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British Educators Bring Fresh View To Analysis of New York Schools

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Some 50 British "educationists" who spent almost a month in 1988 observing New York City public schools found much to praise, but note that many of the best programs and practices are isolated and do not serve the majority of students who need them.

Their analysis of the district's problems and successes--offered from the unusual perspective of foreign educators grappling with many of the same problems--is contained in a new report, "Teaching and Learning in New York City Schools."

It is one in a series of papers by Her Majesty's Inspectorate, an arm of Britain's Department of Education and Science charged with ensuring that the nation's schools meet and maintain mandated standards.

The paper notes that there are significant similarities between both the problems facing urban schools in the two countries and in the approaches used to solve them. But, the report observes, the problems in the United States are more severe, and the solutions generally less well developed, than their British counterparts.

"Schools in New York City operate in circumstances the range and severity of which are not found in England: conditions of poor housing and health, extreme poverty, violent crime, corruption, and drug abuse,'' it states.

"Many schools--though certainly not all--seem embattled," it continues. "Their obvious security arrangements, decaying buildings, the emptiness of some formerly immense institutions, and their high dropout and low attendance rates were testimony to a blight born of social and demographic, as well as educational, conditions."

It is "a tribute to the commitment and vision" of the city's educators that many schools do well by their students despite these conditions, the British educators write.

But they also fault the district's limited system of specialized schools, "whereby able and talented students are siphoned off from their local schools to deprive even further the neighborhood schools of a genuinely mixed catchment."

The district's reform efforts, the report adds, are "often the result of individual initiative, and are uneven and intermittent in their effects."

"They are not offered across the city," it states, "and the variable levels of funding and support they receive tend to increase the gap between best and worst. They do not affect most schools and pupils."

"It is apparent that an agreed professional framework for the coherent development and implementation of these initiatives, and a focus for spreading and generating good practice, were lacking," the report says.

New York State's Regents' Action Plan and New York City's Minimum Standards policy seem to parallel efforts in Britain to develop a national curriculum, the authors say.

But, the report adds, "rather than providing an enabling framework for schools and teachers to exercise their professional judgments ... the objectives lead, though by no means invariably, to fragmented and itemized teaching and approaches: in effect, to deskilling teachers."

Britain's Education Reform Acts of 1986 and 1988 call for a much greater degree of school-based management than is common in the United States, including considerable budgetary discretion at the school site.

The authors also say that standardized tests mandated by both the city and the state "are narrower in style and range from those being planned [in Britain], and accentuate the itemized nature of the curriculum."

Finally, noting the importance of teachers in successful reform efforts, the authors say that "the notion of initial and inservice training for teachers seems not to have taken hold in practice."

"Little had been done, it seemed, to connect the separate subjects of the Regents' Action Plan, to help students see links between their work and their day-to-day experiences, to develop cooperatively integrated schemes of work, or to underpin professional development based on the identified needs of students, institutions, and teachers," they write.

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