Characteristics of the world’s best school systems
Edward Walsh 31 October 2008
Competition in the knowledge economy is a race for talent and governments worldwide have been boosting educational expenditure to improve facilities, increase teachers’ salaries and reduce class size. Australia has almost tripled educational spending. In the US class sizes are at the lowest ever and spending has doubled since 1980.
But to their surprise many governments have found that major increases in investment, reduced class sizes, increased teacher salaries and new facilities have not had any significant impact on student performance as measured again and again by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The students from the same countries, Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, continue to outperform the rest each time the tests are done. Some of the countries with the best performing school systems are not noted for expenditure on education. Indeed Singapore spends less on primary education than do 27 of the 30 OECD countries and the student teacher ratio in South Korea, at 30:1, is higher than in Ireland.
Mc Kinsey and Co., perhaps the world’s most reputable consultancy firm, was commissioned to examine the situation and identify what are the common characteristics of the best performing school systems. Their findings were published last year and identified the three factors that matter most:
- getting the right people to become teachers
- developing them into effective instructors
- intervening early and often to help those students who are lagging behind
How do the best performing school systems attract the right people? Simple. Teacher education places are strictly limited to requirements, and as a result intense competition develops. Those who secure a teaching place are looked upon as an elite and highly regarded part of the community. In South Korea primary-teachers come from the top 5 % of graduates. Singapore screens candidates intensely and only admits the number for which there are teaching places. In Finland all new teachers must have a Masters degree.
In the best school systems teachers continue to undertake training in their schools and routinely remain on in school after the students have gone home. Singapore appoints a senior teacher in each school to oversee professional development and teachers do some 100 hours of training each year as part of their routine professional work. In Finland groups of teachers visit each other’s class rooms to do curriculum planning together for an afternoon each week.
In the best school systems special attention is given to those students who may be falling behind. In Singapore the bottom 20% of pupils remain behind after school to receive special additional attention from their teachers.
The McKinsey findings concur with those in South Korea where the view dominates that the quality of an educational system can not exceed the quality of its teachers.
This view is highlighted by studies that show if you take students of average ability and provide them with teachers who are from the top fifth of their profession the students end up with the top 10% of performers. On the other hand if you give average students teachers from the bottom rankings their performance sinks to the bottom.
The McKinsey report concludes: “The countries with the top performing school systems demonstrate that the quality of an education system depends ultimately on the quality of the teachers.”
Class size may be a factor when pupils are very young but it becomes increasingly insignificant for older students. Those who made the Celtic Tiger happen were educated at a time when class sizes were significantly larger than they are now…or will be next year. The outlandish statements on the damage caused by increasing class size by one pupil, made by teacher union leadership, are not justified by the evidence.
The McKinsey study highlights the important of securing high public standing for teaching in order to attract the right people into it. If real damage is being done to the school system at present it is being caused by the belligerent claims of teacher union leadership who have failed to rise to the occasion and recognise that the country is facing a major crisis: teachers should be amongst the first to recognise this and provide appropriate public leadership.
31 October 2008
 Barber, Michael and Mourshed, Mona. How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top. McKinsey & Co. September 2007.
 How to be top. Economist, 20 Oct 2007.