Resolved: “That the American Revolution was an unjustifiable mutiny against reasonable and legitimate authority.”
The 1972 debate between the American School in London and its English next-door neighbor, Quinton Kynaston Comprehensive School, was not well attended. But those who came saw history turned upside down. This time the adherents of George III routed those of George Washington.
As the principal of the losing school, I was doubly embarrassed. Not only did we lose, we lost despite all our apparent advantages. Thanks to generous contributions from American businessmen, the American School was rich. We had students from affluent backgrounds, and our average class size was 15. The English school was about the same size as the American School but lacked our financial resources. Its students were mainly from poor or lower-class families, many recent arrivals from the Third World, and its average class size was 35. To make matters worse, we had sent our “best and brightest” to the debate. They had sent their scrub team.
That debate and the events leading up to it brought me face to face, almost 20 years ago, with a question that is now at the heart of our educational crisis: How do other nations manage to educate their populations not only better but also more cheaply than we do? It’s a question we managed to dodge or ignore for years, but can no longer avoid, thanks to the overwhelming evidence that shows just how underwhelming our performance as a nation actually is.
I learned that more money is not necessarily the key to better education through a quirk in my career involving Margaret Thatcher. In 1971, Thatcher, then England’s Minister of Education, came to dedicate the new campus of the American School in London. The policies of the already controversial “Iron Lady” were the object of a student protest at the ceremonies that caused quite a bit of internal turmoil at our school. One of the more arcane consequences of the “Thatcher Incident” was that I—a mere history teacher—was asked to become principal of the senior school. Though fairly knowledgeable about teaching, I was clearly a victim of the Peter Principle: I knew almost nothing about administration. Concerned that the depth of my ignorance should become as evident to others as it was to me, I immediately set out to learn more.
One thing I did know was that we had lots of money. That I so quickly thought of money reflected a very American attitude toward solving educational and other problems: “When in doubt, spend your way out.” Sadly, it didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.
Thinking that a little comparative analysis would help, I made a point of getting to know the English comprehensive school next door. The headmaster of Quinton Kynaston was Peter Mitchell.
I quickly saw that, despite its lack of fiscal resources, Peter’s school was clearly superior to ours in many areas ranging from attitude to academics. Getting blown away in the debate was just one indication that our “advantages” weren’t enough. In our school, progress was measured by the passage of seat time and the incremental gathering of credits. We also believed that somehow school should be fun or at least interesting. Teachers often spoke of a need to be “entertainers.” At Quinton Kynaston, however, the burden of proof was clearly on the students to actively demonstrate mastery, not by serving time, but by passing rigorous external examinations based on a well-defined syllabus. Their school was suffused with a student work ethic that today we would call “character education.”
The contrasts between the schools opened my mind in ways that would never have occurred if my entire career had been spent in the United States. Two enduring lessons stand out. First: Know your mission. Our English neighbors had a limited but well-defined mission. They only emphasized a few things—the comprehensive mastery of the English language, mathematics, sciences, history, and geography—but they believed in these few things and they executed them extremely well.
At the American School, great material advantages were dissipated by a chronic inability to agree how to use them. Like so many American educators, we regularly succumbed to faddishness and nearly terminal confusion about our mission. While Americans lurch from one unfinished mission to another—global education, environmental education, values education, sex education, and thinking education, to name but a few—our foreign competition continues to pursue a mission that is simpler, better planned, consensus based, and effective.
Second: Use people effectively. I doubt Peter Mitchell and his colleagues will ever read A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, the influential report by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, but they have been living its essence, teamwork, for years. To my surprise, Peter still taught and thought of himself as a teacher first and an administrator second. He said “headmaster” simply meant “head teacher.”
He decried the fundamental and damaging cleavage that exists between teachers and administrators in American schools. And he talked with me about the added subdivisions of counselors, psychologists, social workers, chairmen, and coordinators and pointedly asked if this didn’t tend to slow us down a bit. What an understatement!
Even our use of student talent was primitive compared with our next-door neighbor’s. While our student government taxed itself to produce two dances and one newspaper annually, Peter’s highly structured “head boy” system gave students broad responsibility in areas of maintenance and student governance. Basic tasks of cleaning and maintenance were routinely handled not by custodians but by students who took great pride in their school. Similarly, senior boys were academic tutors and athletic coaches to younger boys.
So, what is the basic lesson that has stayed with me all these years? Simply that in seeking the good school, money alone doesn’t make it. A well-coached team with a good plan does.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Not By Bread Alone