English Reforms May Offer Model, Report Says
England's experience with school reforms similar to initiatives under way in this country suggests that the governance of American schools could be successfully overhauled, a report released last week concludes.
"School Reform: Lessons From England" was written for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching by Kathryn Stearns, an American journalist. As a senior fellow for the Princeton, N.J.-based foundation, Ms. Stearns traveled throughout England to assess the impact of reforms instituted over the past eight years by the British government.
Most of the changes grew from a 1988 act of Parliament backed by the Conservative government. The government instituted a national curriculum and national assessments, school-based management coupled with an enrollment-driven funding system, new roles for school districts, new technical colleges, and a provision that allows schools to opt out of the public system.
Parents also gained more choices about where to educate their children under an open-enrollment program designed to introduce competition and market forces to schools.
In a foreword to the report, Ernest L. Boyer, the late president of the foundation, wrote that the English system could offer a model for improving school governance in the United States.
Mr. Boyer advocated "a division of labor" that would include national education goals, statewide standards and accountability systems, and individual school control over budgets and programs.
Cautions on Choice
The report focuses on the British system of standards, autonomy, and school choice. It sounds a cautionary note about parental choice that echoes warnings issued by the Carnegie Foundation in a 1992 report on school choice. (See Education Week, Oct. 28, 1992.)
Ms. Stearns found that English schools have been forced to compete for students because their budgets decrease if they lose students or cannot attract enough pupils to fill their seats. Schools now engage in sophisticated marketing campaigns that sometimes include radio and billboard advertising.
The market pressures also have prompted schools to alter their programs, teaching methods, admissions policies, and management styles to attract or retain students. There is no evidence, however, that competition among schools leads to higher educational standards overall, the report says.
Choice among schools does appear to widen the gulf between rich and poor or good and bad schools. Some schools with falling enrollments have had to cut remedial programs and extracurricular activities.
Parents have embraced choice in different ways. Most working-class families pick schools close to home, the report found, while middle-class and professional parents seek schools with good academic reputations. These differences suggest that "choice works best for the more affluent, better educated parents," the report says.
England's experience with a national curriculum and assessments initially resulted in "confusion in the classroom, political dissent, and a crippling labor dispute between the government and the teachers' unions," Ms. Stearns reports.
Teachers found the curriculum too heavy-handed and the assessments too burdensome. In 1993 and 1994, they refused to administer the nationally standardized tests.
The furor forced the government to back down and streamline the curriculum, the report notes. Changes also were made to the ambitious assessment program, which proved to be unwieldy.
The report concludes that it is too soon to say definitively whether the national curriculum will raise standards and improve achievement. The elementary program of study has become more varied and more academic, with less time for physical education, arts, crafts, and music. Secondary schools are emphasizing more science and foreign languages.
Individual schools also gained considerable latitude to manage their own affairs under the reform act. Principals and governing bodies gained control over school budgets, staffs, and facilities, while school districts are expected to provide assistance and support.
The law allowed schools to go one step further and elect to opt out of the public systems. These "grant-maintained schools" receive their money directly from the government, rather than through school districts, and are similar in concept to American charter schools.
Britain now has some 1,000 grant-maintained schools, which remain one of the most debated aspects of the reform plan.
Since 1992, however, fewer schools have been opting out. Some administrators fear that the special financing for the grant-maintained schools could dry up, the report says.
Others contend that locally managed schools can accomplish just as much with substantial financial autonomy. Schools also want to remain affiliated with districts as a "safety net and vital link to the community," the report concludes.