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Tinkering around the edges of our education system ...

By Jenny Allum - posted Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Everyone has their own pet theory about how to improve the standard of education. It might be Julia Gillard’s “Transparency Agenda” enacted through the new MySchool website, or leagues tables through grading of schools on an A to F scale, as implemented by the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Joel Klein. Others have championed an approach to pay teachers according to performance on their students’ achievement results in Basic Skills or other such tests.

What does the research say about how to improve the standard of education? A seminal work by McKinsey and Company used the results in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to identify the world’s top-performing school systems and then analyse what were the reasons for their success. Their work was also informed by interviews with a significant number of educational experts and a review of the current literature.

McKinsey’s identified the world’s top ten performing educational systems (of which Australia is one) and also identified systems which are showing rapid growth or improvement in raising student outcomes. They tried to identify and analyse factors which contributed to the success of best systems.


Interestingly, it wasn’t reducing class sizes which made the difference. It wasn’t the funding or governance of schools. It wasn’t the structure of the school system itself - student outcomes did not improve by giving schools more autonomy nor alternatively did they improve by using a very centralised system of control from “Head Office”. It wasn’t a “name and shame” agenda of leagues tables or paying teachers on the results their students achieved in standardised tests. And perhaps, most interestingly, it wasn’t the systems which spent the most on education. McKinsey’s found that excellent student achievement could be attained at reasonable cost.

McKinsey’s found that three things made the difference:

  1. ensuring that the best students were selected to go into the teaching profession;
  2. devoting significant attention to helping teachers develop their skills in the classroom - into becoming excellent teachers; and
  3. monitoring student performance against expectations and intervening when expectations are not met.

“The quality of the education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”

These best performing systems attracted the most capable people to go into teaching, not by paying large salaries, or by paying on the basis of performance (as Julia Gillard wants to do). Three things were identified - making entry to teacher training highly selective, developing effective processes for selecting the right applicants to become teachers and paying good (but not great) starting salaries. Interestingly, McKinsey’s noted that salary was rarely stated as being one of the main reasons for becoming a teacher, and paying high salaries for experienced teachers, however structured, did not result in better teaching.

“The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction”

The best performing systems had systematic programs to coach teachers in effective classroom practice and to enable teachers to learn from each other. Teaching is a collaborative profession. The best results are achieved when teachers work together, sharing ideas and expertise. Teaching is not a competitive business, competing for salaries, or for the best results for their students at the expense of results of the teacher in the classroom next door. As McKinsey’s report notes, excellent results “come about when teachers have high expectations, a shared sense of purpose, and above all, a collective belief in their common ability to make a difference to the education of the children they serve”.

“High Performance requires every child to succeed”

The best systems ensure that schools can compensate for disadvantages resulting from the student’s home environment. “The high-performing systems are better at ensuring that each student receives the instruction they need to compensate for their home background”. In the Australian environment, this should mean that results in the basic skills tests are used, not to rank schools, but to identify underperforming students and devote resources to intervene to help them meet appropriate standards.


One of the latest initiatives in Australia has been the release of the MySchool website, and the ranking of schools based on the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results of its students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Suddenly, in Australia, we are currently seeing a most significant change on the educational landscape. Schools are now spending significant time on coaching students for the test. There is a huge growth industry in commercial enterprise to help schools to know how to improve their MySchool performance. Note that I do not say “to help schools to better assist their students in the important skills of literacy and numeracy” -because the efforts currently underway are superficial measures regarding the sitting of the tests which will have little effect on student knowledge and understanding.

Why are we, in Australia, spending so much time on trivial, shallow changes to our education system, rather than looking at what we can learn from the rigorous deep research from experts such as at McKinsey? The MySchool website, talk of performance pay and education revolutions have a place - but definitely not in my or I think McKinsey’s three most important ways we can improve teaching and learning at schools in Australia or elsewhere. Perhaps the three top priorities for our educational system should be:

  1. make entry into teacher training courses at university have the highest ATAR requirements for entry;
  2. ensure that there are rigorous appraisal processes in place in schools so that teachers know their areas of weakness, and a significant professional development program to help them address those weaknesses (and get rid of the teachers who are unable to do so); and
  3. use NAPLAN results to identify under-performing students and put programs in place to help them meet appropriate benchmarks.
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About the Author

Jenny Allum is Head of the SCEGGS Darlinghurst.

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