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Reform Rhetoric Familiar to British Educators

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WASHINGTON--In late April, as U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett released his sharply worded report on the status of American school reform, a troupe of visiting British educators watched with fascination here.

The message they heard was vaguely familiar, they later said in interviews, because the call for school reform is as loud--if not louder--in their own country.

In England, the call for reform has included a proposal by their secretary of education to set national standards for all state-run schools in the areas of curriculum, testing, and achievement levels. It is an idea that has not won the support of many teachers and administrators there, the visiting teachers said.

Issue of 'Standards'

While Secretary Bennett did not directly call for national standards, many of his ideas were very similar to those they hear at home, the visitors said.

Like his counterpart in London, "Secretary Bennett seems to be concerned about variable standards,'' said Anne Dent, head teacher--or principal--at Canterbury Cross Primary School in the city of Birmingham.

"We're all very concerned about standards in schools,'' she said, noting, however, that England's state schools currently are allowed to set their own curricula. The government's proposal to "standardize all that'' would, according to Ms. Dent, "be very restrictive.''

The British visitors were also shocked at the degree of criticism included in Mr. Bennett's report.

"If I had been the Secretary, I would have been a bit conscience- stricken,'' said Brian Lee, a head teacher from Wolverhampton in the English midlands. "It's very sad that he couldn't report more progress.''

'Schools That Work'

The visiting educators were participants in the first "Schools That Work'' teacher-exchange program--a result of a meeting between British Secretary for Education and Science Kenneth Baker and Mr. Bennett here last year.

The program, which includes a two-week visit by 12 American teachers and principals to state schools in England, is aimed at encouraging the exchange of ideas for improving the teaching of disadvantaged students. Education Department officials said they contributed $32,000 to the effort and estimated that the British government was allocating a similar amount.

The British educators, who came from urban schools nationally recognized for their success, visited several similarly acclaimed schools in New York City and Washington, including public schools 155 and 108 in Harlem, and Eastern High, Jefferson Junior High, and Smothers Elementary School in the District of Columbia.

Too Much Standardization?

Two head teachers who served as spokesmen--Mr. Lee and Ms. Dent--said the British group's initial impression was that standardization has not been a positive force in American education.

Ms. Dent pointed out that in England, by contrast, there are no standardized tests.

"I was concerned that standardized tests really hurt the curriculum in the New York schools I saw,'' she said. "It seems there's quite an overemphasis on English and math.''

"I value our more wide-reaching curriculum,'' she explained. "We rely on a more rounded approach that includes the arts, theater, physical education--more activities and more child-centered learning. It's important that the basics are covered, but a balance is necessary.''

"The British have a very odd impression of the United States,'' Mr. Lee said. "We assume that everything is three or four years ahead technologically. But all I really saw here was what we call 'chalk and talk.'''

"I would expect a lot more use of a variety of media at my school,'' he added.

Ms. Dent said she was interested in the American approach to bilingual education evident in the New York schools she visited, where many of the children were Hispanic.

Multilingualism Encouraged

At Canterbury Cross Primary, where she serves as both principal and teacher--a common practice in English schools--almost all of her 420 students have recently arrived from India, she said. Not only do they lack English, she pointed out, but they speak a wide variety of dialects.

And, contrasting her approach with the English-immersion classrooms she observed in New York, Ms. Dent said she vigorously recruits multilingual teachers to teach the Indian children in both their home languages and English.

"We feel it builds the child's self-esteem,'' she said. "Parents sometimes ask us, 'why do you teach in Punjabi?' I tell them that trilingualism is something to value. We encourage it.''

Many of Mr. Lee's 800 students at Valley Park School, a secondary school that includes the equivalent of grades 6-12, also have English as a second language, he said. The students' main difficulty, however, is not language but the community's 30 percent unemployment rate, he explained.

Drugs, Grades, Motivation

Mr. Lee noted that, unlike his American urban peers, he has not had to deal with drugs or violence in school.

"I was shocked to come to Washington and see all the steel doors and bars on the windows,'' he said. "I recognize the reason for it here, but I hope there will never be such a need in England.''

The fact that American students must pass one grade to progress to the next is also in marked contrast to the British system, the teachers said.

"I suppose it helps Americans to know they need to achieve certain levels,'' Mr. Lee said. "But I have some reservations. The achievements seemed rather simplistic. Little more than simple recall was required.''

He also said he was surprised to find that the distinction between teachers and administrators is much greater here than in England.

At his school, there are at least five salary grades that move teachers into administration--a type of teaching "middle management,'' he said, "which is much more motivational.''

Mr. Lee commented that he was encouraged to see American teachers taking a "strong positive approach in promoting students' prestige'' by highlighting their successes.

"If British students achieve, they tend not to talk about it,'' he said.

The two teachers said England does not have a dropout problem because only about 10 percent of those who finish secondary school go on to college. British students take a set of comprehensive exams at 16 to determine who will continue their education.

After secondary school, most young people enter government-sponsored training programs or look for work.

A slight resurgence in the economy there has made prospects for these students a bit better lately, Mr. Lee said. But he acknowledged that the education system as a whole is in need of improvement.

Liked Bell Report

Mr. Lee said he had a very high opinion of A Nation At Risk, the landmark report issued five years ago by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.

"A Nation At Risk was a beautiful thing,'' Mr. Lee said. "Every bit of it would apply in Britain.''

The American educators who served as hosts for the British group are wrapping up their visit to England this week. All participants will submit a report to the education branches of both governments on their experiences.

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