For years now policymakers have looked at school systems in countries where students excel on international standardized tests, and have attempted to “borrow” what they believe are the practices that result in test-score success. Borrowing best practices seems like a no-brainer, but, in this post, the authors argue that in education, it isn’t always a good idea. This was written by Alma Harris, Yong Zhao and Michelle Jones.

Alma Harris is professor of educational leadership at the Institute of Educational Leadership, University of Malaya, and the Institute of Education, University College London. Yong Zhao is the presidential chair and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon, where he is also a professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership. Michelle Jones is deputy director at the Institute of Educational Leadership, University of Malaya.


By Alma Harris, Yong Zhao and Michelle Jones

Education policymakers around the globe remain preoccupied with the top-performing systems as the touchstone of their thinking and action, and the appetite for following the “best” education systems shows little signs of waning. Multi-national companies have categorized and summarized the strategies of the most “successful” education systems, and promoted them as a pathway to improvement for less successful systems. To be sure, the process seems logical; if you want to be a better performer, why not borrow or copy the approaches of those who do so much better? The approach is neat, convincing — and potentially misleading.

Let’s imagine that you are a runner and you want to be as good as Hussein Bolt. Would copying his training schedule, his diet and his racing diary really make you an outstanding sprinter? The answer is unequivocally no. The reason for this lies in the complex amalgam of innate ability, physiology, physique, background and personal motivation. In other words, the things that cannot be copied are the things that often matter most.

In education, too, the impact of policy borrowing is far less immediate or impressive. For those who work in classrooms and schools, the inconvenient truth is that the real benefits of borrowing from the best are not always visible or tangible.

David Hopkins[1], professor emeritus at the Institute of Education, University of London, and director of education for the Bright Tribe Trust,  talks about presenting the “real truth of things” and highlights that the myths of system reform persist even though there is clear evidence that they are just plain wrong. One of the myths he points to is the “one-size fits all” approach to educational reform, arguing that “as a global community we have succumbed by and large to a single solution approach”[2]. He advocates differential approaches to school and system improvement and particularly, “reflexivity to context.”

A recent publication entitled “School Leadership in the Global Top Performers” suggests that “the global top performers offer compelling evidence for rethinking how states and districts select, prepare and develop and utilize school leaders[3]’. The implication is to look to some of these systems as a basis for changing or improving existing leadership selection processes in the US. Undoubtedly there are some leadership selection practices that afford certain countries, a comparative advantage in producing better school leaders and high quality leadership practice. Plus the considerable research base on school and system effectiveness has shown that leadership quality is an important determinant of better school and system performance[4] so investing in leadership development is sensible.

Yet, it is also the case that the contexts and cultures of the better performing systems are very different from the U.S. public education system. As Zhao[5] has recently argued, the lessons from Asian education systems do not relate to what helped them achieve their high scores on international comparative tests, but to the efforts they have engaged in over the past few decades to transform their educational practices. These efforts are often mistaken for policies and practices designed to produce the high academic performances indicated by international tests, while in reality they are intended to create a different kind of education, an education deemed necessary for cultivating citizens in the twenty-first century. He argues that what Asia high-performing systems have to offer the world is not their past, but the future they intend to create. “It is their vision of a new education and the courage to make changes to long-held traditions and cultural practices.”[6]

Our aim here is to offer an alternative perspective and informed view about the challenges and possibilities of achieving school and system reform by borrowing from others.

A contemporary, comparative study of seven education systems[7] of varying scale, composition and performance provides emerging evidence about borrowing leadership development programs. In this study, several educations systems directly copied and borrowed an identical leadership development program from a higher-performing system. While some gains have undoubtedly been made, the expected gains in educational performance and outcomes have been slow to follow. There may be a range of reasons for this, of course, notwithstanding the facts that large-scale structural changes take time to embed and that fidelity implementation is difficult to secure in vast and sprawling education systems. However there are other potential explanations emerging from the study.

First, the evidence points to the fact that contextual and cultural factors matter significantly in explaining “high performance” or, indeed, any performance. The popular discourse about policy-borrowing largely airbrushes out the importance of context. Second, findings highlight that a significant part of the failure of “policy borrowing” can be explained by the inability to replicate those cultural factors and features that secured success in the first place. Finally, culture and context vary hugely and are powerful influences on policy implementation and subsequent policy enactment across diverse education systems.

This is not to suggest than we cannot learn from other education systems; clearly we can. It is to caution against grasping individual improvement strategies or approaches from other systems without looking at exactly how this works in context and secondly, questioning how far the processes of implementation can be replicated. Policies can be easily borrowed, but the processes of implementation that make them work in context largely cannot.

In reality, some education systems that can least afford it continue to invest heavily in improvement solutions or strategies that are not suited or indeed appropriate for their culture, context or growth state. When they fail to deliver, the blame undoubtedly will rest with them.

An alternative approach that we propose has four components:

*Take effective design principles rather than entire policies, and develop new approaches based on these.

*Develop such approaches in context by drawing heavily upon the good and effective practice that already resides within the system.

*Put in place high-quality implementation processes so that the impact of any new approach will be maximized.

*Invest in continued adaptation and refinement of any new initiative or intervention to ensure a close cultural and contextual fit.

We need to ensure that system reform positively impacts young people and their learning.  It is imperative to engage in on-going debate, discussion and dialogue that brings in alternative perspectives. There in always a danger in speaking truth to power. But there is also a real and present danger in remaining silent.



[1] Hopkins, D (2013) Exploding the Myths of School Reform Centre for Strategic Education, Seminar Series 224 p 15

[2] Hopkins, D (2013) Exploding the Myths of School Reform Centre for Strategic Education, Seminar Series 224 p 12

[3] Keo, S (2015) “Global Perspectives: School Leadership in the Global Top Performers”

[4] Chapman, C. Muijs, D. Reynolds, D. Sammons, P. and Teddlie, C. (2015) The Routledge International Handbook of Educational Effectiveness and Improvement: Research, policy, and practice, Rouledge

[5] Lessons that Matter: What should we learn from Asia’s school systems? http://zhaolearning.com/2015/06/19/lessons-that-matter-what-should-we-learn-from-asia%e2%80%99s-school-systems/

[6] Lessons that Matter: What should we learn from Asia’s school systems? http://zhaolearning.com/2015/06/19/lessons-that-matter-what-should-we-learn-from-asia%e2%80%99s-school-systems/

[7] systemleadership@gmail.com