Six founders of NCEE’s Superintendents Alliance make the case for proficiency based education. Read more.

By Jackie Kraemer

The Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network (GCEN) released a report earlier this year entitled, “Improving Performance of Low Achieving and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students” by Ben Levin, Professor and Canada Research Chair for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. The report reviewed the literature on school effectiveness and then focused on strategies used to address low achievement and equity in five school systems, three in the United States (Chicago, Denver and the EdVisons Charter Network) and in two cities in high-performing countries: Seoul, South Korea and Shanghai, China.

The report reviews the literature on school effectiveness, concluding that while family background has a large impact on achievement, schools can indeed make a difference. Research clearly shows that schools with similar demographics can have very different outcomes for students. He cites OECD PISA data (2009) that shows that countries vary greatly in the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds that are successful in school.

OECD Numbers Final.xlsx

Levin claims that a growing body of research supports the idea that changes in school and classroom practices are key to better outcomes. While changes in policies and practices outside the classroom (he cites as examples: governance, finance, accountability, teacher preparation, technology use or school organization) may be helpful, they will not make a difference in student outcomes unless accompanied by changes in the actual classroom. Levin cites his own 2008 book (How to Change 5000 Schools) that lists nine areas of key focus for improving teaching and learning in the classroom:

  • High expectations for all students
  • Strong personal connections between students and adults
  • Greater student engagement and motivation
  • A rich and engaging formal and informal curriculum
  • Effective teaching practices in all classrooms on a daily basis
  • Effective use of data and feedback by students and staff to improve learning
  • Early support with minimum disruption for students in need
  • Strong, positive relationships with parents
  • Effective engagement in the broader community

He also identified key supporting elements to ensure that these practices can take place:

  • Engagement and commitment from the adults in the system
  • Effective collective processes for educators to continue to improve their practices (often referred to as professional learning communities)
  • Aligned, coherent and supportive system policies and practices
  • Appropriate allocation of resources

Levin’s studies of the two cities in high performing countries (according to PISA data), Shanghai and Seoul, provide interesting and instructive cases for other jurisdictions.

global perspectives imageShanghai is the largest city in China and has 1.9 million students and 2,875 schools.  Fifty percent of the students are migrants from rural areas.  Levin characterizes Shanghai’s educational challenges as: 1) disparities in quality between urban and rural schools; 2) disparities in education provided to native Shanghai students and migrant students; and 3) the variance between schools attributed to historical conditions and teacher and administrator quality.  In addition, Shanghai’s heavy emphasis on examinations is seen as a challenge for the whole system.

A key priority for Shanghai was ensuring migrant children’s right to an education.  In 2008, the municipal government initiated a three-year compulsory education effort for these children.  The government also focused on improving teaching practice and instituted a web-based teaching and study platform with curriculum resources, research papers and teaching demonstration lessons for teachers to observe and provide feedback.

Shanghai has also made a very deliberate attempt to improve equity among schools.  First, they established a minimum standard for per pupil public spending on schools that resulted in a transfer of funds to rural schools that was used to update facilities and increase teacher salaries.

In addition, since 2002 Shanghai has a policy of transferring teachers and principals from urban schools to high need rural schools and has also transferred rural teachers and principals to urban schools with the expectation that they would return to the rural schools and use their experience to improve them.  In 2005, they also started a program to pair urban and rural districts.  The districts sign three-year agreements to collaborate on teacher professional development and school improvement planning.  There are several other initiatives that involve sister schools and teacher exchanges.

Shanghai has taken this idea of pairing schools a step further, with “commissioned administration”.  This is a program that involves a high performing school taking over the administration of a low performing school for a set time period.  It is hoped that the high performing school transfers some of its management skills and ideas to the low performing schools.  The municipal government funds this.

Finally, Shanghai attempted to move away from a school system that involved “top” schools to a neighborhood school system.  They have not been entirely successful in this effort and now have a compromise system where “sponsorship fees” can be paid by parents to allow their children to attend schools outside their neighborhood.

South Korea StudentsSeoul is a very different case from Shanghai.  It is the largest city in South Korea.  There are 1.2 million students in the city, but only 5 percent are considered to be disadvantaged.  Seoul has almost no minority students, with less than half a percent migrant students.  Most of the countries’ migrant workers live outside of Seoul.

While South Korea does extremely well on international comparisons of education achievement, it is considered a stressful school system with an intense focus on examinations.  Policies in recent years have aimed to shift attention to “competence and creativity” rather than “knowledge regurgitation”.  Another issue has been the emphasis on English language skills, which has put low socioeconomic students who cannot afford tutoring at a disadvantage since tutoring is so widespread in South Korea.

While Seoul’s disadvantaged population is small, the city has still made reducing inequities a priority.   Teachers are assigned to schools on five-year intervals, and high quality teachers are specifically assigned to schools with high populations of disadvantaged students.  Teachers are offered incentives including higher salaries, reduced class sizes, reduced instructional time to teach in these schools, the opportunity to choose the next school they will teach in, and credit toward promotion.  In addition, administrators with strong leadership potential are assigned to schools with at least fifteen percent low-income students.

Seoul also has a School Equalization Policy, which is intended to equalize resources among schools.  Schools that fall into low-income areas are provided with additional resources through the Achievement Improvement Target Schools (AITS) program and the Educational Welfare Investment Priority Schools project (EWIPS).  The AITS program provides additional funds to schools with this designation as well as flexibility in their curriculum and school management, including allowing AITS schools to select a principal independently and principals to choose 20 percent of their teachers.  Schools can choose to use the funds however best fits their needs.  The EWIPS program brings additional services to these schools, including supplementary education, health services, cultural programs and social services.

While the demographics and history of these two cities are quite different, both Shanghai and Seoul have prioritized the issue of equity in education and have directed funding and created innovative programs to address the needs of disadvantaged children and the schools that serve them.  They both see equity as a key to the overall achievement of their education systems.

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