NZ Initiative's Martine Udahemuka says NZ could benefit from adopting Shanghai's system of getting high-performing schools to 'buddy up' with poor performers

By Martine Udahemuka* 

Shanghai’s number one position on international school league tables is the envy of public school systems around the world.

Notwithstanding claims that some of the city’s results may have been engineered or that students there are among the least happy by OECD average, the system is one that New Zealand could learn from with regards to turning around poorly performing schools.

In 2012, Shanghai’s 15-year-old, on average, was ahead of New Zealand’s in mathematics by the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling. In science, New Zealand’s students performed higher than the OECD average, with a score of 516 and 501 respectively. Shanghai beat both averages by about one and half years with a score of 580 out of a possible maximum of 600 points.

Among other factors, Shanghai educators have attributed the system’s success to its approach for dealing with under-performing schools. Shanghai’s schools are competitive, without a doubt. They compete, however, with schools in other cities and in other countries. But as a region, schools collaboratively pull each other up to stay ahead of their international counterparts. And this, New Zealand should learn from.

According to the 2015 annual report of the Education Review Office (ERO), who undertake independent evaluations of New Zealand schools, out of 262 primary and secondary schools to have been categorised as needing improvement, only 27% had improved their performance by the time of the following review – usually between 1 to 2 years.

Ministry support of these schools is at best fragmented – from singling out one aspect of the school’s performance and targeting, it to appointing a commissioner as a statutory intervention option. The Ministry opts for the latter usually on recommendation from ERO, when there is no confidence that the school has enough internal capacity and capability to turn its performance around. The commissioner is not required to have school leadership experience or teaching and learning experience. This in itself may hinder progress and success could be a luck of the draw rather than a systematic understanding of what it takes to deal with under-performance at the school level. The Ministry does not formally evaluate these interventions to determine how successful they were and reasons for such success, or otherwise.

In fact, my research into schools that have been appointed a commissioner revealed that some of these schools remain in the ‘needs improvement’ basket for the entire span of a child’s schooling, having been unable to turn performance around despite a number of external supports.

The Ministry’s Investing in Education Success (IES) initiative is a laudable step towards improved collaboration and sharing of good practice among schools. But it can be further improved to cater for individual schools, with unique challenges, that struggle to improve their performance over a long period of time.

Shanghai’s approach could offer a possible extension to the IES initiative.

Through the Empowered Management Programme (EMP) in Shanghai, a high performing school is contracted by the local government to buddy up with a poorly performing school.  Additional resources are provided to school leaders who have demonstrated the ability to turn resources into successful outcomes, rather than give more resources to schools that have not otherwise managed to improve their performance over a long period of time. This programme has turned around 60 schools in Shanghai in the last decade.

There are numerous benefits associated with the EMP model.  For example, the supporting school has the financial incentive and the opportunity to further strengthen its own brand. In the Shanghai model the initial contract is two years and is independently evaluated halfway through and at the end of the contract. Extensive monitoring and evaluation ensures that the high-performing school is only paid under the terms of the contract if they are deemed to have been successful in turning around the performance of the lesser-performing school.

The idea of a highly performing school leader becoming a change agent in underperforming schools is not new. In London, poor performing schools are transformed into an academy and led by an executive principal. The difference is that EMP is not a zero sum partnership, but allows for knowledge exchange and information flow between partnered schools.

New Zealand schools that want to improve would take part in the selection of a school whose practice and leadership they value, which should give the school impetus to change. 

The advantage of this buddy-system is that it is voluntary, deliberate, time bound, and concerned with specific needs of individual schools. The Empowered Management Programme has the potential to address New Zealand’s languishing position in comparison to international counterparts, one school at a time.

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*Martine Udahemuka is a research fellow at the NZ Initiative. This is the Initiative’s weekly column for interest.co.nz.