Transforming Learning in Cities

The Global Cities Network Inaugural Symposium

The race for excellence and equity in education. (abdulrahman.stock/iStockPhoto)

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 socioeconomic circumstances. Yet even in the highest-performing systems, a significant number of students fail to achieve a minimum level of education.

The long-term costs of educational failure are high both for individuals and societies. In every country, children of wealthier and better-educated parents do better in school than children of poorer or less-educated parents, but studies by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that the highest-performing systems reduce the impact of socioeconomic status on educational achievement, creating societies that are open to talent from any source.

Low-performing systems, on the other hand, follow policies and practices that tend to magnify the effects of socioeconomic status. As a result, a segment of the population lacks the skills needed to function productively, driving up health, welfare, and crime costs and weakening social cohesion. In the United States, for example, the large inequalities in educational attainment, including high school dropout rates, cost the society an estimated three trillion dollars, the equivalent of a permanent recession.

Every city in the Global Cities Education Network (GCEN) is working to provide greater equity in its education system, some with more success than others. At the inaugural GCEN Symposium, Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director of Education at OECD, led off the discussion of equity and quality by reviewing a number of OECD studies that synthesize research and best practices from around the world on these issues. 

He emphasized that high-performing systems:

  • invest and intervene early in children’s learning
  • provide effective support to low-performing and disadvantaged schools
  • eliminate system-level obstacles that can hinder equity

Invest Significantly in Education

Students’ performance on PISA assessments of reading, math, and science at age fifteen is a strong predictor of participation in post-secondary education, which itself leads to better employment prospects, higher lifetime earnings, and greater social and economic contributions to the community. The benefits of effective investments in schooling clearly outweigh the costs. But it is not just a question of more resources—the systems with the highest expenditures are not necessarily the systems with the highest performance—but of more effective use of resources. High-performing systems invest significantly in education through upper secondary school.

Provide Effective Support to Low-Performing Students

Schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students often lack the internal capacity to improve, as school leaders, teachers, and the overall classroom and local environments frequently fail to offer a high-quality learning experience. But research from many parts of the world shows that a range of practices at the school level can significantly improve performance in schools serving disadvantaged students. City systems ought to consider the following points:

  • Attracting strong school leaders, then training and supporting them through mentoring and peer networks are proven key factors in launching a school’s transformation.
  • Strong school leaders are also essential to developing safe school climates and learning environments, with high expectations and a sense of connectedness between teachers and students.
  • Attracting, supporting, and retaining high-quality teachers is often difficult in these schools, but is critical to improving learning outcomes for disadvantaged students.
  • Employing research-based and diversified pedagogical strategies will help schools address the wide variety of learning needs.
  • Linking schools with parents to increase their engagement, and connecting schools with community organizations, can provide a range of social, medical, and learning supports.

Strong System-level Policies that Promote Equity

These policies include eliminating grade repetition and reforming school structure to postpone tracking until upper secondary school. Both grade repetition and early tracking have been shown to increase inequity and the influence of socioeconomic background on student achievement. Basically, whenever a classroom or school has the ability to hand a lower-achieving student to someone else, it leads to increased inequity. Equity-oriented systems also target additional resources toward the education of lower-income students, such as additional supports for schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students or higher per-pupil allocations for low-income students. Investments in early childhood education also demonstrate long-term educational benefits, so many systems are expanding their investments in these programs. Allowing parents greater choice of schools is a growing trend, but such mechanisms must be well-designed and carefully managed to avoid creating additional inequities. Finally, to ensure completion of upper secondary education, upper secondary pathways should be designed to emphasize more work-oriented skills. These programs must be equivalent in quality to the traditional academic pathways in order to keep students in school and lead them to post-secondary education and training opportunities.

All of the cities participating in the Global Schools Education Network have put major efforts into promoting equity, and they discussed their successes and continuing challenges. Below are some examples:

Shanghai is the leading educational province in China, and has pioneered reforms in curriculum, assessment, and equity that are being emulated elsewhere in the country. The enormous social transformations in China which have led millions of families to migrate to cities created huge disparities between the quality of schools in central Shanghai and those in the suburbs or outlying areas where migrant families live. For the past ten years, the Shanghai Education Commission has focused on bringing up the bottom-tier schools through a collaborative strategy: Principals and teachers from high-performing schools work with weaker schools on improving management, school culture, and teaching quality. The approaches have included principals running multiple schools; pairing of schools; clustering schools to share teaching resources; and commissioned administration, through which high-performing schools receive funds for a two-year period to improve the performance of weaker schools. In addition, Shanghai has well-developed mechanisms for sharing best practices across schools, such as the teaching and research network through which senior instructors develop and disseminate practice improvements across the city. After a decade, the weaker schools have improved significantly, a development that contributed to Shanghai’s strong performance on PISA in 2009. The city’s current major challenge is a fundamental shift away from the traditional, didactic knowledge transmission education system, driven by public examinations, to a practice that nurtures students’ talents, interests, and creativity.

