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Why the McKinsey Reports will not improve school systems

Susan Notes:

Frank Coffield offers the best summary statements of two papers' flaws I've ever read.

The author discusses two McKinsey reports, How the world's best-performing school systems come out on top, by Michael Barber and Mona Mourshed, [foreword by Michael Fullan, special Advisor on Education to the Premier of Ontario] September 2007 and How the world's most improved school systems keep getting better by Mourshed, Chijioke and Barber, Dec. 2010 (launched with the supportive participation of the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan). You can see the authors speaking at the launch here. And here is the US Department of Education announcement of Arne Duncan's participation.

I admit to enjoying the takedown of Michael Barber and of 'best practice.'

Reports which have achieved such global influence within a short time deserve the closest scrutiny. Yet when they are so examined, the first fails for at least four reasons: it is methodologically flawed; selective; superficial; and its rhetoric on leadership runs ahead of the evidence. The second, although it corrects some of the faults of its predecessor and offers a more elaborate explanation of success, still possesses six faults: it has an impoverished view of teaching and learning; its evidential base is thin; its central arguments are implausible; its language is technocratic and authoritarian; it underplays the role of culture in education and it omits any mention of democracy.

Below find excerpts from the article.

by Frank Coffiel

Institute of Education, Lifelong Education and International Development, University of
London, London, UK

In the last four years McKinsey and Company have produced two highly influential reports on how to improve school systems. The first McKinsey reportHow the world's best-performing school systems come out on top has since its publication in 2007 been used to justify change in educational policy and practice in England and many other countries. The second How the world's most improved school systems keep getting better, released in late 2010, is a more substantial tome which is likely to have an even greater impact. This article subjects both reports to a close examination and finds them deficient in 10 respects. The detailed critique is preceded by a few general remarks about their reception, influence and main arguments.

Since the publication in September 2007 of the first McKinsey report, How the
world's best-performing school systems come out on top,
its conclusions have
quickly hardened into new articles of faith for politicians, policy-makers, educational
agencies and many researchers and practitioners, both in this country and
abroad. The claim made by the two authors, Michael Barber1 and Mona Mourshed,2
(their study will from now on be referred to as the B and M report or the first
McKinsey report3), is that they have identified the three factors behind 'world class'
school systems:

getting more talented people to become teachers, developing these teachers into better instructors, and ensuring that these instructors deliver consistently for every child in the system. (Barber and Mourshed 2007)

In the above quotation teachers have become 'instructors', although this could
be explained as the use of the standard term for a teacher in North America.
The report has been received as though it will 'transform' the performance of
schools anywhere, irrespective of their culture or socio-economic status.

A Google search (on 31st January 2011), for instance, produced 2250 references
to the first McKinsey report; and the entries include articles and reports from
government agencies and researchers across the globe. The study has also been
translated into French and Spanish and overwhelmingly its reception has been
favourable, being described, for example, as a 'a unique tool to bring about
improvements in schooling', by Schleicher (2007), Head of the Education Directorate
at the OECD.

The second report has had far less time to garner plaudits, but Prof. Fullan, Special
Adviser on Education to the Premier of Ontario, ends his foreword as follows:

This is no ordinary report . . . It will, by its clarity and compelling insights, catapult the field of whole system reform forward in dramatic ways. (Fullan 2010, 11)

The three themes identified by the first report constitute a serious oversimplification,
but the two authors then claim that 'the main driver . . . is the quality of the
teachers' (op cit: 12). So their explanation of a highly complex set of relations is
reduced to only one factor, which has been seized upon by even well-seasoned

Evidence is accumulating from around the world that the single most significant means of improving the performance of national educational systems is through excellent teaching (e.g. Barber and Mourshed 2007). (Pollard 2010, 1)

Such a reaction is understandable given the derision which has been poured over
the teaching profession for decades by politicians and the media (see Ball 1990). But
unaccustomed praise must not blunt criticism. After all, did not Ausubel (1968, vi)
argue: 'The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner
already knows?' Moreover, it is a standard finding of educational research that, of
the two main factors which influence test scores -- the quality of the teaching and the
quality of the student intake -- the second is far more powerful. For example:
77% of the between school differences in student performance in the United Kingdom
is explained by differences in socio-economic background. Among OECD countries,
only Luxembourg has a higher figure (OECD/average 55%). (OECD 2010b, 1)

In other words, the superior performance of 'good' schools is explained, first by
the high quality of their student intake, and then by a host of other factors, including
the quality of teaching. The argument should be about complexity and multiple
causation, not about the overwhelming significance of one factor.

