School reform in England and the USA
25 Sep 2010 The Guardian
Nothing captures the flavour of the new school year in the US like the opening game of the high school football season – American football, of course, not the Limey version.
Last week, I joined the enthusiastic parents in the stands at Dexter high school in Michigan. This was only the "freshman" team (14- to 15-year-olds) but it still merited the full razzmatazz: a floodlit stadium, cheerleaders, electronic scoreboard, loudspeaker commentary, fussy referees in regulation striped shirts, and two teams of professionally uniformed, helmeted and shoulder-padded footballers.
It was a timeless ritual, one repeated at schools across the country for generations, as over 50 million children returned to the nation's 130,000 schools this month. But behind this tableau of stability, American schools are changing. And there are fascinating parallels with the reforms taking place in England.
For the US is going through the same navel-gazing crises familiar this side of the Atlantic: concern that the nation's educational performance is falling behind other countries, and growing frustration that successive school reforms have failed to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor.
The trend in US education policy is towards "school choice". This is about increasing school autonomy and injecting market forces into a monolithic system in which schools were run by the states and districts, and almost every child attended their nearest elementary or high school.
Over the last 20 years or so, schools have gained freedoms and parents offered choices between schools within and beyond their local school district. Additionally, there are now more than 5,000 charter schools, serving 1.5 million pupils, which lie outside the traditional school districts.
Charter schools are new schools, initiated by parents, teachers or other groups, funded by the taxpayer, free to pupils, but autonomous from the traditional school authorities.
In short, they are one of the models for Michael Gove's "free schools", the main difference being that in the American model the charter, or funding agreement, is granted locally, not by central government. The Americans would never countenance giving central government the powers Gove now has over "free schools".
Like the proposed 16 "free schools" due to open in England over the next year, charter schools come in all shapes and sizes, with different educational philosophies.
In the 20 years since the first charter school legislation was passed in Minnesota, there have been some successes and some failures. Charters are generally popular with parents and their numbers have grown steadily, although two decades on, they still serve less than 3% of the school population, or about the same number as are home-schooled.
There have been numerous studies on the impact of charter schools and, to put it simply, they provide no definitive proof that they have raised standards overall. This is not very encouraging for the "free schools" here. Will we, in 20 years' time, still be looking for evidence that they have made a difference?
In fairness to the charter school movement, it joins a succession of school reforms, including George W Bush's No Child Left Behind programme, which have yet to show definitive improvements. That could be because these reforms have tended to focus on structural reform, or on assessment and monitoring, but not on the core of what happens in the classroom: the curriculum and teaching methods.
So attention is now focused on President Obama's Race to the Top programme. This involves a massive $4.3bn (£2.7bn) fund being distributed to individual states in return for competitive bids to improve educational performance. To get the money, states have to prove their plans will meet four aims: developing tough academic standards or targets for what pupils should achieve, building data systems that measure pupil progress, improving the professional development and evaluation of teachers, and turning around the lowest-achieving schools.
There is a strong echo of Tony Blair's school reforms in this programme. It suggests that, although Obama is continuing with the "school choice" reforms of his predecessor, he also sees central government intervention as the way forward.
But while the focus on teacher quality is new and encouraging, the emphasis is still very much on setting targets, and measuring achievement, rather than on curriculum innovation. It seems the UK and the US are copying each other's school reforms, each pushing market-based reforms, backed by targets and carrot-and-stick data gathering, but not fundamentally changing what happens in the classroom.