iidea outer left
High Performing Schools
What’s the secret?

All around the world, countries are trying to get better performance from schools and school systems; Thailand is no exception to this effort. We know that some systems perform better than others, and we know that the best schools and systems have a set of common things they do.

Therefore there is no secret about the factors that lead to school and systemic excellence. It is a reasonable question to ask that in any table or list of high performing schools or systems, what are the standards used to judge the schools?

There are several ways of making these judgments. Most countries conduct nationally benchmarked testing systems – mostly in the areas of literacy and numeracy. In Thailand, for example there are the O-net tests which provide an indication of the academic performance of schools on a nationally comparable basis.

Internationally, there are benchmarks provided by such organisations as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD]. The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) enables comparisons to be made between systems, and between counties.

The PISA assessments examine such questions as:

    - Are students well prepared for future challenges?
    - Can they analyse, reason and communicate effectively?
    - Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life?

The PISA data provides answers to these questions, through its surveys of 15-year-olds in the principal industrialized countries. Every three years, it assesses to what extent students near the end of compulsory education, have acquired in knowledge and skills essential for participation in society. The questions are related to literacy, numeracy and science and more recently, digital literacy.

Neither source of data about systems’ performance comes from research organisations such as the social research company McKinsey and the Grattan Institute in Melbourne Australia.

Research [2006 – 2010] into high performing school systems by McKinsey and Company , looked at 25 school systems around the world, their findings being published in the report - How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top [March 2008]

It is possible to obtain information about what it is that enables some schools to be rated as high performing, and through aggregation, what it is that makes some systems perform better than others.

Schools and systems seeking improvement can look to this evidence and use it to apply it to how they operate and they can also use the evidence to lobby for better support.

While there are several factors that lead to high performance, such as class size, demographics, budgets and so on, but the research shows there is one factor that stands out above others. That factor is the quality of the teachers in schools.

There are three things which matter the most about getting high quality teachers into schools:

    - Getting the right people to become teachers
    - Developing new teachers into effective instructors
    - Ensuring the system is able to develop the best possible instruction for every child.

The McKinsey report found that in the 25 systems it examined, these three factors succeed in improving educational performance wherever they are applied.

Other studies provide strong evidence which support this.

Look at the high Performing Asian Systems

In 2011 The Grattan Institute form the University of Melbourne in Australia, looked at the four highest performing Asian systems – Singapore, Shanghai South Korea and Hong Kong. Specifically the researchers wanted to know: Why are these systems moving rapidly ahead of others?

Popular stereotypes about Asian education are strong in some countries. But this evidence challenges these stereotypes. In these four systems, high performance comes from effective education strategies that focus on implementing well-designed programs that continuously improve learning and teaching.

Neither cultural difference nor Confucian values can explain how, in just five years, Hong Kong moved from 17th to 2nd in PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) the international assessment of Grade 4 students’ reading literacy. Instead, in these four Asian systems, education reforms created rapid changes in reading literacy.

Success cannot be explained by what is often seen as an emphasis on rote learning, in Asian systems either. PISA assesses meta-cognitive content knowledge and problem solving abilities. These skills are not conducive to rote learning. In fact, rote learning in preparation for PISA assessment would lead to lower scores. Moreover, international research shows that classroom lessons in Hong Kong, for example, require greater deductive reasoning, with more new and advanced content. Success is also not driven by the size of the system.

What about the size of these Asian Systems?

Size of East Asian education systems


Shanghai 11

Korea 12

Hong Kong 13

Singapore 14

No. schools





No. students





No. teachers





11 Excludes special schools. Shanghai Education Commission (2011)
12 Includes vocational high schools, excludes special schools.

The four high performing systems studied in the Grattan Report have introduced one or several of the following reforms:

    • High quality initial teacher education. In Singapore, students are paid civil servants during their initial teacher education. Government evaluations have bite and can close down ineffective teacher education courses.
    • Mentoring that continually improves learning and teaching. In Shanghai, all teachers have mentors, and new teachers have several mentors who observe and give feedback on their classes.