In the first White Paper on schools, entitled The Importance of Teaching, issued
by the Tory-led coalition government in England in November 2010, the second B
and M report is quoted approvingly seven times in the first 20 pages; and the Prime
Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in their joint foreword to the report make use
of one of its summary statements: 'The first, and most important, lesson is that no
education system can be better than the quality of its teachers' (DfE 2010, 3). The
belated importance now being accorded to teachers is welcome, but the success of
an education system depends on far more than one central factor.

The attention paid to the first McKinsey report can partly be explained by the
anxiety displayed by politicians of developed and developing countries to compete
successfully in the global knowledge economy. When they are told authoritatively
that this can be done most effectively, not by reforming the quality of goods and
services, but by making three (or perhaps only one) changes to their schooling
system, then the prominence of the report's conclusions in policy documents
becomes easier to understand. Politicians are also understandably galvanised by the
relative poor performance of their education system as measured, for example, by
the surveys undertaken by the programme for international student assessment
(PISA), run by OECD. The UK government responded to the latest international
comparison by commenting:

. . . we are falling behind international competitors . . . we fell from 4th in the world in science in 2000 to 16th in 2009, from 7th to 25th in literacy, and from 8th to 27th in maths. (Cabinet Office 2011, 1.7)

The USA did little better, performing below the average in maths, ranked 25th
out of 34 countries (OECD 2010a).

Politicians continue to draw a simple causal connection between investment in
education and increased economic growth: for instance Hayes (2011, 1), the Minister
of State for Further Education in England, argued recently: 'Higher skills bring
higher productivity'. The research evidence, however, was well summarised by
Wolf (2002, xii) almost 10 years ago: 'The simple one-way relationship which so
entrances our politicians and commentators -- education spending in, economic
growth out -- simply doesn't exist'. Yet the Department for Education in November
2010 sought to bolster its argument in favour of the relationship as follows: 'As
President Obama has said: "the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete
us tomorrow"' (DfE 2010b, 4).4 The main purpose of education is here reduced to
improving the competitiveness of industry. A more comprehensive approach would
be to argue that countries benefit economically from expanding education at all levels,
but that the cultural, democratic and social goals of education are every bit as
important.5 Grubb and Lazerson in discussing 'the education gospel' in the United
States call upon public figures, politicians and commissions:

to moderate their rhetoric, difficult as that might be in the era of the sound bite. Simple claims for education should be replaced with a deeper understanding of what education and training can accomplish, and which goals require other social and economic policies as well. (Grubb and Lazerson 2004, 263)

The second McKinsey report, written by Mourshed, Chijioke and Barber, (hereafter
called the MCB report or the second McKinsey report) provides, at more than
three times the length of its predecessor, a much more considered explanation of
continuous success. It had its American launch in December 2010 with the supportive
participation of the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. MCB claim to
have identified formerly unrecognised patterns of intervention among the 20 school
systems they studied by means of 200 interviews with education leaders during visits
to these systems, and by collecting data on nearly 575 interventions tried by
those systems. They chose systems that had 'achieved significant, sustained and
widespread gains in student outcomes on international and national assessments
from 1980 onwards' (Mourshed, Chijioke, and Barber 2010, 17). 'Gains in student
outcomes' is, however, shorthand for rises in test scores in only three subjects:
reading, maths, and science. The chosen 20 were then divided into two sets: the
first set of 'sustained improvers' included countries like Singapore and England,
provinces like Ontario in Canada, and districts like Long Beach in California; the
second set of seven 'promising starts' included countries like Chile and Ghana and
provinces like Madhya Pradesh in India and Minas Gerais in Brazil.

The 20 systems were then placed into one of five performance stages -- poor,
fair, good, great6 and excellent -- according to their test scores on a number of international
assessments (e.g. PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS, etc.7), which were converted onto
a 'universal scale' (op cit: 130) with the following cut-off points: 'poor' equates
with scores of less than 440; 'fair' with scores of 440-480; 'good' 480-520; 'great'
520-560 and 'excellent' more than 560, a score not achieved by any of the 20 systems
studied. It was, however, reached by Finland which was excluded, without
explanation, from the study. So the only country in the world to achieve educational
'excellence' according to this methodology was omitted.

