The diversity of student needs is addressed through differentiated pedagogical practices; the educational experience is personalized so that all students can meet high standards and the system invests in not just students’ academic success but also in their well-being. Because the methods of teaching are varied, instead of the outcomes, there is less variation and a weaker impact of socio-economic background on learning outcomes.
Teachers are top quality. This doesn’t mean selecting only top performing students to become teachers, it is a whole system built around preparing, hiring, on-boarding, supporting, encouraging, and professionally developing teachers. Teachers in these systems believe that their students are capable of learning and that they themselves are also capable of learning. Teacher development is viewed as lifelong learning, and successful systems involve teachers learning communities where teachers build on each other’s expertise and experience. Teachers have adopted their roles as knowledge co-creation instead of knowledge transmission, learning by experimenting instead of abstracting textbooks, and formative monitoring instead of summative assessment. Teacher voice and teacher choice are central to maintaining quality.
Goals are clear and educators are given authority and responsibility to achieve them. Teachers are encouraged to be innovative, learn from colleagues, and improve their own performance instead of looking for guidance and instruction from administration. The process of designing assessments is often, first, what do students need to learn, second, how can we best assess learning, and third, then how do we best teach all students so that they learn that. For example, it wasn’t the systems that taught financial education where student showed the highest comprehension of financial topics, it was the systems, like Shanghai that cultivated deep conceptual understanding and complex reasoning in mathematics, so that students had little difficulty transferring and applying their knowledge to unfamiliar financial contexts.
High quality is uniform so that all students benefit from excellent teaching, and often there are methods in place to attract talented principals and teachers to the most challenging environments. Students work hard and understand the benefits of doing well and working hard. Teachers work in environments where the success of the whole group depends on collaboration and shared success and effort. There are systems that encourage close bonds between teachers and parents. All groups are focused on the students’ well-being.
Policies and practices are aligned over the entire system, not necessarily as top-down direction, but often as community-wide norms and communications. Poor leadership can undercut even the best teacher. Good leadership
- Supports, evaluates and develops teacher quality and a collaborating work culture
- Establishes learning objectives and assessments to help students reach high standards, and use the data to see that every student progresses.
- Uses resources strategically and collaborates with teachers to align them with pedagogy
- Builds partnership beyond the school, including families, other communities, higher education, businesses, and other schools and learning environments.
Hopefully, knowing what makes a good education system is a good start. Other chapters in the OECD book deal with why equity is so elusive, making education reform happen, and what to do now. Anyone concerned about providing a healthy path for our next generation should spend time reading, thinking on, and acting upon this book.
And in the spirit of the core value and belief that every student can learn, you may want to join in the live online discussion with Chris Bugaj on August 16.