How to Fix K-12 Education

David Bessoud:

This month, I want to use this forum to publicize a report that came out last fall with solid advice for how to improve our schools. As we think about K-12 mathematics education, as we engage in the debate of what should succeed No Child Left Behind, I believe that this report provides a useful, research-based framework in which to situate that debate. And I believe that this report has implications for how we think about mathematics teaching in our colleges and universities, a topic to which I shall return in later columns.
The report in question was issued by McKinsey & Company in September, 2007, How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top [1]. Their procedure was straight-forward. They took the ten top-performing countries according to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA): Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea, and asked what practices are common among them. They tested their conclusions by comparing these practices with those in the US school systems that have seen the most dramatic increase in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or TIMSS scores or have been consistent finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. These school systems are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York, and Ohio.
None of their conclusions should be surprising. The three practices that they identified are on most people’s lists of what they would like to see. What is eye-opening is how effective these practices can be and how important it is to focus on them. In my own paraphrase, they are

  1. Recruit teachers from among the most highly literate and numerate college students.
  2. Support teachers with continual coaching, peer-mentoring, and professional development.
  3. Have clear standards for system performance, intervene quickly and effectively when problems arise, and allocate resources so that those with the greatest need get the most support.