Differences in Performance WITHIN Schools: Why So Much Greater Than in Other Countries?

Recently in a Top Performers opinion piece in Education Week, Marc Tucker explored the reasons why differences in teacher performance within schools are so prevalent in America and more rare in other countries. Excerpts from the piece appear below:

According to an OECD analysis of variation of student performance in science, between-school variation accounts for 20 percent of the variation in student performance in the United States, but within-school variation accounts for about 80 percent.  Out of the 68 countries studied, only eight countries have as much within-school variation as the United States.  

What could explain this kind of variation in outcomes within schools?

First, expectations.  The United States has a long and nearly unique history of assigning students to ability groups from the first grade on. Nothing, I submit, is more likely to beget big differences in student performance than different expectations for student performance.

Second, school organization.  The United States is among the world leaders in the amount of time teachers are expected to be standing in front of a class of students teaching.  There is very little time left for them to do anything else.  A recent large-scale international comparative study by Linda Darling-Hammond that NCEE funded titled Empowered Educators makes it clear that the top performers organize their schools very differently.  In those countries, teachers spend less time teaching and much more time working in teams to systematically improve their lessons and the way they are taught.  They are constantly observing each other teaching, in order to critique each other’s teaching or simply to learn something from their colleagues.  They are meeting with other teachers to discuss the problems of individual students whom they all teach and to work as a group both to understand the problems those students face and to collaborate on the development of a plan to address those problems and then on the implementation of that plan.

Teachers who teach in schools organized this way see themselves as dependent on one another in the same way that members of a law firm are dependent on one another.  They will help one another improve their performance and seek help from others for the same purpose.  Because teachers work very closely together every day, they all know a lot about each other’s performance.  Because they see themselves as dependent for their own success on the knowledge and skills of their colleagues, they will work hard to keep colleagues they respect and just as hard to edge the poor performers out.  Because the career ladders in these countries reward competence at ever-higher levels, teachers have a strong incentive to get better and better at the work.

For more, see http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/top_performers/2017/09/differences_in_performance_within_schools_why_so_much_greater_than_in_other_countries_1.html