Reforms that cross the Atlantic—and don’t

A week catching up on education challenges and reforms in England made clear that the U.S. and its “mother country” continue to track—and copy and study and refine—each other’s programs and policies, much as they have done at least since Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s education teams realized how much they had in common. But the differences remain profound, too.

Similarities and differences between UK and US education reform
The U.S. and the U.K. continue to track, copy, study, and refine each other's programs and policies. But the differences remain profound, too.

Let’s start with nine notable similarities.

1. Both nations are engaged in major pushes to overhaul their standards, assessment, and accountability systems. Mediocre PISA and TIMSS results plus persistent domestic achievement gaps have caught the eyes of policymakers and education leaders on both sides of the pond, as it’s become clear that yesterday’s so-so expectations just aren’t good enough and that today’s testing-and-accountability regimes do not produce nearly enough world-class, college-ready graduates. Nor have they significantly reduced the most troubling performance gaps. Changes are afoot.

2. With standards-raising comes keen anxiety about implementation on the ground (will teachers, for example, be adequately prepared?) and about public outcry when more youngsters (and schools) are found wanting.

3. Whereas yesterday’s incentives caused programs and practitioners to focus on the “bubble kids” who could be nudged over the only achievement bar that mattered to a school’s rating, tomorrow must employ some sort of value-added calculus that causes every child’s progress (or lack thereof) to count, including both those far below the bar and those who easily cleared it.

4. While English and math remain at the core of the accountability system (joined, somewhat half-heartedly, by science), leaders in both countries also seek to round out children’s education with other subjects, including career-enhancing skills.

5.  Much alternative-certifying of educators is underway, along with deregulation of entry into both the classroom and the principal’s office. England’s version of Teach for America (called “Teach First”) is going gangbusters (with government funding). Much like California’s High Tech High, networks of charter-style schools can grow their own teachers (and decide how much to pay them). And it’s no longer necessary even to be an educator to be eligible to lead a school.

6. Despite all that, it’s as hard in England to shed incompetent school staffers as in the U.S. Besides contracts and tenure-like arrangements, European Union member countries face extra rules meant to enhance job security. These apply even in “school-takeover” situations where the entity that’s taking over—and keen to transform the school’s culture, expectations, practices, etc.—must hang onto the old staff team. (This can be gotten ‘round by abolishing positions, but I was told that the more common—and costly—remedy is to buy out contracts.)

7. Though England is voucher-averse, its charter-like sector is burgeoning, with more than half of all secondary schools now functioning as “academies” (we would say “conversion charters”), having successfully petitioned Whitehall to extricate them from district control. Many academies, including most of the strongest, are now run by “chains”—the British version of CMO’s—which are also being asked to turn around low-performing schools. There’s also a promising, if slower-growing, sector known as “free schools,” akin to start-up charters. (The government provides them with facilities, however!)

8. A version of “weighted student funding” (known there as the “pupil premium”) is underway, with extra funds going to schools serving needy kids. (Also familiar, however, were England’s endless struggles over basic funding formulae, exacerbated by a very tight overall budget situation.)

9. Though a Labour Party victory in the next election would definitely lead to policy tweaks, all the major political parties (of which England has three) generally support the reform thrusts described above, as has pretty much been the case on both sides of the Atlantic since the eighties. The major changes underway today owe as much to Labourites, such as Michael Barber and Andrew Adonis, as to Tories, like Michael Gove and Ken Baker.

But big differences also persist between English and U.S. reforms and structures. Eight of these caught my eye.

1. As is widely known, England has a highly centralized national education system, more like one of our states than like Uncle Sam. Decisions made in London apply everywhere—which is not to say they’re implemented with equal fervor everywhere. (What’s “federal” is that Scotland has long run its own education system and does so very differently from England—and Wales and Northern Ireland now do likewise.)

2. Centralization is combined with far greater school-level control of key decisions in England, especially regarding personnel. Even in the “state sector,” every principal is selected by his school’s “board of governors” and then has major say over who will teach in his school. In the academy and free-school sectors, he can also disregard conventional certification requirements and pay scales. From a U.S. perspective, this kind of authority, combined with the boom in academy-style autonomy, amounts to altered governance, not just exceptions and exemptions. (But it has proven more challenging at the primary level, where England has some 11,000 schools enrolling fewer than 250 pupils each, without the organizational or financial wherewithal to succeed as free-standing organizations—though the government is devising schemes for getting them to share services and pool resources.)

3. Their unions are weaker. I don’t know whether that’s a cause or a product of building-level autonomy or (as is often said) a correlate of having multiple teacher unions, sometimes within the same schools, but it’s a fact that makes other reforms somewhat easier. Yes, the unions will gain influence if Labour prevails next time—but they’re already less than thrilled with some policy stances that the party has espoused in education. Which doesn’t mean they can alter those stances.

4. Though there’s much fussing and quarreling about the content of England’s “national curriculum,” and though some schools pointedly eschew it (nonetheless, their students ordinarily take the same exams), few doubt that there is and will continue to be a national curriculum in England. National exams, too, are more or less uniform across the land. (Recall that, in education matters, England is more akin to a big state.)

5. So long as the present government is in office, the national curriculum will be content-heavy. It’s no secret that Michael Gove, England's secretary of state for education, is an E.D. Hirsch and Core Knowledge fan (but so are some leading Labourites). They’re more apt to add skills to a knowledge base than to start with skills and frost with content.

6. The gaps that worry them most are somewhat different from ours. As one policy advisor observed, “What race is to America, social class is to Britain.” Their lowest-achieving demographic group is working-class white boys. (Their highest achievers, however, are Asian immigrants and the children thereof, leading to the quip that “the fastest way to boost achievement in England is to encourage Chinese immigration.”) And having produced remarkable gains over the past decade in the big inner cities (notably including London), attention is shifting to “rural and coastal” deprivation.

7. As U.S. education leaders (notably Arne Duncan) try to focus attention and energy on “the bottom five percent” of schools (a.k.a. “dropout factories”), English reformers talk a lot about schools whose problem is that they’re “only satisfactory” and about getting the country from “60 percent” to “85 percent.”

8. Finally—and many would say most importantly—Her Majesty’s inspectors (based in a free-standing agency) constantly visit schools, appraising their performance on multiple indicators (not just test scores), giving them detailed feedback on what they need to do differently, and making all of that public. It’s a time-tested, external-audit arrangement with boots on the ground all over the land. This means that policy, money, and regulation aren’t the only engines of reform on their side of the sea.

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