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Mona Mourshed, Chinezi Chijioke, and Michael Barber, How the World's Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better (Washington, D.C.: McKinsey and Co., December 2010).
A follow-up to their 2007 study, How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top, this mixed-methods analysis from the folks at McKinsey looks at twenty of the world’s school systems—from U.S. districts like Long Beach and Boston to the German state of Saxony to countries like Poland and Singapore. They even analyze some up-and-comers like Armenia, Ghana, and India’s Madhya Pradesh. The systems differ in a hundred ways, yet they also turn out to share some key features. All have been improving. All place priority on strong academic standards, adequate teacher pay, professional development, student assessment, and the use of data. They have sustained leadership (the average leader tenure in these systems is six years for political leaders and seven years for technical leaders, compared to 2.8 years for U.S. urban supes). And these leaders engage with stakeholders, install capable and like-minded individuals in critical positions, and explicitly determine which interventions are non-negotiable. They differ in focus and strategy, however, depending on how far along the improvement continuum each system is. Those climbing from poor to fair focus on improving basic skills while systems going from fair to good become increasingly data-driven. The shift from good to great is characterized by a professionalization of teachers and school leaders, and a (rare) jump from great to excellent is correlated with a decentralization of responsibility and authority combined with firm accountability. A first-rate piece of work, well worth exploring in detail yourself. And, for those who are more tech-savvy, they also offered a worldwide webinar, still accessible online.