One of their main claims is that each of these performance stages 'is associated
with a dominant cluster of interventions, irrespective of geography, culture or political
system' (op cit: 24), and these clusters are briefly represented in Figure 1. In all
four stages from poor to excellent the reins of power remain firmly in the hands of
the centre and the 'strategic leader', although the role of the centre and the leader
changes from highly prescriptive direction to granting more autonomy to those
teachers and schools which the centre considers to have merited it. As school
systems move across the continuum from poor to excellent, the centre also changes
from 'prescribing adequacy' to 'unleashing greatness' (op cit: 52) by introducing
such measures as school self-evaluation and professional learning communities.
Assessing the performance level of a school system (anything from 'poor to
excellent'), is the first of five strategies for improvement. The other four are: choosing
the appropriate interventions for that stage; adapting those interventions to the
particular contexts of the system (history, politics, culture, etc.); sustaining the
improvements made; and 'igniting' the reforms, that is, how to get them started.
[Figure 1. Five stages from poor to perfect. Based on Mourshed, Chijioke, and Barber

See Figure 2 for an overview of these five strategies, which consist of 21 factors in
all. Within three years the task of improving school systems has become decidedly
more complicated with three factors being cited in the first report but 21 in the second;
and yet, as this article will argue, it remains far more complex than even this
more elaborate scheme allows for.

[Figure 2. Five improvement strategies. Based on Mourshed, Chijioke, and Barber (2010).]

The structure of this article
Reports which have achieved such global influence within a short time deserve the
closest scrutiny. Yet when they are so examined, the first fails for at least four reasons:
it is methodologically flawed; selective; superficial; and its rhetoric on leadership
runs ahead of the evidence. The second, although it corrects some of the faults
of its predecessor and offers a more elaborate explanation of success, still possesses
six faults: it has an impoverished view of teaching and learning; its evidential base
is thin; its central arguments are implausible; its language is technocratic and
authoritarian; it underplays the role of culture in education and it omits any mention
of democracy. These failings are listed in Figure 3.

The four deficiencies in the first report
Methodologically flawed
The B and M report contains two methodological weaknesses. First, it is in essence
a comparative study of 25 school systems, but it does not compare like with like.
The English system (with 23,000 schools) is constantly being compared unfavourably
with Alberta (4000 schools), Singapore (351 schools) and Boston (150 schools).

To deal just with the category of size, the challenges faced by a national system of
over 20,000 schools are of a different order than those faced by a city with 150.
Besides, the English system has different aims and values; what it wants from its
schools is very different from what Singapore wants.

[Figure 3. 10 Weaknesses.]

Other dimensions could be mentioned: there are, for instance, far more
languages (over 100) spoken in primary schools in Tower Hamlets (a London borough)
than in the whole of Finland (about five). Comparison, no matter how
crude, has, however, become a means of governance: 'Comparison is used to
provide evidence that legitimises political actions' (Ozga 2009, 158). There is not
sufficient acknowledgement of the complexities involved in attempting to derive
lessons from another country (never mind 25), because of enormous differences in
educational history, politics, socio-economic conditions, culture, and institutional

Second, the manner in which B and M discuss the National Literacy Strategy in
England does not meet two important criteria of research ethics. In the first place,
Michael Barber does not declare a personal interest in his presentation of the statistics
which, it is claimed, show 'dramatic impact on student outcomes . . . in just
three years' (Barber and Mourshed 2007, 27). During those years he was Chief
Adviser to the Secretary of State for Education on school standards in England. In
short, he is defending his own record, and the trust of readers who do not know of
his involvement is being abused. In the second place, he fails to include in his
account any of the publicly available data which flatly contradict his claim. A more
independent judgement is called for.