    • They view teachers as researchers. In Shanghai teachers belong to research groups that continually develop and evaluate innovative teaching. Teachers cannot rise to advanced teacher status without having a published paper peer reviewed.

The four school systems focus on policies designed to improve learning and teaching and they ensure that effective implementation connects policy to classrooms.

What do these systems actually do to bring about improvement?

1 They are careful in selecting interventions

Effective intervention begins with a deep analysis of learning. The analysis compares the current state of learning (and then teaching) to where learning and teaching needs to be. To move learning and teaching to a higher level requires the design of policies and programs to target behavioural change. This requires effective implementation of programs that have been shown to make widespread and sustained improvements in learning and teaching.

2 Improved learning as the primary goal

While considerable research has emphasised the importance of teachers, reform in Hong Kong, for example, “clearly focussed on the ‘core business’ of learning’”.

The key criterion is learning, not teaching, or more importantly, teachers. The difference is subtle but important, with substantial policy implications.For example, a focus on learning in Singapore, has led the National Institute of Education (NIE), which educates all teachers, to cut subjects such as history and philosophy of education, and curriculum and assessment design, from their undergraduate teacher education syllabus. Feedback from teachers, principals and the Ministry of Education showed that these subjects were not leading to sufficient increases in students’ learning. NIE now focuses more on subjects emphasizing practical classroom teaching.

3 Setting priorities

Successful implementation depends on careful prioritization. Implementation is resource intensive. It requires difficult decisions in allocating resources between programs. Financial resources are always scarce, yet are relatively visible. Management and teachers’ time and capacity for change are also scarce resources. The lack of correlation between financial resources and learning outcomes suggests that time and capacity may be greater constraints than financial resources. Trying to do too much thus often results in very little being done at all. Choosing not do something is often politically difficult, but successful implementation requires prioritizing fewer programs, and cutting those with less impact on student learning. The process is vital. In short, doing what matters is easy. Only doing what really matters is hard

4 What about class size?

    - Evidence shows reducing class size does not have a great impact on learning outcomes.
        Reducing class size from 23 to 15 students improves performance of an average student by 8 percentile points at best [McKinsey].

    - Top performing systems recruit their teachers from the top 1/3 of each graduate cohort in their school system.
        • Korea’s teachers come from the top 5%;
        • in Finland it’s the top 10%;
        • Singapore and Hong Kong it’s the top 30 %.

    - The high performing Asian countries have the dual blessing of the high value put on education, as well as traditional respect for teachers.

    - These play a very important part in getting the right people to become teachers.

    - Singapore – 100 applicants for teacher training – only 20 accepted.

    - In Finland, students do not start school until they are 7
        • They only attend school 4 hours per day, yet by age 15, they score top in the world in Maths, Science, Reading and Problem Solving (50 points ahead of Norway) [PISA results, 2006]
        • No National testing system in Finland. Teachers’ judgment is TRUSTED
        • Teachers all start teaching with Masters

    - It is not possible to make substantial long term improvement to the school system without fundamentally raising the quality of the people who enter the teaching profession.
        High performing systems suggest that it’s not to do with high salaries critical policy choices

    - Strong processes for selecting and training teachers

    - Paying good starting salaries and supporting teachers in their development

    - Managing the status of the profession

Above all, the top systems demonstrate that the quality of an education system depends on the quality of the teachers in the system.

Teachers make the biggest difference in improving a child’s chance of success

                “The minds of those you teach are not empty vessels to be filled….. They are fires to be kindled”
                                                                                                                     Plutarch [Roman philosopher]

                “I am a teacher….. I touch the future”
                                                        Christa Mc Auliffe [Challenger Space Shuttle]

The search for the Holy Grail – the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.
    - In the Middle Ages [1400 s] knights and princes searched for it.
    - Believed the Holy Grail would help perform miracles
    - The story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Greg Cairnduff,
The Australian International School of Bangkok
iidea outer right
iidea outer bottom left iidea outer bottom right
iidea counter