Just over 1 in 4 superintendencies today are held by women. What would students, schools and communities gain by having more women leading school districts? – Vicki Phillips in Forbes

Vivien Stewart, Senior Advisor for Education at Asia Society and CIEB International Advisory Board Member, reports on the proceedings of the inaugural meeting of the Global Cities Education Network, held in Hong Kong.

The 21st century will be the century of cities, according to some observers.  Today, half of all humanity lives in cities.  Massive migration from rural areas and internationally has made cities increasingly diverse, typically including multiple languages, ethnic and/or religious groups.  With rapidly growing populations of poor, often unskilled residents, aging populations to take care of, and overtaxed public services, large cities are the sites of societies’ greatest challenges.  But they also possess significant advantages in terms of wealth and of cultural and social opportunities.  They are the creative hubs of economies and societies, the dominant drivers of both U.S. and global economic growth.

As knowledge- and innovation-based economies become more dominant, a critical factor in determining cities’ future economic success will be the skills and talent of their workforces.  In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the opportunities for success will also require both individuals and cities to be able to compete and cooperate on a global scale.

It was these new challenges that brought cities from Asia, Australia and North America to Hong Kong for the inaugural meeting of the Global Cities Education Network.  Founded and convened by Asia Society, an international, non-profit educational organization, the Global Cities Education Network seeks to act as a mechanism for collaborative learning and problem solving between large urban schools systems.

In recent years, as the role of education in driving economic and social development has become ever more apparent, international benchmarking of educational best practices has become an increasingly valuable tool for policymaking.  However, these international education comparisons have hitherto been made primarily at the national level.  But while education policies are usually set at the national or state level, it is in cities that such policies are actually implemented in real schools and with real students.

So, teams of policymakers, practitioners and researchers from Chicago, Denver, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Seattle, Toronto and the charter network Ed Visions came together in the Global Schools Education Network to discuss the critical challenges they face, and to identify ways to learn from each other and from the world’s best practices.  This first meeting was, in a sense, an experiment.  Although it is clear that good ideas travel across cultures, these cities are very disparate.  The context in Seoul is not the same as in Chicago – would they be able to find common ground?

The participating cities discussed two critical sets of issues — achieving quality education for all students and retooling their education systems to develop the knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century.


The highest performing education systems are those that combine quality with equity.  In these systems, the vast majority of students have the opportunity to attain high levels of skills, regardless of their own personal and socio-economic circumstances.  Yet even in the highest performing systems, a significant number of students fail to achieve a minimum level of education.

Every city in the Global Schools Education Network is working to provide greater equity in its education system, some with more success than others.

A particular focus of the discussion among the participants at the meeting was on the increasing diversity of cities.  In Toronto more than 20 percent of the population have been born outside of Canada (and are referred to as “new Canadians”).  And despite the overall increase in student performance and secondary school graduation, there are still groups that are falling behind, especially black males, native Canadians, and students who have come from Latin America and the Middle East.  In Melbourne, 24 percent of students have one parent born overseas and 20 percent speak a language other than English at home.  In Shanghai and Hong Kong, massive migration from poor rural and inland areas poses challenges to the traditional schools.  And while Seoul’s diversity is small in scale (2 percent) compared to other cities, it is nevertheless challenges the traditional processes of the education system.

Most cities give more resources to schools serving disadvantaged students but quantity of resources may not be as important as the ability to have the best teachers working in these schools.  Recognizing that the quality of the teacher is the single biggest in-school factor affecting student achievement, the discussion also focused on how to get enough high-quality people to go into teaching and how to ensure that the neediest students have access to the highest quality teaching.  Some cities such as Singapore have done extensive work on developing a high-quality teaching profession; others have worked on specific aspects of the issue such as Shanghai’s efforts to get the best teachers into the weakest schools.  These efforts and others could be used to inform other cities.