Dylan Wiliam, an internationally acknowledged expert in assessment, has studied
the attempts by successive English governments to raise student achievement
and concluded that they 'produced only marginal improvements' (Wiliam 2008). In
more detail, the largest rises in test scores in literacy took place before the strategy
was introduced in 1999. A modest improvement took place after the first year of
the strategy, but the test scores flatlined in subsequent years. Much the same pattern
can be discerned in the test scores for numeracy. But the most interesting data refer
to the test scores in science, which performed best of all, but had no national strategy.
What conclusion can be drawn? Teachers became highly skilled at preparing
their students to take tests long before the national strategies in literacy and numeracy
were introduced. These two interventions proved largely ineffective but were
hugely expensive at a cost of テモテつ」500 million. Both these findings should have been
included in the B and M report.

Members of the international education community deserve to be given the full
rather than such a partisan account. When they are not so treated, in good faith they
represent a highly contentious claim as an established research finding: see, for
example, Wei, Andree, and Darling-Hammond (2009, 3).

Disablingly selective
In their preface, the authors state: 'We have chosen not to focus on pedagogy or
curricula, however important these subjects might be in themselves' (op cit: 9). The
McKinsey report claims to be an international benchmarking study of school
improvement and yet it omitted to study what subjects the schools were teaching or
how they were taught. But it is not only pedagogy and curricula which are absent.
Their analysis lacks any discussion of: governance and policy; discrimination
whether of class, race, religion or gender; parental influences on education; how
culture and teaching come together as pedagogy; or the aims and purposes of

One of the tacit assumptions in the report is that 'best practice' can be readily identified
and disseminated throughout a school or a system. The notion of 'best practice'
is referred to no less than seven times so it is a central plank in their argument. Yet
even a casual acquaintance with the extensive literature on transfer would have
alerted the authors to this enduring problem which has puzzled researchers since
William James's experiments in the 1890s and which continues to do so (e.g. Grose
and Birney 1963; McKeough, Lupart, and Marini 1995; Eraut 2002).

There are two classes of difficulty -- one concerning the identification of 'best
practice' and the second with its dissemination. It is not possible to say that a particular
practice is 'good', 'best' or 'excellent' in all settings, on all occasions and
with all students. The criteria or norms by which these judgements are made are
rarely explicitly stated. How can one 'best practice' cope with the immense diversity
of local contexts and individual needs? The terms used, 'good', 'best' and
'excellent practice', are also ambiguous, flabby and used interchangeably (see Coffield
and Edward (2009) for more on this theme).
The notion of one 'best practice' also betrays a misunderstanding of the situated
nature of learning. As James and Biesta (2007, 37) argue:

Because of the relational complexity of learning and of the differing positions and dispositions of learners [and, I would add, of teachers], there is no approach that can ever guarantee universal learning success.

Instead, B and M make the extraordinary claim that 'best practices . . . work irrespective
of the culture in which they are applied' (op cit: 2), but they offer no evidence
to support it.

Disseminating 'best practice', usually by means of cascade training, is also
fraught with difficulties. The approach may appear to be intuitively sensible, it is a
cheap way to seek to influence large numbers of teachers, and it operates in the main
with existing staff. Evidence for its effectiveness is, however, very hard to come by.
The outcomes tend to be described as inconsistent (e.g. Adult Learning Inspectorate
2007), which is a euphemistic way of saying patchy or difficult to discern. The conclusion
of most empirical studies can be expressed as follows: what begins as a cascade
at the centre becomes a trickle in the classroom (e.g. Hayes 2000). Its critical
weakness, however, is that teachers at the receiving end are passive in relation to the
content and process of the 'best practice'; but they tend to exert their professional
independence by appearing to comply, while adapting, ignoring or rejecting topdown
reforms (see Coffield et al. 2008). Instead, teachers who 'own' the innovation,
who are both the originators and recipients of 'good practice', tend to learn from
other teachers in equal partnerships, based on mutual trust (see Fielding et al. (2005)
for a fuller explanation). Galbraith (1992, 27) memorably captured the similar difficulty
with the trickle-down theory of wealth: 'If the horse is fed amply with oats,
some will pass through to the road for the sparrows'. In more prosaic language, if
you are concerned about the welfare of sparrows, feed them directly.

