Improving learning outcomes -- really, the core purpose of any education system -- is a combination of leadership, strategy, and the hard graft of delivering results. I would estimate that the contributions are roughy 10% leadership, 20% strategy and 70% the hardest job of making sure that this leads to positive change in the classroom.
At what areas should this effort be focused? Or, in other words, what is it that successful school systems do? Earlier this month, the OECD released the latest results from its international assessment, PISA, of what 15 year olds around the world know, and can do. Results show that Jordan has made slightly positive improvements in maths, science and literacy. It also suggests the importance of accelerating improvements to maintain a steadily positive performance in Jordan.
The three top performing schools systems in this set of results were (China: Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang), Singapore and Macao (China). Three places very different from Jordan, but that does not mean that we have nothing to learn from these ‘top-of-the-class’ countries. Six lessons come to mind:
Successful school systems have a vision for how learning and teaching should be: this then guides, and is manifested, in every policy decision, funding request or action. This allows all parts of the school system to point in the same direction. Advocating and explaining that vision, and what it takes to make it real, is then a core part of what system leaders spend their time on.
Successful school systems make teaching an attractive profession: which is partly about pay, but not entirely. For example, career progression and working conditions matter also.
Successful school systems prepare new teachers before they enter the classroom: that is, they equip new teachers with the subject-knowledge they need to teach, they provide plenty of opportunities for practice and feedback in classrooms, and they ensure that teachers have an understanding of how successful learning happens that is grounded in science.
Successful school systems see teacher professional development as an on-going task: everything we know about the topic of acquiring expertise tells us that this is not a one off event. Recognising this, top-performing school systems see it as their role to ensure that teachers have the right support, incentives and expectations to expand their circle of expertise throughout their careers.
Successful school systems ensure that teachers, and learners, have the resources they need to teach and learn: South Korea has a school text-book museum, such is the importance they attach to continually improving the resources that they make available to their schools. Other resources come to mind - for example, the importance of high-quality teacher guides, and, in the Arabic classroom, a wide variety of appealing, age appropriate texts, so that children can learn to read, through reading.
Successful school systems themselves learn: given their focus on improving learning outcomes, they use a variety of methods to understand how well they are doing on this task, and what needs to happen next. One implication is a core role for national assessments, tied to key stages of learning, that are useful to the MoE, the school and the classroom teacher, learners and parents.
Any country will need to contextualise these insights for their own circumstances and culture. They will also need to make sure that there is just the right amount of challenge - not too much, so that it is simply overwhelming, and not too little, so that progress is too slow.
However, if progress is not being made in these six areas then it is very doubtful that a school system is on an improving trajectory.