Educational Excellence

Policymakers across the world have tried different approaches to achieve educational excellence. In New Zealand, for example, the structure of the education system was changed in the 1990s, using a decentralized power structure with each school having its own board, much like a charter school. They focused on reducing centralized decision making and giving schools autonomy in governance. Five years into this restructuring, one-third of the schools were failing. One policymaker admitted that he was naive to think that restructuring a system could improve the quality of the education.

There are no magic formulas, or groundbreaking ideas, only sustained commitment to a set of values and practices can lead to lasting success. A review of research by Shannon and Bylsma lists nine common characteristics that were found in high-performing schools, and most systems included at least five traits.[i] The nine traits Shannon and Bylsma list are (directly quoted):

  1.     A clear and shared focus
  2.     High standards and expectations for all students
  3.     Effective school leadership
  4.     High levels of collaboration and communication
  5.     Curriculum, instruction and assessments aligned with state standards
  6.     Frequent monitoring of learning and teaching
  7.     Focused professional development
  8.     A supportive learning environment
  9.     High levels of family and community involvement

McKinsey studied twenty-five of the world’s school systems, including ten of the top-performers, and found that high quality systems, no matter how different in structure, politics, or culture, were successful because of a strong focus on quality instruction. The three qualities that lead to system success were[ii], high quality educators, effective professional development, and, “ensuring the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.”

These characteristics are oversimplified when connecting them to U.S. schools. Teacher recruitment looks much different in systems due to differences in history, culture, and status of teaching. Teaching is a highly desirable profession in countries like Finland and Singapore because of leadership, collaborative structures, and supportive environments. McKinsey states the obvious, but often overlooked, “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”[iii] In America, the lack of status in the teaching profession is a particular challenge that individual districts cannot control nationwide; however, districts can put into place an internal system that mitigates the challenge.

A study in Kentucky compared characteristics of high-performing and low-performing schools in the state.[iv] The authors found common traits among the high-performing schools that differed greatly from the lower-performing, high-poverty schools, including: “a schoolwide ethic of high expectations, caring, respectful relations between stakeholders; a strong academic and instructional focus; regular assessment of individual students; collaborative decision-making structures and a non-authoritarian principal; strong faculty morale and work ethic; and coordinated staffing strategies.”

Quality teaching force, effective and sustained professional development, and targeted support so that all children can achieve high standards requires improvements be made to other parts of the system, including funding and governance. It is improbable that any reform efforts that fail to address these traits will succeed in improving the quality of education in the system.


[i] Shannon, G.S. & Bylsma, P. (2007). The Nine Characteristics of High-Performing Schools: A research-based resource for schools and districts to assist with improving student learning. (2nd Ed.). Olympia, WA: OSPI.


[iii] ibid