Keynote Address to the Aspen Institute by Sir Michael Barber

Suzannah Herrmann, Ph.D.

The Aspen Institute's National Education Summit: An Urgent Call
Washington, D.C., Sept. 15, 2008

British education consultant (and long-time student and friend of the United States) Sir Michael Barber believes too many Americans still aren't worried enough about the dire state of education in America.

In a recent speech to The Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., Barber, former chief policy advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair (see here), emphasized this lack of anxiety and that it needs to end. He drew on his work in Britain and knowledge of other countries' education systems in making several points about American schooling. His observations are highly relevant to Ohio and will resonate with those who have read and appreciated the McKinsey-Achieve report shared with the state's leaders in late 2006. Barber served as the lead author of that report (see here).

Progress is difficult in America as compared to other countries, Barber said, because of our highly decentralized system of government: separated powers between the three federal branches as well as between federal, state, and local levels of government. Barber is hopeful, however, because more Americans are starting to realize that the nation's education systems are failing too many children and are in need of serious reform. In stating something fewer and fewer Americans will say themselves, he is hopeful because of the focus on the achievement gap generated by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. Barber says NCLB, while not perfect (and he notes no law of this kind in any society is) has at least set a high floor for educational performance across the country. A floor, by the way, which gets lower and lower with each year in far too many states as people complain that NCLB expectations are unfair to school districts, schools, teachers, and students and demand they be watered-down further.

What Barber concludes from his survey of American education is that we face one of two pathways going forward. One path would be "comfortable, introverted, input-focused, evidence-light" and continues what we have been doing for much of the past 30 years as our international rating in education falls further and further behind. The other pathway of available to us would be "demanding, outward looking, results-focused, evidence-informed." To follow the second pathway, Ohio needs to take notes on Barber's points and start implementing some of the excellent recommendations shared by McKinsey-Achieve in 2006. Only then will the Buckeye State have a shot at being world-class when it comes to educating our children.

Gov. Strickland and other Ohio policy makers should take heed of this advice as it is some of the best in the world and comes from a political liberal who actually ran one of England's largest teacher unions.

More By Author