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Good to Great? Who Knew?

Posted on: March 25th, 2011 by Stephen Hurley  8 Comments »

This post is mirrored today at the Canadian Education Association website

There is a strong correlation between a school system’s improvement journey stage and the tightness of central control over the individual schools activities and performance. Systems on the poor to fair journey, in general characterized by lower skill educators, exercise tight, central control over teaching and learning processes in order to minimize the degree of variation between individual classes and across schools.

In contrast, systems moving from good to great, characterized by higher skill educators, provide only loose, central guidelines for teaching and learning processes, in order to encourage peer-led creativity and innovation inside schools, the core driver for raising performance at this stage.

—“How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better” (p. 26)


It’s been almost a week since Spring Break 2011 ended and I’m still unpacking, but not in the way that you think! Instead of heading south this year, I headed to the Web and spent a good portion of my school break journeying through the McKinsey & Company report, “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better”. Now before you roll your eyes or begin playing mournful melodies on the violin, please understand that I usually enjoy reading this type of material. For me, it represents a powerful form of professional development and, in this particular case, an opportunity to hone my critical thinking skills.

The McKinsey report tracks the improvement journeys of 20 school systems around the world, systems that have realized steady gains on a variety of national and international assessments over an extended period of time. But it’s not a report to be taken at face value. There are a good deal of ideas, approaches and claims in the 126 pages of the report that require careful thought and, yes, some unpacking.

In previous reflections, I focused on the lack of stories connecting the data with the lives of real teachers and students, as well as the counter-narrative suggested by the choice of photographs for the report.

But there is one aspect of the report with which I’ve struggled right from my first reading. It’s a struggle that has to do with the amount of central control necessary at each of the performance stages described in the report: poorfairgoodgreat, andexcellent. It’s a struggle that is most concisely expressed in the excerpt from the report quoted in at the beginning of this reflection.

Part of my difficulty has to do with the fact that the McKinsey report traces the improvement journey of Ontario, the province in which I have spent my entire career, from being a good system ten years ago to its current standing as one of the world’s greatschool systems. Hmmm. If you were to ask any Ontario teacher who was part of a publicly funded system in the year 2000 about the messaging that they received from the government of the day, and from their own school districts, I’m pretty confident that you would get quite the opposite sense. After all, provincial testing of elementary students was just a few years old, the Secondary School Literacy Test was due to be piloted that year and the establishment of a provincial Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat was still a few years off.

If we were a good school system in 2000, someone failed to pass on the message! Instead, our lives as teachers began to be de-professionalized in many respects. In fact, many of the intervention strategies that the McKinsey report describes as being appropriate for a poor system on the road to becoming fair would likely resonate more with many teachers in Ontario. From the report, a the proper way to deal with a school system moving from poor to fair:

  • Scripted teaching materials
  • Coaching on curriculum
  • Instructional time on task
  • School visits by center
  • Incentives for high performance
  • Outcome targets
  • Additional support for low performing schools
  • School infrastructure improvement
  • Provision of textbooks

Hmmm. Sound familiar? I would argue that this has been the reality on the ground in Ontario for many teachers, for many years. Oh, there may be some schools where performance scores have allowed for more innovative collaboration and relatively loose central control, but for many, my own included, loose central control is a concept that stands as a distant memory from my early days of teaching.

So my first difficulty in unpacking the McKinsey report has been the apparent disconnect between the story we’re telling the world—those on the outside, and the story that we’re telling our own people, especially those who work within the system.

Looking forward, my second concern can be expressed most simply as a question: Is it really possible to rebuild a sense of professionalism in a group that has had, over a period of time, been systematically de-professionalized?

According to the McKinsey report, many of the strategies that have been used with teachers over the past decade or so have been based on a set of false assumptions. Ontario teachers are very highly skilled, carry with them a great deal of both explicit and tacit knowledge about their work and, as a group, have been capable of establishing a very highly developed professional development culture. Yet, the strategies that have been used seem to have assumed that we come with low skills, would benefit from tight control and surveillance, and are in need of a centrally-organized training regimen.

So, as I continue to unpack from my journey through the McKinsey report, my main questions look to the future of the profession I love: As we move forward, how do we give back to our teachers that professional space to develop a strong sense of purpose and efficacy?  How do we as teachers work to reclaim our identities as highly trained and highly competent professionals?

Still some unpacking to do here! Perhaps you’re willing to jump in to the conversation and help me do that. Is this an experience that is unique to Ontario? Can educators from other Canadian jurisdictions find any resonance in the Ontario experience? Am I mis-reading something here?