The rhetoric on leadership runs ahead of the evidence
B and M claim 'The evidence suggests that strong school leadership is particularly
important in producing improvement' (op cit: 30). The main source for this statement
is a study by the national centre for school leadership (NCSL) in England, which in
2006 produced Seven Strong Claims about Successful Leadership (Leithwood et al.
2006). The NCSL is an interested party in any discussion on the effectiveness of
leadership, as it has to justify its existence to the government which funds it.8 The
NCSL report presents, however, far less compelling evidence than its title would suggest.
It concludes, for example, that 'research on school leadership has generated few
robust claims' (Leithwood et al. 2006, 15). It also admits that 'leadership explains
only 5--7% of the difference in pupil learning and achievement across schools' (op
cit: 4). Certainly, 5-7% will affect a substantial number of students, but it would be
preferable to work with the factors which explain the other 93-95%, even when the
amount of variance covered by measurement error is discounted.

Unlike B and M, Hartley (2007, 2009) has reviewed the extensive literature on
leadership and concluded:

attempts to show a direct causal relationship between leaders' behaviour (be it distributed or otherwise) and pupils' achievement have yielded little that is definitive . . . the policy is ahead of the evidence. (2007, 204)

The style of leadership favoured by the first McKinsey report, which describes principals
as 'drivers of improvement in instruction', appears to be of the strong, hierarchical
type, where aspiring heads 'shadow top private sector executives' (op cit:
31). The claim appears to be that there are context-independent qualities of leadership,
which enable captains of industry to run FE colleges successfully; or equip
heads of outstanding schools in the leafy suburbs to repeat their success in the inner
city. B and M are in danger of resurrecting the myth of the hero-leader or heroinnovator:

the idea that you can produce, by training, a knight in shining armour who, loins girded with new technology and beliefs, will assault his organisational fortress and institute changes both in himself and others at a stroke. Such a view is ingenuous. The fact of the matter is that organisations such as schools and hospitals will, like dragons, eat hero-innovators for breakfast. (Georgiades and Phillimore 1975, 315)

The six deficiencies in the second report
Before introducing these weaknesses, a brief comparison between the two McKinsey
reports is called for. The second report is a considerable improvement on the
first and accords a much enhanced role to collaboration which becomes 'the main
mechanism for improving teaching practice and making teachers accountable to
each other' (op cit: 4). Fullan's latest work is well integrated into the argument:
'Collective capacity generates the emotional commitment and the technical expertise
that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching'
(quoted by Mourshed, Chijioke, and Barber 2010, 84). Fullan however, then introduces
the notion of 'collaborative competition' as a force for change, where
educators are expected to 'outdo themselves and each other' (op cit: 138). This is a
clever-sounding oxymoron dreamed up by a policy adviser to chivvy teachers.

The MCB report also has the virtue of asking two vital questions: 'How does a
school system with poor performance become good? And how does one with good
performance become excellent?' (op cit: 2). This time their answers are more intricate
and include the claim that:

six interventions occur equally at every performance stage for all systems . . . building
the instructional skills of teachers and management skills of principals, assessing students,
improving data systems, facilitating improvement through the introduction of
policy documents and education laws, revising standards and curriculum, and ensuring
an appropriate reward and remuneration structure for teachers and principals. (op cit: 3)

This statement is clearly a major advance on the earlier argument that the quality of teaching is the single most significant factor, but where is the evidence for the claim that 'six interventions occur equally at every performance stage for all systems?'
The second selection of factors remains an oversimplification of the complexities involved; and it represents a continuation of command and control from the centre
despite repeated talk of decentralisation; and it suffers from a fatal omission. The
six deficiencies in MCB will now be described.

Impoverished view of teaching and learning
Despite references to a 'system's pedagogy' (op cit: 99), the MCB report contains
neither an explicit view of teaching and learning nor a vision of education. Their
implicit model can, however, be pieced together from the metaphors they employ.
For instance, they discuss 'the transmission of effective teaching strategies' (op cit:
48); 'the best delivery methods' (op cit: 50) and 'once a teacher had adopted the
right approach . . .' (op cit: 88). These remarks suggest that the authors adhere to
the acquisition model of learning, where the minds of learners are viewed as containers
to be filled with knowledge, but they give no indication that there are other
competing models such as participation (Lave and Wenger 1994), construction
(Evans et al. 2006) and becoming (Biesta et al. 2011). The acquisition metaphor
characterises the growth of knowledge in students as a step-by-step process of gaining
facts, skills and understanding -- the equivalent of steadily walking upstairs. It
frequently is so, but every so often the breakthroughs students make in their thinking
are more like the leaps salmon make in foaming rivers. We need more than one
metaphor as Sfard (1998) has argued.

