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‘Does Management Matter in Schools?’

Differences in the quality of education are large, both within and between countries. A recently published study by Nicholas Bloom, Renata Lemos, Raffaella Sadun, and John Van Reenen (free working paper version here) suggests that those differences can partly be explained by management quality. The authors use a survey instrument that has been used to study management in other sectors, and apply it to schools. Management quality is evaluated by structured telephone interviews with headteachers at 1,800 schools in eight countries: Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Sweden, the UK and the US.

The management practices under study cover operations management, performance monitoring, target setting, and talent management. Most of the 20 included management practices have appeared in previous studies of companies in various sectors, but a few practices are more school specific, such as adopting educational best practices. Each practice is scored from one (worst practice) to five (best practice) according to a pre-determined scoring grid and the 20 practices are then averaged to an index of school management quality ranging between 1 and 5.

The researchers find that management quality is positively correlated with pupil achievement at age 15 across all eight countries. An increase in the index of management quality by one standard deviation is associated with an increase in pupil performance of equivalent 20-40 PISA points. Compared with other studies, the association of management quality with pupil performance is considerably stronger than that of school competition, teacher quality, and class size. However, it should be stressed that because of the research design utilised – involving cross-sectional data and a couple of relevant control variables – the findings are only suggestive. Interestingly, for UK schools, the authors also analyse school-level value added scores, which have an even stronger correlation with management quality.*

Another notable finding is that the management quality of schools varies significantly between countries. The UK, Sweden, Canada, and the US obtain the highest average management scores. Germany is located in the middle, whereas Italy, Brazil, and India obtain the lowest scores. Compared with other sectors, such as manufacturing and health care, the between-country variation makes up a larger part of the total variation of management quality in schools – suggesting that national institutions contribute to shaping school management.

Importantly, there is significant scope for improvement, since the average level of management quality in schools is low. For example, 82 per cent of Indian schools score below 2 on the management index. Such schools apply most management practices only in a primitive way or not at all. They would hardly track and review the performance of its pupils, set perhaps only one target annually at the school level, base promotion on tenure only, and fail to take action about underperforming teachers.

Unlike the situation in India, no UK schools score below 2 on the management index. Still, there is room for improvement also at the top end of the distribution. In fact, there are no schools in any country with a score close to 5, which is only awarded if all management methods are up to best practice standards. This is also different from other sectors; previous studies of manufacturing have typically identified a limited number of firms with excellent management practices across the board.

Interestingly, the best management practices are found in so called “autonomous government schools”. These schools, which include UK academies and US charter schools, are publicly funded but relatively independent from government control – and they have higher management scores than both government and privately funded schools. The researchers establish that this advantage is not due to pupil composition – and that over 50 per cent of it can be attributed to (1) stronger performance accountability and (2) the leadership, in the form of a coherent and effectively communicated long-term school strategy. The difference between autonomous government schools and other schools is especially large in Sweden. This may be due to the country’s voucher reform in the early 1990s, which led to a gradual expansion of (often for-profit) autonomous government schools (friskolor) – the benefits of which may take some time to be realised.

The authors conclude that management quality appears to matter for schools. And unlike input factors, such as class size and teacher quality, altering schools’ management practices is a low-cost way to improve performance. The study’s findings also indicate the importance of increasing autonomy among state schools – which appears to generate better governance and management, and, as a result, higher pupil performance.

*The findings are in line with those in a study of UK university departments: at universities, there is a positive association between management quality and research/teaching performance.

Dr Henrik Jordahl is Associate Professor of Economics at Uppsala University, and Programme Director at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN) in Stockholm, where directs the research program ‘The Economics of the Service Sector’.

This comment piece originally appeared in the CMRE Annual Research Digest 2015. The piece reviews a paper by Nicholas Bloom, Renata Lemos, Raffaella Sadun, and John Van Reenen, ‘Does Management Matter in Schools?’, which appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Economic Journal, The free working paper version may be downloaded free here.

CMRE also produce a Monthly Research Digest, edited by our Research Director, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren. You can download back copies of the digest here.

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