U.S. and U.K. Educators Tackle Issues Common to Urban High Schools

By Lynn Olson — October 26, 2004 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: This story misstated the title of Will Cavendish. He is a senior adviser in the prime minister’s Strategy Unit.

The possibility of opening a London-style school in New York City was among the many topics of conversation between educators and policymakers from the United States and the United Kingdom who gathered here for the second round of a two-part dialogue on urban education. This time, the talks focused on high schools.

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The meeting, held Oct. 13-16, centered on such common concerns as closing achievement gaps, attracting and keeping teachers, and engaging and motivating students. Participants also discussed a sweeping proposal to revamp secondary education in England, released last week.

“We share a lot of problems: attendance issues, discipline, teacher recruitment,” said Heather Tomlinson, the director of education and lifelong learning for the Bristol City Council in southwest England.

During the conference, British educators visited a range of Philadelphia public schools, including charter schools and those run by outside partners, such as the University of Pennsylvania. Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 190,000-student Philadelphia district, has been opening up the system to outside market forces, while pursuing centralized curricula, tests, and accountability.

The No. 1 lesson that the United Kingdom can learn from the United States is experimentation, said Will Cavendish, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Cabinet. The second, he said, is the vibrancy of the nonprofit sector in the United States.

England also is experimenting with an array of public-private partnerships to help transform urban schooling, including the establishment of “city academies” that operate with significant business investment and involvement.

But U.K. scholars said no equivalent exists in their country to the philanthropic investment that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Carnegie Corporation of New York have made in transforming U.S. high schools.

Exploring Teacher Selection

U.S. educators, meanwhile, wondered how to instill a greater sense of ownership for student learning among principals and teachers in this country. They were particularly interested in the extensive professional development provided by the central government as part of England’s school improvement strategy.

That effort, combined with heightened accountability for results, a better use of data, and a devolution of budget authority to individual schools, has encouraged teachers and head teachers (the equivalent of U.S. principals) to take responsibility for learning, the U.K. visitors said.

Paul G. Vallas addresses participants.

Many of the visitors were stunned by how little control Philadelphia principals have over who teaches in their buildings. Seniority and transfer rules in the teachers’ contract have largely determined who teaches where. “One of the things I picked up was the teaching assignments and how inflexible a policy it is on the schools,” said Katherine Quigley, an official in the international unit of England’s Department for Education and Skills.

The school district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers just agreed on a new contract that will allow many more teachers to be assigned to schools without regard to seniority. (“Phila. Principals Gain Say in Hiring Under New Pact,” Oct. 20, 2004.)

Head teachers in England control most of their budgets and are able to hire and fire. That autonomy has been central to fostering a cohesive school culture, participants in the meeting said. Head teachers also teach.

“It’s interesting that the administration, senior staff, don’t teach and it’s not in their contract to teach,” Ms. Tomlinson said about the Philadelphia school she visited.

Both countries are struggling with issues of educational equity and student diversity.

In particular, visitors were struck by the racial isolation in some of the schools they visited here in Philadelphia. In contrast, they said, schools in London tend to be segregated along economic rather than racial or ethnic lines.

Joint Ventures?

Rob Briscoe, the head of school improvement for the Tower Hamlets Local Education Authority in London, said the implications of such conversations “are profound for both countries.”

Participants raised a number of suggestions for future work, including comparative studies on such matters as professional development, teacher preparation, and accountability.

But Mr. Briscoe and Robert Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving public education in New York City, had the most novel idea.

“We’re going to start exploring the possibility of opening up a London-style school in New York City,” Mr. Hughes said, “as a way of institutionalizing the conversation and really opening up opportunities for American and English educators to think concretely about issues of teaching and learning.”

“While there were lots of suggestions for a joint research agenda, which I think would be positive,” he argued, “it’s equally important to zero in on the classroom and start really talking about what practitioners are doing to close achievement gaps in both countries, and to develop a deep understanding of pedagogy, curriculum, scheduling, and the other concrete details that make a school.”

Although the plans for a school patterned after an English model are still very preliminary, Mr. Hughes said, New Visions has helped create a number of new schools in New York City, “and we think it’s something that we could fold into our portfolio.”

The conference was sponsored by the British Embassy, the England Department for Education and Skills, the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, Temple University’s college of education in Philadelphia, and the Washington-based Urban Institute.


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