Toronto began a major education reform in 2004. It focused on increasing mastery of literacy and numeracy in elementary school, reducing the dropout rate from secondary school, reducing the number of low-performing schools, and increasing public confidence in schools. The fundamental approach was to build capacity in schools. Elementary teachers received extensive professional development on key instructional approaches in literacy and numeracy, with literacy coaches employed in many schools. At the secondary level, student success officers and school teams used data to identify potential dropouts and developed individualized educational and support mechanisms to keep the struggling students in school, including the development of special “skills” majors. The city also worked to strengthen school leadership, devising two years of mentoring for new principals; clear learning, development, and evaluation plans; and succession and talent-development plans so that momentum was not lost when principals left. As a result of all these measures, the reforms increased the proportion of students achieving the sixth-grade standard from fifty-four percent in 2004 to sixty-eight percent by 2010, and had increased high school graduation rates from sixty-eight percent in 2004 to seventy-nine percent in 2009. The reforms also reduced the number of low-performing schools from twenty percent to less than five percent. The attrition rate of new teachers dropped by two-thirds in the same period. Despite these notable successes, achievement gaps still persist for certain groups. As Toronto seeks to transform learning for the 21st century, its key challenges include reducing these achievement gaps and making its increased cultural diversity an asset in promoting a more global outlook.

Denver has made considerable progress in raising the achievement of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds. Setting high expectations for all students and creating a norm of successful schools has been an important culture change. More resources have been directed to lower-income students and incentives were created for teachers and principals to work in lower-income schools. Magnet schools had been used to attract middle-class families back to the city schools, but these generated new forms of inequity. Now the city works toward strong schools in every neighborhood, with larger enrollment zones to create more heterogeneous schools. Denver has also experimented with charter schools to create competition in areas where schools were weak. This has led to a reduction in the number of low-performing schools, an increase in achievement levels of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and a twelve percent increase in city-school enrollments as middle-class families return to those campuses, especially to elementary schools. Denver’s main ongoing challenges are the need for higher-quality instruction and support for English-language learners (who now constitute forty percent of the student body) and the need to get high-quality teachers into poorer schools.

Melbourne’s performance has flattened over the past decade, in contrast to the fairly high performance of Australian schools in general, and the overall upward trajectory of Asian systems. Melbourne’s education system incorporates three school sectors: government, Catholic, and independent schools. As Melbourne’s population has grown and diversified, so too have the students across these three sectors, with one quarter of all students now from a home where English is a second language. In recognition of the increasingly complex needs of Melbourne’s school communities, extended school hubs now operate across clusters of government schools. These hubs are based on local partnerships between schools, local community groups and members, and government and private sector organizations working to support students and their families’ health, wellbeing, and engagement in learning.

In the 1990s, responsibility for government schools devolved considerably to the local level. The focus of reform efforts for the past ten years across all three sectors has been building workforce capacity in schools and strong system leadership. Within the government sector, the Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership provides courses and other opportunities to develop skills that allow education leaders to work effectively with their communities, to be innovative in driving school improvement, and to support them in making evidence-based decisions. Almost six thousand current and aspiring system leaders have participated in Bastow courses since 2010. The government system also created the Executive Class Principal (or “super principal”) position. Although few in number (around thirty at present), these “super principals” have made a significant impact. They have turned around student learning outcomes in low-performing schools and created a culture of excellence in some of Melbourne’s newest schools.

The Catholic Education Office Melbourne is also establishing a Leadership Centre to support the development of leaders and practitioners through a range of high-quality professional development programs. These include formally accredited programs and a flagship Masters of Leadership degree in partnership with Australian Catholic University. Independent Schools Victoria has a similar focus on building leadership, with a highly regarded Development Centre. The Centre provides professional learning services for teachers from early childhood to senior secondary, many of which are open to teachers in Catholic and government schools as well. Leadership development is also emphasized, with programs ranging from seminars for early years educators to programs for both new and experienced principals.

Finally, the Victorian government has made a significant investment in a new information management system, the Ultranet. Through the Ultranet, teachers can share best practices, access student information, and offer tools to help plan and deliver curriculum tasks online. Students, meanwhile, can submit work, receive feedback, and track their learning progress. Parents can get detailed and timely information to monitor and support their children’s progress.

Education in Australia is a highly contested space, with a diverse range of interested parties and stakeholders involved in policy and resourcing discussions. As Melbourne’s education system moves forward, a key challenge will be to balance the policy priorities and directions of the federal and state governments, and education community stakeholders.

Chicago, like many large American cities, faces enormous challenges. It has large numbers of low-performing students and although scores on state tests have increased, the standards are so low that little improvement has been achieved over the past ten years. The problems are compounded by demographic change, which has left some schools half-empty and others overcrowded, as well as a large looming budget deficit. The new mayor plans to lengthen the school day, raise standards, and create instructional leadership teams in each school to work with teachers to meet the standards. Chicago does have some successful and rigorous “magnet” or selective enrollment high schools; these have proven very popular and have long waiting lists of eligible students. One current strategy is to create a portfolio of many different types of schools, with each school excelling in a particular area, so that students have many good choices. To accomplish this, Chicago needs a new pipeline of outstanding school principals, since the city needs about 150 new principals each year.

Questions Remain

One of the challenges in running an effective urban system of schools is: What needs to be consistent across schools and where can there be flexibility?

Even cities that adopted many of the measures outlined in the OECD background paper are finding that the intensification of diversity makes success more difficult. The definition of equity is also evolving. Should the focus of the definition be on resources? Opportunity? Outcomes? Achieving equity is often discussed in terms of reducing or eliminating achievement gaps between groups, but is that realistic?

Another trend in most of the cities was greater choice and options for different types of schools. However, choice and decentralization can lead to greater inequities if not designed with equity in mind.

What is clear is that the highest-performing school systems in the world have a low variance rate from student to student. Providing equal access to an excellent education, according to the OECD, is the path towards better achievement for students and greater prosperity for society.


This article is adapted from the report, Transforming Learning in Cities: The Global Cities Education Network Inaugural Symposium. Download the full report above.

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