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Engaging teachers to advance childhood literacy

Raising reading proficiency to 85 percent by balancing support and accountability for educators

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The governor of Brazil’s third-largest state, Minas Gerais, committed to a bold vision: by the age of eight, every child would be reading and writing—all within the next four years.

That aspiration was particularly ambitious, given the school system’s enormous scale and low starting point. As of 2006, only 49 percent of eight-year-olds were reading at grade level. Nearly three thousand individual schools would be involved, and many would need to make huge leaps of improvement from year to year.

These improvements could only be generated through the direct efforts and sustained commitment of 15,000 teachers and system personnel dispersed throughout vastly different and socioeconomically disparate regions across the state. Altogether, 130,000 students would participate in this new program.


The McKinsey team worked closely with the Department of Education, a consortium of local businesses, and funding partners to develop an integrated, teacher-focused intervention program.

Research, discussions, and McKinsey’s experience from previous work indicated five critical success factors:

  • building a common vision for change, by including teachers, parents, schools and regional departments, so all would become active participants in the transformation
  • creating clear and objective measurements of progress
  • gaining the commitment of schools and regional departments through written agreements (“performance contracts”)
  • improving relationships with schools and providing tailored support
  • creating a management and monitoring structure to ensure transformation occurred in every classroom

These factors were incorporated into the plan and all contributed to its success.

The implementation included three major steps. Because the system is so complex, the first step was to raise awareness and build momentum for change. Work was needed at multiple levels, including the state, regional departments, individual schools, and surrounding communities.

The goal of universal literacy was widely evangelized. Every school would make a difference; every student would be helped to succeed. Meetings helped mobilize each group in turn:

  • the central team, with 2,700 participants, included superintendents, directors, specialists and teachers
  • the regional team, with 12,000 participants, included directors, specialists, education secretaries, regional, and central teams
  • school directors, teachers, and parents from 4,000 schools

Altogether, about 1 million people were mobilized to support the program, named “Escola Viva, Comunidade Ativa” (Living School, Active Community).

The second step was to set clear, meaningful, and fair performance targets to align incentives and efforts across the system. Every school received its own set of improvement targets, which were then agreed in collaboration between school leaders and system officials. Each principal signed a performance contract based on these targets, and teachers in schools that met their targets were eligible to receive up to one month’s extra salary.

Performance was tracked in “results books” and online. Schools and experts analyzed the resulting data to learn from schools making the most progress, and to send help where it was needed most. Schools with the largest performance gaps received the most direct guidance and tighter accountability, while higher-performing schools enjoyed greater autonomy—as long as they continued to meet targets. This required the state to build up its own ability to intervene directly with schools needing attention, something they had not done before.

Third, to build capacity at all levels of the system, the state focused on giving teachers what they actually needed. For example, the state provided high-quality teaching materials for each lesson. The instructional guides in these sets proved so effective that many private schools and other school systems adopted them. The Education Department also gathered feedback from schools and teachers on their needs, challenges, and progress in implementing the literacy program.


The results have been remarkable. In just four years, from 2006 to 2010, the percentage of eight-year-olds reading at grade level jumped from 49 to 86 percent.

At the same time, the number of students in the lowest band of performance dropped from 31 to 6 percent. By 2009—only three years into the reforms—Minas Gerais had risen from fifth place among Brazilian states, to #1 on Brazil’s National Education Index of student achievement.

The program has proven the transformative potential of a system that dares to “think big,” supported by a well-designed and executed education reform strategy. To build on this success, Minas Gerais has continued the program, adjusting elements as needed to both increase and sustain improvements, and continue working to its goal of 100 percent literacy.


Li-Kai Chen

Senior Partner and Managing Partner, Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur