Leadership, Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

Good to Great? Who Knew?

The McKinsey Report on Successful School Systems

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: poor, fair, good, great, and excellent. 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 great school 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 that 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? 

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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