Slowly, steadily building the knowledge and capacity of administrators and teachers—that’s what’s working in school systems around the world. As explained in a report by Geoff Masters, a leading researcher in Australia, the educational systems that are improving have invested in educator capacity, while those that are not improving (or are declining) have been tinkering with accountability and incentives (as US policymakers have been, with poor results for reading).

Before those who oppose accountability and market-based reforms declare victory, they’ll need to take a careful look at what Masters means by building capacity. The sad fact is, very few school systems, and few very reformers, in the US are doing the things Masters identifies as essential to increasing student achievement. What he describes is not your typical professional development—it’s a more fundamental commitment to quality and equity:

In some countries, reform efforts tend to have been focused first on building the capacity of school leaders and classroom teachers to deliver high quality teaching and learning, and on ensuring that excellent teaching and leadership are distributed throughout the school system. In other countries, including a number of English-speaking countries, greater reliance has been placed on using systems of accountability and incentives to drive improvement….

Table 1 Two general approaches to school reform
[Reformatted for blog]

Improvement will occur if schools are given incentives to improve (rewards, sanctions, having to compete for students).
– stronger performance cultures
– better measures of outcomes
– personal accountability for improvement
– performance pay linked to test scores
– greater public transparency
– financial rewards for school improvement
– sanctions for failure to improve
– increased competition for students
– greater autonomy to compete
– more parental choice

Improvement will occur by building the capacity of teachers and school leaders and by ensuring high quality practice throughout the system.
– attract more able people into teaching
– train approximately the number of teachers required
– place a high priority on building teachers’ content and pedagogical content knowledge
– develop school leaders’ capacities to build and lead cultures of continual improvement in teaching and learning
– ensure that high-quality teaching and leadership are equitably distributed across all schools

There has been growing recognition that more effective than setting ambitious targets for improved student performance, or attaching money or other consequences to student test results, is to work directly on developing the teaching and leadership practices that result in improved student outcomes….

Systematic studies of what school leaders do to achieve whole-school improvement reveal a high degree of consistency in the priorities set by leaders of turn-around schools. These priorities are summarised in the National School Improvement Tool (Masters, 2012) and can be thought of as a set of micro-strategies for whole-school reform. They include:

– setting an explicit school improvement agenda;
– systematically monitoring progress in achieving desired improvements;
– establishing and sustaining a culture of support and high expectations;
– targeting the use of school resources to address student needs;
– encouraging teachers to work as a team to improve teaching and learning;
– establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum;
– sustaining a strong focus on addressing individual learning needs;
– implementing effective pedagogical practices including diagnostic practices; and
– using local community resources to better meet student needs.

Reading down this list, these strategies seem like common sense—which makes it all the more frustrating that they are not common practices.

The only suggestion I’ll make is to put “establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum” at the top of the list. Almost all of the other strategies require a shared curriculum as their foundation—you can’t set expectations, monitor progress, address needs, or work as a team without a grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject map of the specific content and skills students must master.


Without a detailed map of what students are supposed to learn, how can we know if they are ahead or behind, much less how to help them? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)
Without a detailed map of what students are supposed to learn, how can we know if they are ahead or behind, much less how to help them? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Thanks to Marc Tucker for drawing attention to this report. I admire Tucker—if we’d been listening to him for the past few decades, we’d have one of the world’s best, most equitable school systems. So, when Tucker wrote that Masters has “written a paper you need to read,” I started reading (you should too).






One comment on “What’s Working?”

  1. 1
    Hector on May 19, 2015

    In response to the research in the Core Knowledge Blog entitled “What’s Working”, I wholeheartedly agree that improvement in education should be as a result of improving the capacity of teachers and teacher leaders. The more information instructors know about the subject matter of their instruction, the more information they will be able to deliver to students. A stronger culture of improvement incorporates teachers and school administrators that can create a higher quality of practice throughout the system.

    If a school is able to attract higher quality instructors and then continue to train them, the quality of educational delivery will improve. As the blog stated, “If priority is placed on teacher’s content and pedagogical knowledge, educational outcomes will reach a higher level of accomplishment.

    On the other hand, schools that provide rewards, incentives and performance pay based on higher test scores encourage a culture of competition among students that stresses academic excellence with elements that do not ensure the creation of higher learning standards and improved student achievement.

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