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British Approach to Education Issues Viewed as Instructive for U.S. Schools

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By Mark Walsh

Urban schools in Britain are struggling with many of the same challenges faced by schools in U.S. cities, and their approaches to school choice, site-based management, and national pupil assessment hold important lessons for American educators, according to a report being released this week.

The report, "Teaching and Learning in English Urban Schools," summarizes the impressions of 60 American educators who spent a month visiting urban schools in England last year. Their trip was the counterpart to a similar visit by British educators to New York City in 1988, which resulted in their own analysis of U.S. education. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1990.)

The visits were organized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the U.S. Education Department, and Her Majesty's Inspectorate, an arm of the British Department of Education and Science.

The American delegation, which consisted mostly of administrators, principals, and teachers from Chicago, Cincinnati, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Pittsburgh, Rochester, N.Y., and San Diego, found that "there is a lot for us to learn from each other," said Gene I. Maeroff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation, who wrote the report.

The Americans found a lot that they liked about British schools: They were generally more orderly than any big-city U.S. school; classes were smaller; students did more individualized work and more writing than their American counterparts; and the top school official, called the "head teacher" instead of principal, actually continued to teach regularly. Also, teacher salary levels and pensions were generally more portable than they are in the United States, making job shifts easier.

But the Americans were also troubled by many facets of the system.

Some observers never saw teachers introduce lessons to the entire class, instead plunging pupils into individual work. The system seemed to still be struggling with the nation's growing religious and racial diversity. And Britain's culture of more pronounced class divisions appeared to limit upward mobility for students from low-income families.

"Students of working-class backgrounds, which includes large numbers of whites, often did not envision higher education as a goal for themselves," the report says. "They did not consider it negative to leave the education system at the age of 16."

The observers found that teacher morale was low, due in part to feelings of powerlessness and a lack of participation in the process of reform.

"Teachers spoke to me of a loss of public esteem, the lack of self-esteem, and the low regard they are held in by the public," said one visitor, a member of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

National Reform Efforts

The British system is undergoing major reforms that include introduction of a national curriculum, national assessment, and greater budgetary control of schools at the local level.

"The governing bodies that English law has mandated for each school bear some resemblance to the approach being implemented in Chicago," the report says, referring to that city's elected school councils and their broad control over the schools.

Britan's national-assessment effort draws on a tradition that makes much greater use of portfolios, writing assignments, and performance tasks rather than the multiple-choice tests prevalent in the United States.

"Americans who would like to banish certain kinds of tests have the chance in looking at English schools to see both the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives," the report says.

For information on the report, contact the Council of the Great City Schools, 1413 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005

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