David M. Bressoud March, 2008
This month, I want to use this forum to publicize a report that came out last fall with solid advice for how to improve our schools. As we think about K-12 mathematics education, as we engage in the debate of what should succeed No Child Left Behind, I believe that this report provides a useful, research-based framework in which to situate that debate. And I believe that this report has implications for how we think about mathematics teaching in our colleges and universities, a topic to which I shall return in later columns.
The report in question was issued by McKinsey & Company
in September, 2007, How the world’s best-performing school systems
come out on top . Their procedure was straight-forward.
They took the ten top-performing countries according to the OECD’s Programme
for International Student Assessment (PISA): Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland,
Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea, and
asked what practices are common among them. They tested their conclusions
by comparing these practices with those in the US school systems that have
seen the most dramatic increase in National Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP) or TIMSS scores or have been consistent finalists for the Broad Prize
for Urban Education. These school systems are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New
York, and Ohio.
None of their conclusions should be surprising. The three practices that they identified are on most people’s lists of what they would like to see. What is eye-opening is how effective these practices can be and how important it is to focus on them. In my own paraphrase, they are
Getting the best teachers
The McKinsey report cites many studies that support the conclusion that the quality of the teacher has more to do with student outcome than any other variable. A particularly dramatic example of this was a Tennessee study by Sanders and Rivers  that followed students over third, fourth, and fifth grades. They showed that for a student entering third grade at the 50th percentile, getting teachers in the top quintile (in terms of teacher effectiveness) for three years could be expected to lead to performance at the 90th percentile. Students with teachers from the bottom quintile for three years were predicted to move down to the 37th percentile. Furthermore, while there is a cumulative effect, teachers in the earlier grades have a greater effect than those in the later grades.
All of the countries with top-performing school systems draw their teachers from the top 30% of all college students. Singapore and Finland have rigorous selection systems for admission to teacher education, Singapore accepting only 20% of applicants, Finland only 10%. Cultural attitudes toward teaching as a profession do have a role to play in this, but so do teacher salaries. Most of the top countries pay their starting teachers a salary equivalent to about 95% of national GDP per capita. South Korea pays 141%. In the United States, average starting salaries for teachers are at 81% of national GDP per capita. With avergae ntional GDP in the US currently at $46,000, 81% means an average starting salary of a bit over $37,000. To raise starting salaries to 95% of US GDP per capita, this would have to rise to almost $44,000. There are also other ways of attracting the best people. Boston, Chicago, and New York have set up Fellows and Residency programs that recruit from among the very best students.
But the problem is not just getting good teachers. It is also keeping them. This is where the second practice comes into play.
I know from my own year as a visiting teacher in the State College Area High School how difficult it is for teachers to get coaching and peer-mentoring. Just finding common time when all of the math teachers can be together can be a challenge. The McKinsey report lists the kinds of support that teachers in the best performing schools systems receive:
Standards, intervention, and allocation of resources
This may seem to be several topics. It is really one: guaranteeing equality of opportunity for all students. The first point is that schools cannot know where the problems are if they do not assess what is happening to the students, or, in the words of the McKinsey report, “they can not improve what they do not measure.” And this means both clear and high expectations.
What is really important are the goals. In view of the current national debate about the teaching of K-12 mathematics, I find it interesting that in 1992 Finland improved its education system by replacing its rigid national curriculum with a set of targets for all students. These include a strong focus on core skills in literacy and numeracy in the early years. But Finland also leaves a great deal of flexibility for teachers in how they get their students to meet these goals.
All of the top-performing countries do use examinations to monitor student achievement, but in some of them including Singapore, top-performing schools are exempted from these examinations. In many of these top countries, the frequency of testing decreases as a school shows itself capable of meeting the goals.
Intervention is the next piece, both at the school level—replacing the school leadership and directing additional resources to a given school as soon as a problem is clearly identified—but also intervention at the level of individual students. Finland has an extensive system of special education that students move in and out of as the need arises. In any given year, 30% of their students are in special education, getting individual or small-group attention. Special education is not just for students at risk. Part of what makes it acceptable is that it is also used, on occasion, to provide small group instruction for students who are ready for additional material.
The last point, allocating resources to those places where they will have the greatest impact, seems so obvious it hardly needs stating. Yet, of course, that is not always the situation in the United States.
None of these practices would be easy to bring about in the United States, but we do need to be wary of well-intentioned efforts that work against them, for example decreasing class size by hiring more, but less well qualified teachers. And, as the McKinsey Report suggests, some cities are turning their school districts around by focusing on these practices that work.
 Michael Barber and Mona Mourshed, How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top, September, 2007, McKinsey & Company. www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/socialsector/resources/pdf/Worlds_School_Systems_Final.pdf
 William L. Sanders and June C. Rivers, Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Academic Achievement, November, 1996. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center. www.mccsc.edu/~curriculum/cumulative%20and%20residual%20effects%20of%20teachers.pdf
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