Education Opinion

The English Reforms Are Not For Us

By Dennis W. Cheek, Carol T. Fitz-Gibbon & Peter Tymms — December 13, 2000 7 min read
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Build a system based on science and investigation, not naming and shaming.

Victors write history, and we are frequently trapped in the present by misinformation from the past. Similar things can happen when a traveler from a foreign land tells stories of fabulous wealth and exotic treasures within his mother country. Normally, travelers can be questioned, various stories can be compared, and actual artifacts over time lend credence or generate disbelief regarding the tales told. Michael Barber, the head of the British government’s Standards and Effectiveness Unit in education, informs Her Majesty’s former subjects that, contrary to anything you may have heard, large-scale reform is not only possible but can be achieved quickly if only the proper techniques are employed. (“Large-Scale Reform Is Possible,” Nov. 15, 2000.) He lays out a whole series of strategies and actions by the Labor government over the past four years that he claims have led to a 40 percent improvement in literacy and numeracy among 3 million elementary-age pupils in 20,000 schools across England.

American policymakers, in light of this startling progress, may rightly regard American attempts at reform as tepid and enact yet stronger measures to quicken the pace this side of the Atlantic. We believe that Mr. Barber presents a picture of the current English educational scene almost unrecognizable to anyone other than a British government official, and that hasty conclusions should not be drawn.

Michael Barber is quite right that England has been subjected to massive educational changes during the last decade, and that these changes have accelerated in the past few years. These centralist reforms have involved prescribing in considerable detail the school curriculum, increased and more intrusive inspections, payment for “results,” and direct central-government interference in classroom teaching. They have resulted in a demoralized and dejected workforce, a massive recruitment crisis, and a narrowing curriculum.

Centralist reforms in England have resulted in a demoralized workforce, a massive recruitment crisis, and a narrowing curriculum.

Many would be prepared to accept some of these harsh changes if they really resulted in rising academic standards. Mr. Barber claims to have seen such rises, but on what is his claim based? New national tests are produced each year in England. The standards reported in these tests are supposedly made equivalent to the test from the prior year. This process has been in operation for several years now, and it does not require any advanced knowledge of psychometrics to see that there are likely to be problems with this approach. There is no attempt to maintain standards across several years. Instead, each year is fixed (“linked”) to the immediately preceding year. This procedure is a guaranteed recipe for “drift.” We may add to this drift a population of schools that were not used to testing (younger pupils were never assessed in this manner in the past, and the well-known “practice effect” may be at work here), coupled with abundant and ever-increasing pressure to raise test scores. We can quickly see how standards might seem to have risen without any meaningful change in students’ actual achievement over time. A similar phenomenon has been well-documented in the United States, as Robert Linn in Educational Researcher recently noted: "[B]oth common sense and a great deal of hard evidence indicate that focused teaching to the test encouraged by accountability uses of results produces inflated notions of achievement.” Analyses of extensive trend data from primary schools in England by a number of investigators fail to support Mr. Barber’s story of recent marked improvements, showing only very modest gains over time, similar to National Assessment of Educational Progress trends in the United States. There is, however, a lack of independent data, and England needs a body dedicated to the difficult task of monitoring standards over time.

Pressure on English elementary schools to generate higher test scores has been very great. An inspection body known as OFSTED (the Office for Standards in Education) regularly visits schools and produces high-stakes reports that are published both in print and on the World Wide Web. There have been no studies of the adequacy of the preannounced visits by OFSTED inspectors, the inter-inspector reliability, or the validity of their judgments. They define a good school as one in which students make better-than- average progress, but have actually “failed” several such schools. The judgments of inspectors cannot be challenged by law, and yet OFSTED inspections can lead to the closure of schools and the end of educational careers. “Due process” is not guaranteed to teachers. There have been reports of suicides, good teachers retiring early, and good schools closing following a negative review.

England has experienced regular political diatribes against teachers, as politicians begin to see their value in terms of votes and acclaim.

Many experts don’t like the rigid structure of the Direct Instruction reform model, but a sizable body of research says it can raise achievement.

These inspections are heavily slanted toward a detailed look at test levels but are accompanied by inadequate statistical analyses. Instead of adequate data on prior achievement or aptitudes, reliance is based on indicators of poverty that are not good predictors. They conflate, obfuscate, exaggerate, and/or minimize what actually is occurring in the visited schools. At the same time, England has experienced regular political diatribes against teachers, as politicians discovered that votes and public acclaim could be obtained by talking about “failing schools” and “failing teachers,” attributions all too familiar to American teachers and schools.

Faculty members at the University of Durham have administered a survey to a representative sample of teachers of young children every year for the past three years and asked them, among other items, if they would “advise a close friend to take up teaching.” The average positive responses have fallen steadily from 1997 to 1999. The teacher- recruitment crisis has become acute, and the government, in recognition of this fact, spent 1.5 million pounds on an advertising campaign to increase recruitment in 1998. This was raised to 2 million pounds in 2000, and increased spending has been announced for 2001.

A cornerstone of the current government’s policies has been the publication of aggregate school test results in rank order, what in England are called league tables, which are reported in major newspapers throughout the land. The negative impact of these league tables was both predicted and documented in elementary schools. Data indicate a narrowing of the curriculum, a focus on achievement targets at the expense of other important objectives, a concentration on “borderline” students (moving this population alone toward higher attainment on the required tests), and the creation of a “blame” culture within schools.

Despite the government’s flawed attempts at systemic, engineered improvements using a very limited set of criteria, the vast majority of students in England probably continue to receive a quality education. Teachers are overwhelmingly committed to student progress and have learned how to protect both students and themselves from the latest wave of innovations that come thick and fast from the government.

Genuine educational change cannot be claimed by assertion or won by re- engineering a system soley from the outside.

It is a great pity that the many initiatives introduced were not varied and evaluated, so that more could be learned about “what works,” before widespread implementation was initiated. Genuine educational change that is both important and sustained cannot be claimed by assertion nor, probably, can it be won easily, quickly, or by re-engineering the system solely from the outside.

A unique feature in England is that one-third of schools now have data on “value added,” the progress of every pupil compared with that of similar pupils in other schools. This feedback system is in place because of voluntary collaboration between universities and schools. Started in 1983 in secondary schools, it is professional development at the grassroots, supporting an ethos of science and investigation, rather than naming and shaming.

Perhaps politicians everywhere will one day learn these lessons and work collaboratively with many other parties to put in place realistic long-range objectives, well-designed investigations of innovations, supportive policies, and useful monitoring systems that blend local, regional, and national dimensions worthy of the complex systems they are intended to improve. Large- scale, meaningful, and sustained educational change may be possible on either side of the Atlantic, but not in the manner advanced by Mr. Barber.

Dennis W. Cheek is the director of the office of research, high school reform, and adult education in the Rhode Island Department of Education, Providence, R.I., with a joint appointment in the school of education at the University of Rhode Island. Carol T. Fitz-Gibbon is a professor of education and the director of the Curriculum Evaluation and Management Center at the University of Durham, England, where Peter Tymms is a professor of education and the director of the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools, or pips, project. The views expressed are the authors’ own, and do not represent their institutions’.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as The English Reforms Are Not For Us


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