8 Responses to “Good to Great? Who Knew?”

  1. Stephen, I can’t comment about education in other parts of the world because I am in Ontario but my experiences say that you are right on the mark. Central control is a characteristic of the majority of school boards across the province. It starts at the top and filters down. Principals and Directors don’t want the public/parents to think anything could be wrong in a school or school system. New teachers filled with terrific ideas and loaded with mountains of energy are quickly deflated and disillusioned and held back for fear of losing their job if they try to bring innovation to the classroom. This “fear factor” runs high in our schools. All this does is stifle creativity and perpetuate status quo. I am waiting patiently for the Salam Khan to appear and ever hopeful that teachers will be given the freedom to be creative in meeting the needs of their students. IMHO building trusting relationships between teachers and parents – the folks in the trenches – is a solid way to build confidence. It may seem that sometimes parents are educators’ worst nightmares but it has been my experience that if you help parents support their children they begin to support the classroom teacher. When parents and teachers are on the same page teachers’ efficacy increases and there is a greater sense of well being. There is little cost in working together. “Takes a village”

    • Thanks for the excellent comments Lorna. You know, it’s the new teachers coming into the profession that I’m most concerned about. I’m the only one working at my current school who remembers, for example, the Common Curriculum, let alone those days when we were allowed to teach from the heart, as opposed to teaching to the test. It’s still very much a part of who I am as a teacher, but new teachers are being socialized into a totally different system. So when the time comes (if the time comes) when we’re given back the freedom to teach, where are we going to be?

  2. Thanks for your reply Stephen. My question – what can we do to change this?

    • Laura, my own sense is that we need to work at a number of different levels. We need to keep our innovative voices alive while working through our respective associations to lobby for more control of our profession. I think that we need to be a little bolder in our approach on this. We’ve got a good set of provincial and national connections already in place, with more growing through the possibilities afforded by social network. Specifics? Some of the unConference movements that are popping up use Open Space approaches, and I think that these are good. I also think that we need to resist having our professional development agendae taken over by government. More ideas?

    • I was over at your website this morning, Lorna. I’m so glad that I came across your thinking, because I believe that the rights and voices of parents as both relate to the education of their children is often overlooked and, at times, undermined. Partnership is exciting and vital. What would happen if our schools (great title for a blogsite) truly leveraged the talents, energy and interests of parents in our communities. Do you have examples of where this is being done effectively at the moment?


      • Stephen I can’t recall a school where they are capitalizing on parents’ energies and talents. It is still a stretch to have educators see parents as experts in their child. I can, however, point you to some good practices in communicating and working well with parents and engaging them in school activities. Richard Ramos in Phoenix Arizona and Mike Herrity in Twynham School Dorset England, Cale Birk, Kamloops BC, George Couros

  3. Sheila Stewart says:

    Jumping into the great exchange here already! I am often concerned about what seems like such “a hold” on so many just trying to do good things for kids and communities. It seems we are all placed in such a “set-up” at times–all stakeholders. It is concerning….the expectations that come down the chain…..and what that might drive. I have to hope we can get back to a better balance. Is that too idealistic? Have we lost some focus along the way? And yes, Stephen, what about the new teachers? How do they make sense of where they fit it to it all. How do we create the environments/conditions that don’t divide the people who are most essential to supporting kids. Things in education seem to cycle, but can we align with our realities and what is needed for the future better each time? What needs to be reinvented?
    Whoa….didn’t plan to have all those questions when I started to write! Ha…thinking out loud again :)

    • And thanks for doing both, Sheila: jumping in and thinking out loud! I know here in Ontario (would love to hear from others) a major shift happened politically in 1997 with the passage of Bill 160. Those who remember the labour unrest around this will remember the dispute around the question, “who is really in control of education?” Our teaching associations saw their collective agreements being threatened by a government who wanted to control almost every aspect of their work. School districts saw much of their local (and traditional) decision-making ability taken away. It really marked a watershed moment for us here, and I don’t think that we’ve ever been the same since. For me, I don’t mind government collecting taxes on behalf of school districts; that seems to answer many of the equity issues that had arisen previously. But I absolutely believe that local jurisdictions need to be given back the space to creatively address the issues that exist on the ground…on their ground. Your use of the phrase “a hold” resonates with me a great deal. It does seem like we’re being set up, and the stakes are just too high to keep playing political games around this stuff.

      But, I have more questions than answers about how that is to be done. I only know that it needs to be done. How to proceed? Looking forward to hearing more from you, and from others!!!

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