Insights & Publications

Article

How does a school system improve?

New research suggests that common sets of interventions can help systems move from one performance level to the next, without regard to culture, geography, politics, or history.

December 2010

What must a school system that performs poorly do to become good? And what must a system with good performance do to become excellent? In a new McKinsey report, How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better, we attempt to answer these questions.

We analyzed 20 systems from around the world—all with improving but differing levels of performance—and examined how each has achieved significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes, as measured by international and national assessments. The report was based on more than 200 interviews with stakeholders in school systems and an analysis of some 600 interventions they carried out—two strands of research comprising what we believe is the most comprehensive database of global school system reform ever assembled. It identifies the reform elements replicable for school systems elsewhere, as well as those elements that are context specific, as they move from poor to fair to good to great to excellent performance.

Among other findings, the report shows that a school system can improve from any starting point and can become significantly more effective within six years. The research suggests that all improving systems implement similar sets of interventions to move from one particular performance level to the next, irrespective of culture, geography, politics, or history. A consistent cluster of interventions moves systems from poor to fair performance, a second cluster from fair to good performance, a third from good to great performance, and yet another from great to excellent performance. Although reaching each performance stage involves a common set of interventions, systems may sequence, time, and roll them out quite differently.

While there is no single path to improving performance, the experiences of the 20 school systems we studied show the strong commonalities in the nature of their journeys of improvement. This report outlines those aspects that are universal, those that are context specific, and how the two interact.

Read an executive summary or download the full report.

Related articles

atre10_frth_Thumbnail
article

Attracting and retaining top talent in US teaching

September 2010—Only 23 percent of entering teachers come from the top third of their graduating class. What would it take to do better?more

ecus09_frth_Thumbnail
article

The economic cost of the US education gap

June 2009—Gaps in academic achievement cost the US economy trillions of dollars a year. Yet there is reason to think they could be closed.more

About this content

The material on this page draws on the research and experience of McKinsey consultants and other sources. To learn more about our expertise, please visit the Social Sector Practice.