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Top Ten Ways to Become a High-Performing System (Part Two)

Vivien Stewart, senior advisor to Asia Society, offers advice to districts and states based on the lessons from high-performing school systems. To learn more, please be sure to read her new book, A World-Class Education: Lessons from International Models of Excellence and Innovation (ASCD 2012).

By Vivien Stewart

On Wednesday, I shared five big lessons on what the world's high-performing systems have done to improve their education systems through long-term vision, sustained leadership, ambitious standards, commitment to equity, and the development of high-quality teachers and school leaders. Here are five more.

6. Alignment and Coherence
Lower performing systems have large "implementation gaps" between the policies enacted at the national, state, or even district level, and what actually happens in classrooms.

There are frequent inconsistencies between, for example, the stated policy goals of higher-order skills and the lower-level tests that are used to assess them, or between the goals of schools and the conflicting orientation of the higher education system that produces teachers.

Policies are also frequently enacted without the support to schools needed to carry them out. Common Core State Standards are a good first step towards higher performance but won't become the real standards in classrooms unless curriculum, teacher preparation, professional development, and assessment are all aligned and consistent.

In many high-performing countries, consistency is achieved by curriculum or syllabus-based instructional and examination systems, around which everything is aligned. Others have traditions of regular work among teachers within or across schools to raise the quality and consistency of classroom instruction.

7. Intelligent Accountability
All systems struggle with the balance between top-down managerial prescription and bottom-up professional judgment. In recent years some systems, like Singapore and Finland, have devolved more responsibility to the school level as the quality of their teachers and school leaders has become stronger and to encourage innovation. However, other systems where performance has been weak or uneven have used more centralized mechanisms to promote more consistent performance.

There is a lot of variation in the design of management and accountability systems. Overreliance on simple student outcome tests for accountability is not effective in moving systems to high performance, but nor is uniformed professional judgment.

High-performing systems combine multi-faceted and transparent accountability, using a broad set of student and school outcomes, with initiatives that build professional knowledge and capacity, thereby creating a culture of continuous improvement and ever-higher expectations.

8. Effective Use of Resources
High educational expenditures don't necessarily lead to high performance. In fact, many high-performing countries have relatively modest expenditures. That said, resources do matter.

Expenditure is an area where more research is needed but it appears that high-performing systems spend money differently. For example, they don't spend as much of their budget on buildings, sports, administrative positions, or separate special education functions. They also tend to make different trade offs between class size and time for teachers to devote to professional development.

Most fundamentally, high-performing systems have relatively equal expenditures across schools, as well as mechanisms to target more resources at the students who need them most.

9. Student Motivation and Engagement
Every country has students with varying degrees of motivation, but the intensity of focus and time on task of students in high-performing systems is striking.

High-performing systems motivate their students to study hard through both intrinsic and external incentives.

In Asian systems, the intense belief that effort, not ability, is the prime determinant of success, combined with the high value placed on education by families as a route to social mobility, plus the examination system, create powerful motivation.

Students in Finnish classrooms are also intently engaged, but by a different means. Finnish education is rooted in ideas of discovery and self-directed learning. Teachers are extremely well-trained in this type of education.

In Ontario, the focus is on individualization. The system employs student success officers, who work individually with at-risk students to create multiple pathways to graduation.

10. Global and Future Orientation
Recognizing the increasingly interconnected and digital world into which we are moving, high-performing systems are going global.

These systems are developing a global and future orientation among their teachers, school leaders, and students. They are modernizing curriculum to deal with the imperatives of the 21st century and forming international school partnerships to prepare students to function as workers and citizens in a globalized world, and not just their own local communities. They also emphasize international benchmarking, constantly looking around the world for international best practices, and using benchmarking as a tool for improving their system.


All countries face challenges in adapting their education systems to the vast transformations taking place around the world. No nation has a monopoly on excellence.

None of these lessons is rocket science and many of these elements can indeed be found in districts and states around the U.S., but rarely all of them together. Many of the high-performing countries have, in fact, studied the "peaks" of American research and innovation and then adapted them, often more systematically, to their own systems.

Ours is a very resourceful country. If we combine our own assets with the world's best practices, we could indeed develop a world-class education system for our children and grandchildren.

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