Education: Secrets of Success

Source: The Economist, Sep 2011

there has been a change in the quality of the debate. In particular, what might be called “the three great excuses” for bad schools have receded in importance. Teachers’ unions have long maintained that failures in Western education could be blamed on skimpy government spending, social class and cultures that did not value education. All these make a difference, but they do not determine outcomes by themselves.

The idea that good schooling is about spending money is the one that has been beaten back hardest. Many of the 20 leading economic performers in the OECD doubled or tripled their education spending in real terms between 1970 and 1994, yet outcomes in many countries stagnated—or went backwards. Educational performance varies widely even among countries that spend similar amounts per pupil. Such spending is highest in the United States—yet America lags behind other developed countries on overall outcomes in secondary education.  Andreas Schleicher, head of analysis at PISA, thinks that only about 10% of the variation in pupil performance has anything to do with money.

Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington claims that “non-school factors”, such as family income, account for as much as 60% of a child’s performance in school.

Culture is certainly a factor. Many Asian parents pay much more attention to their children’s test results than Western ones do, and push their schools to succeed. Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea sit comfortably at the top of McKinsey’s rankings.

… what are the secrets of success? Though there is no one template, four important themes emerge: decentralisation (handing power back to schools); a focus on underachieving pupils; a choice of different sorts of schools; and high standards for teachers. 

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