Another trend in most of the cities was towards the greater provision of choice and options for different types of schools.  Singapore, for example, is developing portfolios of schools.  Melbourne has government, Catholic and independent schools.  In the United States, charter schools, like the Education Visions network, are increasingly part of the city mix.  Seattle has pushed a great deal of decision making to the school level, which has stimulated innovation but exacerbated inconsistent results.  In all the participating cities, the trend is towards greater decentralization of authority to the school level with just broad policies set at the city or district level.  However, choice and decentralization can lead to greater inequities if not designed with equity in mind.  So the challenge in running an effective urban system of schools is — what needs to be consistent across schools and where can flexibility be allowed?

Despite their challenges, cities also have many advantages.  Often the broader cultural and economic environment for education is more favorable.  And particular approaches such as choice among schools or professional learning communities among teachers are easier to implement in a city.  Indeed, an analysis conducted by OECD showed that in many parts of the world, cities outperform non-urban parts of their countries.


Around the world and certainly in each of the participating cities, there is a sense that the aims and processes of education in the 21st century need to be fundamentally different from those in the 20th.  No longer is providing basic literacy skills for the majority of students and higher order skills for a few an adequate goal.

Every participating city is engaged in or contemplating wide-ranging reforms of curriculum, instruction, and assessment to prepare students for the increasingly complex demands of life and work in the 21st century.

While there was real agreement among the cities on the general direction in which education needs to go, there are tremendous challenges of implementation and cities approach the task with different strengths and limitations.  Asian cities have developed highly effective systems for knowledge transmission, where all the elements of the system are aligned and produce high performance, but their pedagogy is more traditional.  Western cities, on the other hand, have a more developed tradition of constructivist pedagogy and more freewheeling societies.  They have schools that are renowned as “peaks of excellence” but they have been less effective in developing systems to get all students to high levels of achievement.

The rapid changes in knowledge today are also putting a greater premium on investing in lifelong learning, raising new questions not just about the goals and focus of schooling but also about how to distribute learning resources over the lifecycle.  Every city it seems faces critical challenges in trying to reduce the enormous gap between what modern societies and economies demand and what education systems currently deliver.


In the final sessions of the meeting, participating cities agreed on a number of key common priorities of policy and practice where international benchmarking efforts through the Global Cities Education Network would be particularly helpful.

1.    Developing High-Quality Teachers and School Leaders
Cities want to know how to improve their efforts to attract, hire, develop, evaluate and retain high-quality teachers – and to ensure that the most disadvantaged students have highly capable teachers.  Since cities differ in the degree of influence they have over certain aspects like teacher training and teacher distribution among schools, a range of strategies for improving quality and distribution need to be identified.

2.    Improving Achievement of Low-Achieving and Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students
In every city, some groups of students still lag significantly behind.  And the increasing scale and complexity of diversity facing large cities makes improving policies and practices in this area an urgent priority.  Bringing together the best available international research with a comparative analysis of the approaches of selected cities could shed important light on how the achievement of these students can be improved and how cities can make their increasing diversity an asset.

3.    Implementation and Assessment of 21st Century Skills
Every city is trying to varying degrees to modernize the content, methods and outcomes of their education systems towards 21st century skills and learning environments.  Perhaps most strategic in terms of moving systems in this direction is the need to craft ways to better assess these skills.  An analysis of what different systems around the world are doing to measure different aspects of 21st century skills together with an examination of ideas from the world’s best research on measurement would be an important contribution to helping cities transform their systems in this direction.

4.    Effective Systems Design: Centralization, Decentralization and Choice
All the cities are moving away from top-down management, with its emphasis on tight prescription and uniformity of educational practice, to giving more autonomy to individual schools.  They are encouraging portfolios of different types of schools and providing more choices of educational paths to students, especially at the secondary level.  What needs to be centralized and what should be decentralized to address these challenges is a major issue of system design, one that every city is grappling with to varying degrees and would be another fruitful area for comparative work.

This is a shortened version of a longer piece initially published on the Asia Society website.  Click here to read the full report and to learn more about the Global Cities Education Network.