How a simple idea is transforming Dutch education

How the ‘leerKRACHT’-approach can help

The central idea of leerKRACHT is that creating a continuous improvement culture in schools is the key to improve the quality of education and thereby student results. This idea was the basis for the leerKRACHT foundation started as a pro bono initiative of McKinsey & Company in 2012. leerKRACHT started to work with 16 schools to develop and pilot a 2-year intensive transformation programme that helps schools improve the quality of their teaching.

Five years later 615 Dutch schools are participating in the leerKRACHT initiative: 1 in 8 of all Dutch secondary schools, 40% of all vocational schools, 15% of all teacher colleges and hundreds of primary schools. Combined they represent 10.000 teachers and 200.000 students. Their enthusiasm has even led to the Dutch School Inspectorate and the Dutch Ministry of Education to enrol teams in the leerKRACHT programme. This makes leerKRACHT a private initiative and non-profit foundation – by far the largest and most impactful school improvement programme in the Netherlands.

The goal of the programme is to lay the foundation for a continuous improvement culture in schools, where teachers work together to improve the quality of education. By further developing this approach and introducing it to thousands of schools leerKRACHT wants to be the catalyst for a movement that helps the entire Dutch educational system move from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

Live map of all leerKRACHT schools in March 2020

Background: The Dutch educational system is treading water

The quality of education in the Netherlands is good. International comparisons throughout the years have shown that our system tends to come 10th on average in the global ranking. At the same time, these studies show that the quality of our education has been hovering at the same level for the past 30 years. We are ‘stuck at good’. This is remarkable, because in recent decades much has been tried to improve the quality of Dutch education. A quick analysis shows at least thirty reforms in recent years.

An international study by McKinsey & Company in 2010 exposed the cause of this lack of improvement. This study compared educations systems which made the step from good to great: e.g., Singapore, Finland, Ontario, Massachusetts and Shanghai. The core of the approach in these systems is to create a culture at schools that focuses on continuous improvement. When a school has such a culture, teachers will learn from each other and improve education together. The Netherlands, however, has introduced devoted little attention to the teacher in the classroom, and got stuck.

Ambition: continuous improvement in thousands of Dutch schools

The leerKRACHT foundation was founded in 2012 with the aim to transform the way of working in Dutch schools: to create a continuous improvement culture in schools. For this, we designed an intensive transformation programme, in collaboration with teachers and principals.
The initiative gathered a large support base in a very short time: we are actively supported by teachers’ unions, employers’ associations, large Dutch corporations (where we organize LEAN ‘go and see’ visits) and the Ministry of Education (which is financing independent research to assess our impact). We started 4 years ago with a pilot in 16 schools, quickly expanded via ‘word of mouth’ to 500 schools and – over the coming years – aim to spread this approach amongst thousands of schools.

Approach: a two-year ‘bottom-up’ transformation programme

The approach leerKRACHT implements in participating schools is based on three pillars: the lessons learned from successful educational improvement in systems with great educational performance, knowledge from the corporate world on how to create a ‘continuous improvement’ culture, and the experience our foundation has gained in working with hundreds of schools over the past 4 years.

The approach centres on creating a continuous improvement culture in a school, in which all teachers collaborate to improve the quality of education. Creating this culture uses four instruments used on a weekly basis: 1) teachers asking students for feedback, 2) teachers visiting each other’s classrooms and giving feedback, 3) teachers preparing lessons together and, 4) teachers holding ‘stand-up’ meetings using an improvement board. These ‘stand-up’ meetings we ‘imported’ from companies using ‘LEAN’ of ‘Agile/Scrum’ improvement techniques.

We introduce this culture in schools in cohorts of around 10 teachers at a time. Such a group of teachers builds mutual trust whilst starting to work with the four leerKRACHT instruments. Once they experience success a new cohort of teachers start. At the end of the 1st leerKRACHT year all teachers participate. The teachers are supported by the school principal and a coach. This ‘field work’ in the school is complemented with get-togethers with teachers and principals from other other leerKRACHT schools in the same region. These fora aim to celebrate success, share experience and jointly solve problems. After the first year, leerKRACHT supports the school for a 2nd year to help solidify and grow its new culture, then our support stops.

Impact: results of indepent assessment by the University of Utrecht

In 2013 an independent investigation carried out by the Open University, 82% of the participating teachers indicated that they believe that their teaching had improved as a result of participating. A similar number said that they would recommend participation to fellow teachers. In 2014 the Dutch Ministry of Education funded a next round of an independent impact assessment. This time carried out by the University of Utrecht. They concluded that 1) schools carry out the programme as planned, 2) it leads to enormous enthusiasm in participating teachers and school leaders, 3) that leerKRACHT helps to build a professional culture and that 4) teachers and school leaders see and expect that leerKRACHT will lead to better student results.

See this summary and links to the report: (in Dutch)

The leerKRACHT approach is based universal principles that help to improve quality both in school systems with the best performance globally and in companies around the world that use ‘LEAN’ principles to deliver high quality products and service. Through word-of-mouth, the impact of our approach has led to extremely fast growth of the number of participating Dutch schools. We hope that our schools will inspire many others to pursue this path for the benefit of millions of students.