January 07, 2008

2/3: The best school systems in the world: finding or creating the best teachers?

This is the second of three posts in a series paraphrasing the 2007 McKinsey report (pdf), which analysed what made the best education systems in the world, well, the best.

Duh Point #1: You need Good Teachers
We've all had the experience of being taught by a dire teacher, someone who turned us off learning or, at best, made it difficult to enjoy. Why is that as professionals we have such a hard time saying that there are Bad teachers out there, just as we find it so easy to say that there are some Good ones, too?

Tennessee and Dallas research shows that a good and bad teacher can make a 50%/49% difference in attainment over three years. Students learn three times as fast as those in poor teacher classes. Low-performing primary teachers create damage which is irreversible. Quick progression early on is essential, with p.15 of the report giving lots of examples of the issues of not doing this by 11 years, with the impossibility of getting to university by 14 years old when the damage has been done earlier in the school career). Reducing a class size from 23-15 improves performance by 8% at best.

Again, let's take a look at the most successful systems. Finlanders only start school at 7, for 4/5 hrs per day for the first two years. Similarly, evidence in the UK recently points to the damage that can be done to reading when children are pushed into it too early. So starting students early, having smaller class sizes, pumping in more money... nothing seems to work at creating excellent systems. Maybe the answers lies in those (who should be) empowered to make the biggest lasting changes in education: the teacher.

Duh Point #2: Faakid ashay la yua'tee
One cannot give what one does not have
In the USA and the Middle East teacher recruiting comes from bottom third of college graduates; these countries also lag in the school system league tables. So is a challenge behind the success of any education system raising the profile of the profession, in order to attract a better raw ingredient to 'bake' into a teacher?

In many far Eastern countries there is a far more 'Confucius' respect for teachers, leading to a greater status for the profession and, in return, more people coming into it. Selection of teachers is often competitive and tested (otherwise there's potential for 40 years of bad teaching, with maybe 10,000 children affected).

Where teachers are selected after the teacher training course, there is oversupply and difficulty in finding employment. Therefore the best candidates are turned off from teaching and every student ends up with less attention during the teacher training course.

So how do you attract the best, and keep them away from other professions which, traditionally, have paid more salary? Financially, Korea has got away with paying 161% of the OECD average by doubling class sizes from the average 17 to 30, allowing the percentile increase in salary.

Finally, though, is the question of what you do once you have the best initially trained teachers, and what of the ones who've been in the profession for years already? The answer, logically, is in professional development and reflection on that development. Again, those languishing in the league tables tend to be offered less structured opportunities to reflect: just 1 hour of paid professional development per year is given in New York schools versus 100 hours of supported, paid professional development and reflection in Singapore.

For those systems which won't move, maybe some other instrinsic reward is required, like the potential for being re-employed. Maybe Jeff Utecht's interview questions should be asked of any teacher wanting a new job in 2008.

This is where blogging teachers stand to thrust themselves, and their countries, ahead in the international stakes. By reflecting regularly and as part of an internationally benchmarked professional group, blogging teachers are already heads and shoulders above the average.

Related posts:
1/3: It's not (all) about the money


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I've always read that "good" teachers in the classroom make the difference but I had never seen stats to actually back that up. These are interesting. But my questions circle around change. What is a "good" teacher? Someone who prepares kids for university? Someone who prepares kids to go into the workforce? Someone pushing kids towards the 21st century? Can good teaching be defined as someone who is able to motivate kids to become self directed learners? Not necessarily playing the devil's advocate here as I completely agree with you about the importance of teachers (I'm a teacher after all!) just wondering about defining this a little closer.

Hi Ewan,
I am really surprised at the difference a good teacher makes so much difference. I always have in the back of my head a stat that was quoted to me many years ago the the difference to a child's reading age would only be affected by about 10% by the quality of the teacher, ie the best made 10% difference over the worst. I've always taken comfort from this. BUT, I now have no idea where the stat came from and you know what they say about statistics;-)

Hi Ewan,
that finding in Finland is interesting. There are studies that contradict this and suggest that early schooling gives a lifelong benefit (e.g. http://www.nwrel.org/scpd/sirs/3/topsyn3.html). I wonder if there is an element of arms-race here - if some people start schooling their children young they have an advantage over those who don't, so there is pressure for others to conform and start younger. If, as in Finland, everyone starts at 7 then it all evens out. Mind you, as part of a couple both of whom work, what we're supposed to do with them till age 7 is another question...

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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