Moreover, the belief in one right approach to teaching needs to be rejected. The
authors also approve of a shift in 'emphasis on what teachers teach to one on what
students learn' (op cit: 89). This has in recent years become a policy cliche used by
technocrats who are far removed from the classroom. The alternative is to treat
teaching and learning as part of a single process, as the two sides of the same coin,
where teachers and students are partners in learning who work together in harmony
and who are both involved at different times in teaching and learning. The second
report, in claiming that teachers 'deliver' facts and skills to students, betrays an
impoverished conception of teaching and learning. The later change in emphasis to
students' learning is welcome, but it continues to treat teaching and learning as two
separate processes.

A thin evidence base
MCB do not locate their findings within the relevant literatures; there is no bibliography,
only nine incomplete references to other books and articles and only two to
policy documents. There is no mention of the large, critical bodies of research on
cascade training (e.g. Wedell 2005), on the transfer of training (e.g. Tuomi-Grohn
and Engestrom 2003), on the psychology and sociology of teaching and learning
(e.g. Bernstein 1996; Wenger 1998; Daniels 2001; Hart et al. 2004; Illeris 2007;
James and Biesta 2007; Rudduck and McIntyre 2007; Ball 2008; Coffield 20109).

The authors also approve of management exercising control by means of continuous
flows of performance data: witness their supportive description of Aspire, a
set of American charter schools in California: 'At the heart of Aspire's implicit values
is a rigorous attention to data-driven improvement. The system has an almost
religious commitment to empirically (sic) analysis of what works in practice and
then applying it' (op cit: 87). There is nothing wrong in asking the perfectly reasonable
question: what works? The problem is that the answer is invariably complex.
MCB also seem unaware of the highly critical literature on the 'what works'
approach. Gert Biesta, to give but one example,10 has criticised:

the whole discussion about evidence-based practice [being] focused on technical questions
-- questions about 'what works'-- while forgetting the need for critical inquiry
into normative and political questions about what is educationally desirable. . . . From
the point of view of democracy, an exclusive emphasis on 'what works' will simply
not do. (2007, 21-22)

According to Ozga (2009, 149), the Department of Education in England claims to
be moving towards self-regulation through self-evaluation, thus giving the appearance
of deregulation, 'but the centre retains control through its management and use
of data, and local government remains peripheral'. Management by means of data
has, according to Ozga, become a powerful instrument of policy and 'governing
through data is leaner, simpler and less heavy and mechanical in its use of power
[than command and control], but it is still insistent and demanding' (op cit: 159).
This is not to denigrate the importance of data -- better a gramme of evidence than
a kilo of supposition -- but to question control being increasingly exercised through
relentless demands for data.

The authors' handling of statistical terms is also potentially misleading. On
pages 26, 34, 52, 60 and 135 the report talks of a 'strong' or 'striking' correlation
or it refers simply to 'a correlation'. But the report uses the term 'correlation' as if
it means a direct causal relationship between the 'tightness of central control' and
the stage of improvement of a school system (op cit: 34), when the term strictly
means no more than an association.

Implausible central arguments
Why are the interventions located at particular stages in the 'improvement journey'
from poor to excellent? For instance, the strategy (of releasing teachers from administrative
burdens by providing administrative staff) is allocated to the final stage of
moving from great to excellent and as such is apparently part of a 'unique intervention
cluster' (op cit: 36). Does this mean that teachers, considered to be working in
systems described as poor, fair or good, should not be released from such burdens?
If they were to be so released, would their journey from poor to fair, or fair to
good, or good to great not be all the shorter and less stressful? No explanation is
offered as to why this intervention should be used only at the final stage. All teachers,
at whatever stage their school system is in, need to be freed from as much
administration as possible so that they can concentrate on the learning needs of their
students. Moreover, teachers are burdened with these administrative tasks because
of the demands for data made by management and the state.

Criticisms could also be made about the positioning of other interventions. For
instance, the detailed prescription of teaching objectives, plans and materials by the
centre for a 'poor' system is highly likely to drive any self-respecting teacher out of
the profession; and the more talented the teachers, the less likely they will put up
with being told what to do. According to MCB, teachers should wait until their system
is declared 'great', at which point the centre accords them 'pedagogical rights'
to choose how they will teach (op cit: 36).

