Friday, July 11, 2008

McKinsey's Lessons on Education

When it comes to education, everybody has their own opinions on how to improve it, but usually they have little research to back them up. And while there are vast differences in quality of schools between countries, I hardly ever see investigation that try and get to the root of those differences. I was glad then to read about this thought provoking report by McKinsey.

Now, an organisation from outside the teaching fold—McKinsey, a consultancy that advises companies and governments—has boldly gone where educationalists have mostly never gone: into policy recommendations based on the PISA findings. Schools, it says*, need to do three things: get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind.
Why are good teachers so important?
Studies in Tennessee and Dallas have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, they end up in the top 10% of student performers; if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom. The quality of teachers affects student performance more than anything else.
I had no idea there was that much of a difference. I am skeptical that the impact is so large and would like to check out that research and see how they came to that conclusion.

How good are the applicants for teachers in the best performing countries?
McKinsey argues that the best performing education systems nevertheless manage to attract the best. In Finland all new teachers must have a master's degree. South Korea recruits primary-school teachers from the top 5% of graduates, Singapore and Hong Kong from the top 30%.
And how about the US?
The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a non-profit organisation, says America typically recruits teachers from the bottom third of college graduates.
Yeah, that's not so good.

So, how do you get the best teachers?
You might think that schools should offer as much money as possible, seek to attract a large pool of applicants into teacher training and then pick the best.
Yes, in fact that is exactly what I think.
Not so, says McKinsey. If money were so important, then countries with the highest teacher salaries—Germany, Spain and Switzerland—would presumably be among the best. They aren't. In practice, the top performers pay no more than average salaries.

Nor do they try to encourage a big pool of trainees and select the most successful. Almost the opposite. Singapore screens candidates with a fine mesh before teacher training and accepts only the number for which there are places. Once in, candidates are employed by the education ministry and more or less guaranteed a job. Finland also limits the supply of teacher-training places to demand. In both countries, teaching is a high-status profession (because it is fiercely competitive) and there are generous funds for each trainee teacher (because there are few of them).

South Korea shows how the two systems produce different results. Its primary-school teachers have to pass a four-year undergraduate degree from one of only a dozen universities. Getting in requires top grades; places are rationed to match vacancies. In contrast, secondary-school teachers can get a diploma from any one of 350 colleges, with laxer selection criteria. This has produced an enormous glut of newly qualified secondary-school teachers—11 for each job at last count. As a result, secondary-school teaching is the lower status job in South Korea; everyone wants to be a primary-school teacher.
Interesting. Instead of paying more you make the entrance very exclusive and then guarantee a job at a decent but not extremely high wage. I wonder though, is a society best served by having its best students become teachers? Quite possibly, but I am not convinced.

What about smaller class sizes?
Almost every rich country has sought to reduce class size lately. Yet all other things being equal, smaller classes mean more teachers for the same pot of money, producing lower salaries and lower professional status. That may explain the paradox that, after primary school, there seems little or no relationship between class size and educational achievement.
Their suggestions are quite different from others that I have seen. To implement this would take a serious commitment by the US, requiring it to completely change the way it went about hiring. It would also take many years before you could tell if it was working. But I am intrigued with the idea.

The whole article was very interesting and worth a read.

via The Economist


Trishna said...

Really interesting report and rather unexpected findings -- good stuff!

Fat Knowledge said...


Glad you liked it. I felt the same way when I read it.

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