The Role of Cities: What Works in Scaling Up Innovations to Improve Education Outcomes?

World of Work November 30, 2015

The global education debate has rightly moved from questions of access to a focus on quality and the practical steps that can bring about improvement in learning outcomes. The new UN Sustainable Development Goals are all about quality. Improving learning outcomes is not an easy task. However recent development in several major cities give us grounds for optimism. At CfBT Education Trust [new name Education Development Trust from 1 January 2016] we have worked in school system reform in around 80 countries. Our latest research report focuses on our studies in education reform in five big metropolitan areas: London, New York, Dubai, Rio de Janeiro and Ho Chi Minh City. Why these five cities? They represent five hugely different societies but in each case there has been a recent story of rapid improvement in educational outcomes at school level which seem to be linked to innovative and effective education policy.

The stories are remarkable. Just two examples: students in Ho Chi Minh City now do better in the PISA science test than their peers in almost all the cities of rich western countries; the government schools of central London have gone from being the worst in England to the best, according to reliable national test scores, in just a decade. There are similar stories of ‘step change’ improvement in the other cities. How did transformation take place in these cities? Although each place has a unique story, there are also key themes that connect the different narratives. The improvement narrative is characterised by an interesting mix of disruptive innovation and sustained commitment by determined leaders to a clear theory of change, which they drove persistently over many years.

Disruptive innovation in the cities came in several forms: a new pedagogy in Ho Chi Minh City, the implementation of a new high expectations curriculum in Rio, an innovative school inspection regime in Dubai, different approaches to teacher recruitment in several cities and new types of government school in several cities. These changes appear to have provided a catalyst for reform and improvement.

Although the exact reform recipe varied from place to place, some common themes emerged from across the case studies. They included a commitment in all the cities to practical measures intended to raise the status of the teaching and profession and making school teaching a career of choice for talented graduates. We tend to think that the relative status of a profession like teaching is fixed in any given society. The city stories showed that it is possible to change the attractiveness of teaching to potential teachers. In New York City academically talented school leavers are now much more likely now to become school teachers than they were ten years ago. In London the Teach First programme- based substantially on Teach for America- made teaching attractive to an extraordinary group of graduates from the UK’s top universities. Traditionally graduates from top colleges in the UK have avoided school teaching but many of the ‘brightest and best’ now choose to teach in government schools in some of London’s most disadvantaged districts.

In every case there was high level political commitment often sustained over many years. We interviewed expert witnesses in the cities who consistently described the centrality of ambitious, energetic and optimistic leadership. These senior leaders each had a distinct Theory of Change and in each case went about implementation of this Theory in a relentless persistent way. In London we saw a highly unusual consistency in policy over many years. Similarly there has been a consistent policy framework in Vietnam since the 1998 Education Act. In New York, London and Rio our expert witnesses repeatedly highlighted the contribution of key leaders such as Joel Klein, Tim Brighouse and Claudia Costin. Klein was the schools chief for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Brighouse ran the London Challenge and Costin was the Secretary of Schools for the city of Rio. These were sometimes controversial but they were undoubtedly charismatic and driven senior leaders.

In Rio, New York and London the reforms also involved the introduction of new forms of government school that provided competition to conventional government schools. The Schools of the Future in Rio were a central plank of the reform plan. The ‘academies’ in London and the ‘charter schools’ in New York were also central to the disruptive process. In each case the new schools were established on the sites of previous government schools that had repeatedly failed over many years. In each city these new schools that served the cities’ most disadvantaged sought to establish a ‘no excuses’ culture.

Of course it is important not to overstate the achievements of the cities and not to oversimplify the analysis. There are also no grounds for complacency. Michael Barber talks about the need to ensure the irreversibility of the reform agenda in every school system and I don’t think the changes in all of these cities meet the irreversibility test yet. Nevertheless these case studies do provide grounds for optimism. They show above all that it is possible to take action to break the connection between poverty and educational outcomes.