A further concern. What evidence is there that the schools within any of these
systems all deserve the same grade at the same time? The authors produce none. Is
it not more likely that, the larger the school system, the more schools will be spread
out along the continuum from 'poor' to 'excellent'? Given the growing polarisation
of educational outcomes in countries like England, it would not be surprising to
find concentrations of 'excellent' and of 'poor' schools within the same system, and
even pockets of 'excellently' and 'poorly' performing students within the same

What should have been central to the arguments in the two McKinsey reports is
a considered response to the central finding of educational researchers that 'pupil
prior attainment and background explain the vast majority of variation in school
outcomes' (Gorard 2009, 761). If these 'global' policy analysts were to respond to
that consistent finding, which they seem not to know about, their recommendations
would be very different. . .

Other sections of this report include a discussion of:

  • Technocratic and authoritarian language (Jargon)

  • The role of culture underplayed

  • The omission of democracy

  • Final Comments

  • Notes
    1. Sir Michael Barber was formerly a teacher, an official of the National Union of Teachers and professor of education at the Universities of Keele and London. He is currently an Expert Partner in McKinsey and head of its 'Global Education Practice' (sic). He was Chief Adviser on Delivery to the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. His latest coauthored book is called Deliverology 101: A Field Guide for Educational Leaders.
    2. Dr Mona Mourshed is also a partner in McKinsey and leads their education practice, covering the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
    3. McKinsey and Co is an international management consulting firm.
    4. The US Department of Education is currently running an $4 billion competition called The Race to the Top, where states submit bids outlining their plans for comprehensive education reform; specifically, states need to show how they will improve education in science, technology, engineering and maths, 'driven by an economic imperative' (Robelen 2010, 6).
    5. I suspect that Braun (2008, 317) is right when he argues that the interest of policy-makers'in education stems largely from an appreciation of the role of human capital development in economic growth'.
    6. To be 'great' apparently is not as good as being 'excellent'.
    7. These acronyms refer to international assessments of student attainment in tests. PISA, program for international student assessment; TIMMS, trends in international maths and science study; and PIRLS, progress in international reading literacy study.
    8. The Tory-led coalition government in England decided in 2010 to seriously reduce funding for the NCSL as part of its austerity measures.
    9. I have deliberately given only a few key references to these substantial research literatures to avoid including long lines of names and dates, so those given should be taken as gateways to rich fields of knowledge.
    10. Again, I have restricted myself to one reference in the text, but interested readers could also consult Phil Hodkinson's (2008) valedictory lecture at Leeds University on the same theme. The authors of the McKinsey reports need to acknowledge that such criticisms of their ideas exist and they also need to respond to them. One of the criteria that Michaels, O'Connor, and Resnick (2008) have proposed for educational debate is accountability to the learning community: reports should 'attend seriously to and build on the ideas of others'. This criterion will need to be addressed if there is to be a third McKinsey report on school systems.
    11. The PISA results for 2009 usefully discuss 'resilient students', that is, those who come from the bottom quarter of the socially most disadvantaged students, but who perform among the top quarter of students internationally. In the UK '24% of disadvantaged students can be considered resilient' and 31% is the OECD average (OECD 2010b, 7).
    12. The three authors are committed to improving the quality of learning, but seem to have no concern for the English language. At times, their prose is clumsy: 'school systems' performance journeys' (op cit: 123); and 'incremental frontline-led improvement' (op cit: 60). At other times they introduce ugly neologisms: 'architecting tomorrow's leadership' op cit: 27); and 'schools . . . not only outperform . . . but also "out-improve"' (op cit: 132).
    13. Another surprising omission concerns the relative absence of comment in either report on information technology. This prompts me to ask: how many classrooms did the three authors observe?

    Notes on contributor
    Frank Coffield is emeritus professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His three latest publications are all downloadable free of charge from the website of the Learning and Skills Network: Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority . . .; All you ever wanted to know about teaching and learning, but were too cool to ask and Yes, but what has Semmelweis to say about my professional development as a tutor?

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    — Frank Coffield
    Journal of Education Policy


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