Educators and policymakers from the United States and the United Kingdom gathered here recently to tackle common issues in urban education, ranging from how to narrow the achievement gap to how to recruit and retain teachers.
While no one walked away with any solutions, the hope is that continued conversations between the two countries—including a follow-up meeting in Philadelphia in September—could yield some insights.
“The history of education in great cities in this country is of isolated excellence, of underperformance compared to national averages,” said David Miliband, the minister of state for school standards in England, during the March 17-19 conference. Yet over the past five or six years, he noted, “city education has improved faster than the improvements that have been achieved across the nation.”
Similar signs of progress can be observed in the United States. A recent report from the Council of the Great City Schools found that between 2002 and 2003, many urban districts made progress both in raising achievement and narrowing learning gaps.
Even so, representatives from both countries acknowledged that the United States and the United Kingdom have some of the greatest gaps in attainment between their highest and lowest achievers of any industrialized nations.
“Social class is still a profound determinant of educational achievement,” said Nick Pearce, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, in opening remarks at the conference. The London-based think tank helped organize the meeting of about 50 participants, along with the British Council, the British Embassy in Washington, the Department for Education and Skills in England, and the Washington-based Urban Institute.
The conference centered on some of the major levers now being pulled to upgrade education in both nations: standards and accountability, school choice, and improvement of the urban school workforce.
But what struck U.S. educators most was the amount of control that school heads in England have over their budgets—urban or rural.
“This is the topic on which there’s the widest gap between the United Kingdom and the United States,” said Janet Hansen, the director of education studies for the New York City-based Committee for Economic Development, a policy and research group.
England introduced a new system of financing schools in 1999 that allocates money based primarily on pupil enrollment and gives schools broad discretion in how they spend their money, including the authority to hire and fire teachers.
Schools here in England, for example, can choose whether to reduce class sizes or hire more experienced teachers, or whether to repaint the hallways or save the money for other priorities. Schools also can choose which services to buy back from their local education authorities, which play a role similar to that of school districts in the United States.
“I’d like to know more about that,” said Patricia A. Harvey, the superintendent of the 43,000-student St. Paul, Minn., public schools, “because that seems to be an element of site-based budgeting we are not involved in.”
In the United States, only a handful of districts—Cincinnati, Houston, Milwaukee, Sacramento, Calif., and Seattle among them—have given schools substantial control over the bulk of their budgets.
“It seems to be a no-brainer to us,” said Paul Robinson, the director of education in the London borough of Wandsworth, “the advantages of delegating management responsibility and financial responsibility down to the school level.”
After two days of conversing with his American colleagues, he said, “I still haven’t, despite all the conversation, gotten to the bottom of why this hasn’t happened yet [in the United States], given that it’s so glaringly the way to go.”
Although her school had to pay £25,000 last winter (about $45,000 U.S.) for a new boiler, Wendy Parmley, the principal of the 1,000-student Archbishop Michael Ramsey Technology College in London, said she could accept the expenditure because the choice was hers. “It’s the staffing, it’s the freedom to hire and fire,” said the high school principal.
Choice and Diversity
Educators at the conference also debated how to balance the benefits and downsides of school choice. In England, parents can choose from a range of schools for their children, including community schools, which are wholly owned and maintained by local education authorities, and voluntary schools, many of which are run by churches but with most of their funds coming from the central government.
The Labor government, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, has been engaged in a concerted effort to increase the variety of schools as part of its strategy to raise academic standards.
About half of all publicly financed secondary schools in England, for example, are now “specialist schools,” which teach the full national curriculum but give particular attention to one of 10 specialty subjects, such as technology, language, arts, business and enterprise, or science. A school applies for specialist status and must raise £50,000 (about $90,800) from a business sponsor and draw up a four-year plan to raise standards. In return, the government provides an additional £600,000 (about $1.1 million) on top of regular school funding.
The government has used a similar model to finance “city academies.” The independent, state-financed schools on the sites of previously underperforming schools are sponsored by industry, foundations, and other donors that contribute up to £2 million, (about $3.63 million) of the capital costs. The government plans to have at least 50 academies established by 2006, including some that take both primary and secondary students.
In some cities, schools also have formed “federations” in which successful ones are encouraged to expand and take over weak or failing schools.
One concern that educators in both countries express is the actual extent to which parents are choosing schools, or schools are choosing children. Educators from both sides of the Atlantic said they were particularly worried about children such as recent immigrants who start the school year without securing places in their schools of choice.
“School status depends on attracting very able children,” said Mr. Robinson of Wandsworth. “In any district, you’re going to have a school at the bottom of the pecking order, and that school is likely to have the spare places.”
Geoff Whitty, the director of the Institute of Education at the University of London, suggested that one benefit that could come out of the conference might be some rigorous, cross-national research on school choice.
When it comes to standards and accountability, both sides probably have something to learn from each other. Since 1988, the United Kingdom, particularly England, has pursued a reform agenda based on a national curriculum, tests, and performance tables to try to drive up academic achievement.
Having fought many of those battles for years, British educators were somewhat dumbfounded by the fierce debate over the accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States.
But the U.S. law has one feature notably missing from England’s performance tables: a focus on achievement by race, ethnicity, and income.
Stephen Twigg, the parliamentary undersecretary of state for schools, noted, for example, that it’s a misconception to assume that all ethnic and minority students are underachieving. In England, for instance, black girls often outperform white, working-class boys on national tests.
“So we have an issue that is partly about race, partly about gender, and partly about social class,” he said. “Just saying that is still relatively new in terms of a government approach to these questions.”
Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.