Improving education

There’s an interesting article in a recent Economist about some McKinsey research on improving school performance. I couldn’t find the original McKinsey research (presumably they charge governments a lot of money for it), but even the bits summarised in the Economist are different from most of what you will read about improving education. The McKinsey research was based on analysing the top country performances (using this OECD research, which shows Australia as one of the better countries, for what its worth), and what seemed to work for them. Of course, there are bound to be cultural effects lurking in there that complicate things, but it seems worth exploring further, at the very least. A few points to note:

  • the most important thing is to attract the best teachers. Research shows that the difference between good and bad teachers is one of the most statistically significant variables in education performance.
  • attracting the best teachers is not necessarily about paying more (at least based on looking at the countries that are successful at doing it). Its at least as much about making teaching attractive in other ways through things such as making teaching hard to get into at university, creating great working conditions, particularly in terms of good training, and support on the job, and working hard for low turnover.
  • keep teaching the teachers throughout their working life, particularly by allowing them to share their knowledge with each other (which makes them all more efficient, through such things as sharing lesson plans etc)
  • intervene early and often when teachers or pupils seem to be failing

I imagine that there are enough variables that you can prove a fair few things if you torture the available data enough. Nevertheless, there are ways to create status, and job satisfaction without pay. Most research suggests that pay is rarely the top reason that people change jobs. It’s certainly a factor, but on its own, it isn’t going to change people’s behaviour.

There is a lot of talk these days about how important performance pay for teachers is – to give rewards to the best teachers. I think it is important that there is a track for good teachers to be well paid. But there are other ways of creating high status professions. Most actors don’t go into acting because Nicole Kidman is a millionaire. They go into it because they want to be actors. Easy to say, hard to do, but instead of blaming teachers for every failing in today’s youth, perhaps we as a society need to think about how to make them our heroes.

Certainly the experience of watching my son’s kindergarten teacher take 20 5 year olds from a variety of backgrounds (non english speaking, preschool or non preschool) and mold them into an organised, functional unit within a couple of weeks gave me a deep and abiding respect for the work that teachers do.

  5 comments for “Improving education

  1. October 27, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    Someone I know (in her 40s) who graduated as a teacher last year hasn’t even lasted a year – and the primary reason she left was lack of support within the school she got work in. There do seem to be some schools where longtime teachers (especially principals) are stuck in a culture of inertia and bureaucracy and aren’t very open to new teachers with new ideas. Some of that seems to be connected to lack of resources for public schols in general, so that teachers in some areas are struggling with big classes, a lot of kids with ESL and not enough back-up. So putting more money into public education is one non-pay factor which will improve teachers’ lives.

  2. October 28, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    Is it possible to make any profession high-status without making it difficult to get into? And to make it difficult to get into, you either have to put in place deliberate constraints to supply (I seem to recall that’s how thw Finns do it, according to the Economist), or to make it well-paid to increase demand from potential recruits. So the need for high pay may actually be the need for a signal of high status.

  3. October 30, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    Last year, ANU initiated an award whereby graduating students nominate a schoolteacher who made a real difference in their lives. It’s a tiny contribution to improving the nonwage benefits of teaching. Nonetheless, when you look at tables of ‘occupational status’ and compare them to salary tables, the two look strikingly similar, making me think that this really is mostly about wages.

  4. November 2, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Of course, it is about the lack of good teachers. But I think it is also about the money invested in youth education and skill building.

    With the constant technological development, United States needs a higher-educated population. By 2012, we will have 3 million more jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree and we won’t have college graduates to fill them. Part of that resides in lack of federal funds for education.

    The data show that by age 24, less than 9 percent of low-income students have earned a bachelor’s degree. The American economy is the most competitive in the world. Therefore, it makes greater demands on the workforce. Ninety-percent of the fastest-growing jobs require post-secondary education or training. 60 percent of Americans have no post secondary credentials at all. At a time when they needed most it has become more difficult to get one particularly for the low-income and minority students.

    Many of the high schools are failing to prepare students for college and the workforce. Not only do students dropout of school less than half of those who graduate are ready for college-level education. Rigorous preparation in high school is the best way to increase college access and success. However, only four percent of low-income students complete a college prep curriculum.

    Nearly 140,000 New York City youth ages 16-21 have dropped out or are significantly off-track for graduation. This population of students is larger in size than any high school district in the country except Los Angeles.

    There is also a correlation between reading and math score levels, race/ethnicity and poverty levels.

    For example, in 2004, there were 80 percent of 17-year-old students at or above 250 reading score level of which 86 percent were whites, 67 percent were blacks, and 64 percent were Hispanic. Similarly, there were 38 percent of 17-year-old students at or above 300 reading score level, of which 45 percent were whites, 17 percent were black, and 20 percent were Hispanic (table 113, Digest of Educations Statistics 2006).

  5. llabesab
    February 9, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Wow!! What loon spent good money to research the fact that the difference between bad teachers and good teachers is a significant variable in education performance.
    Have these loons ever heard of “..Res ipsa loquitor?”

    And let’s get it straight; most people opt for teaching careers in language arts, English, Social Studies, Phys. Ed., etc., because 1. The college courses are easy. 2. Because the pay is much better than most similar jobs in the private sector. 3. They only “work” 9 months/year. 4. Of the usual 9 periods in a school day, the average teacher only “teaches” 5 periods; one period is lunch; one period is hall duty; one period is preparation time; one period is collegial time. Think of the lst time a private sector manager told hi employees, take an hour off to prepare for the rest of the day 5. After tenure, the only “boss” a teacher has are the students who are easily manipulated. This is very true re Elementary School teachers where the “bosses” are between 5 and 11 years of age. Re the “boss” remarks, in NYC with its tens of thousands of teachers, in the past 6 years, only about 50 have been let go for incompetence. Considering the “success” of education in that city, about 50% should have been fired.

    Read the papers, while every single company in the USA from the Big 3 in Detroit to GE, and even Microsoft, hundreds of thousands of workers are losing their jobs. When was the last time anyone read of teachers being let go for any reason.

    In my school district, teachers are getting their annual 4% plus their 3-4% step. And don’t tell me that’s in their contract. Tell that to the 560,00 who lost their private sector jobs in January and who also were working “under contract.” The old saw still holds; “..those that can, do; those that can’t, teach; and the particularly stupid become Administrators.”

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