Hard Look / If Junior Is Lagging at Age 7, It May Be Too Late

If you want your child to succeed in life and are willing to invest everything to ensure he or she receives the best possible education, you had better hurry up.

If you want your child to succeed in life and are willing to invest everything to ensure he or she receives the best possible education, you had better hurry up. If you don't provide your children with a competitive edge by the age of seven, which in Israel means second grade), it's reasonable to assume they are doomed to lag behind.

No, this is not just a fatalistic attitude or indulgence of worry-warts.

Studies conducted worldwide have shown that the top 20% achievers at age 7 have more than twice the chance of completing a university degree than those whose academic achievements were rated in the lowest 20% at the same age.

Another study conducted in the U.K. shows that just 37% of academically weaker 7 year olds manage to improve their achievement by the age of 11, and just 6% of those lagging at the age of 14 are likely to finish high school with reasonable grades. Practically speaking, at the age of 14 it's too late to repair the damage done to their education.

McKinsey, the largest consulting firm in the world, quotes these figures in a comparative study it conducted in 2007 on the education systems of 25 nations. The McKinsey study is the largest of its kind conducted in the world, and its conclusions are unequivocal.

McKinsey concludes there are huge differences in education systems worldwide. There are huge differences even among the ten leading nations in the world (in terms of educational achievements). Singapore spends very little on education, compared to Boston, with an enormous education budget, and they are both rated among the top 10 in the world. Finland provides children with very few teaching hours, and its student achievement is rated the best in the world.

Certainly, Finland's attitude toward education is altogether different from that of South Korea, another country included among the top 10 education achievers. But despite differences in culture and content, the McKinsey study points to three central components in every successful education system.

These three simple principals of management appear simple, but strict adherents will improve education performance beyond recognition. One is the principal of ensuring that every child receives a good education. This means specific focus on weaker students.

Another principal is that of continuing, ongoing improvement of the quality of teachers through unceasing training. The most important principal is the quality of teachers. In essence, McKinsey says, the quality of an education system is limited to the quality of its teachers, quoting a famous study conducted in Tennessee, one of the weakest states for education.

The study followed two identical groups of students between the ages of 8 and 11. One group studied with "good" teachers, and the other with "weak" teachers. By age 11, the two groups of students, who started out with identical achievements, developed a 50% achievement gap. And as you will recall, by the age of 11, it is for the most part too late to reverse the lag students developed under weaker teachers.

Reliance on outstanding teachers is the most obvious quality of every successful education system in the world. South Korea enlists its teachers from the top 5% of its university graduates, and Finland from its top 10%. Singapore and Hong Kong also both chose their teachers from the top third of its graduates. At the same time, all successful education systems get rid of failing teachers as quickly as possible - knowing that a weak teacher means 40 years of poor educational achievements in the system.

The question is how to recruit good teachers. Surprisingly, this is not a question of offering high salaries. Finland, for instance, pays its teachers less than the average for teachers in OECD countries. It does so by paying new teachers good salaries - no less than the average college graduate in most other professions - but only rarely gives experienced teachers raises.

According to McKinsey, an average wage that does not fall below other professions is sufficient to recruit candidates from the cream of the crop.

Insistence on only the best, through careful filtering of candidates, supplements the mechanism.

This is another characteristic of all of the outstanding education systems in the world: They all maintain a strict filtering process for teaching candidates.

Only a handful of top quality candidates are accepted to teaching collages in countries with successful education systems. In Singapore, for instance, anyone who successfully meets the high standards required for acceptance into teaching collage is considered a full-fledged teacher immediately, and receives a full teacher's salary. Likewise, the level of investment in every teaching candidate is very high.

So, with a relatively small budget, these countries manage to train excellent teachers. The state is even able to employ fewer teachers, and increase the number of students per classroom (the average number of pupils in a in South Korean classroom is more than 30), because they ensure the teachers of these large classes are only the best. And that, after all, is the important thing.