Why Top schools do better?

Article Number: 29. Number of words: 1064

Why some schools succeed where others do not, The experiences from top schools system across the globe suggests that three things matter most.

  • The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers,
  • The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction and,
  • Achieving universally high outcomes is only possible by putting in place mechanisms to ensure that schools deliver high-quality instruction to every child.
  • Students placed with high-performing teachers progress three times as fast as those placed with low performing teachers.
  • Evidence suggests that even in good systems, students that do not progress quickly during their first years at school, because they are not exposed to teachers of sufficient caliber, stand very little chance of recovering the lost years.
  • The negative impact of low performing teachers is severe, particularly during the earlier years of schooling. At the primary level, students that are placed with low performing teachers for several years in a row suffer an educational loss which is largely irreversible.
  • Reducing class sizes from 23 to 15 students improves the performance of an average student.
  • The high-performing school systems consistently do three things well:
    • They get the right people to become teachers (the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.
    • They develop these people into effective instructors (the only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction).
    • They put in place systems and targeted support to ensure that every child is able to benefit from excellent instruction (the only way for the system to reach the highest performance is to raise the standard of every student.)
  • The top school systems have developed effective mechanisms for selecting teachers for teacher training, and they pay good starting compensation.
  • Increasing class size: South Korea and Singapore employ fewer teachers than other systems; in effect, this ensures that they can spend more money on each teacher at an equivalent funding level. Both countries recognize that while class size has relatively little impact on the quality of student outcomes , teacher quality does. South Korea’s student to-teacher ratio is 30:1, compared to an OECD a­vera­ge of 17:1, enabling it to in effect double teacher sa­la­ries.
  • High performing systems ability to attract the right people into teaching is closely linked to the status of the profession. In Singapore and South Korea, opinion polls show that the general public believe that teachers make a greater contribution to society than any other profession.


Top performing systems are relentless in their focus on improving the quality of instruction in their classrooms.

  • Individual teachers need to become aware of specific weaknesses in their own practice.
  • Understanding of specific best practices. In general, this can only be achieved through the demonstration of such practices in an authentic setting
  • Need to be motivated to make the necessary improvements. Such changes come about when teachers have high expectations, a shared sense of purpose, and above all, a collective belief in their common ability to make a difference to the education of the children they serve.

There a­re broa­dly four a­pproa­ches high-performing school systems use to help tea­chers improve instruction,

  1. Building practical skills during the initial training: Several high performing and improving systems have moved their initial period of training from the lecture thea­tre to the classroom. This allows them to build teaching skills more effectively.
  2. Placing coaches in schools to support teachers: Expert teachers are sent into the classroom to observe and provide one-on-one coaching in terms of feedback, modelling better instruction, and in helping teachers to reflect upon their own practice.
  3. Selecting and developing effective instructional leaders: To achieve this goal, certain school systems have ensured that their school leaders are also ‘instructional leaders’. They have put in place mechanisms for selecting the best teachers to become principals, and then train them to become instructional leaders who then spend a good portion of their time coaching and mentoring their teachers. Principals in small schools in most of the top systems spent 80 percent of the school day focused on improving instruction and demonstrating a set of behaviors which build the capacity and motivation of their teachers to constantly improve their own instruction.
  4. Enabling teachers to learn  from  each  other: Teachers in most schools work alone. In a number of the top systems, particularly those in Ja­pa­n and Finland teachers work together, plan their lessons jointly, observe each others’ lessons, and help each other improve. These systems create a culture in their schools in which collaborative planning, reflection on instruction, and peer coaching are the norm and constant features of school life. This enables teachers to develop continuously.

The four different approaches that have proved effective all begin with an understanding of what it takes to improve the quality of instruction of a single teacher, and then develop the systems to create these conditions for all teachers. These schools show that while the task of transforming instruction on a large scale is challenging, it is nevertheless achievement.


  • The top performing systems shows a low correlation between outcomes and the home back ground of the individual student. The best systems have produced approaches to ensure that the school can compensate for the disadvantages resulting from the student’s home environment.
  • Top schools have rapidly improved systems, have curriculum standards which set clear and high expectations for what students should achieve.
  • The high performing systems recognize that they can not improve what they do not measure . they use two mechanisms for monitoring the quality of teaching and learning.
    • Examinations: Examinations test what students know, understand and can do, providing an objective measure of actual outcomes at a high level of detail. Examinations also have a powerful effect in driving the performance of any school system. In the words of one Australian educationalist, “What gets tested is what gets learnt, and how it is tested determines how it is learnt.”
    • School review: School reviews, or inspections, assess the performance of a school against a benchmark set of indicators. Unlike examinations, they measure both outcomes and the processes which drive them, and as a result, can help schools and systems identify specific a­rea­s which are in need of improvement.
  • A combination of monitoring and effective intervention is essential in ensuring that good instruction is delivered consistently across the system.



How the world best Performing schools systems come on top, www.mckinsey.com


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