Born in the USA


This post looks at what the teaching profession can learn from what the US education system has got wrong. It follows  Getting our teachers back. Getting our teachers’ back..

Born in the USA:
Many features of the American education system are impressive. According to The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019, 15 out of the top 20 universities are American:

1. Oxford, UK
2. Cambridge, UK
3. Stanford
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology  
5. Californian Institute of Technology  
6. Harvard
7. Princeton 
8. Yale
9. Imperial College London, UK
10. University of Chicago
11. ETH, Zurich
12. John Hopkins University
13. University of Pennsylvania 
14. UCL, UK
15. University of California, Berkeley
16. Colombia University
17. University of California, LA
18. Duke University
19. Cornell University
20. Michigan University

But E.D. Hirsch (Emeritus Professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, author and education reformer) says:

“There is wide agreement in the international community that the US has created the best public universities and the worst public schools of the developed world.”

How do we explain this apparent contradiction? A tide of well-educated foreigners into the US’s research universities seems to mitigate the decline of the American school system. There are over 13,000 Japanese students in the US and only 700 American students in Japan. 56% of all of the PhDs in the US in the STEM fields are foreign. Many American imports, those not ‘born in the USA’ (pre-Trump of course) populate its universities.

The Charter Schools movement have been praised for building great inner city schools with genuine aspiration, but despite notable successes which have influenced thinking and work in UK city schools (Uncommon Schools, Knowledge is Power, Teach Like a Champion) the average results in Charter Schools are pretty similar to most schools. And there is a huge amount of mediocrity in the middle years of the school system. The inadvertent effects of a recent history of US educational initiatives introduced by people with good intentions have damaged the quality of teaching and the profession.

When I read the first section of Dylan Wiliam’s ‘Creating the Schools Our Children Need’ it seemed to describe all the things they tried in American schools and which we must never do. It’s a chilling read. A swathe of attempts: getting smarter people into teaching, firing bad teachers, paying good teachers more, reducing class size and how these ideas failed. Of course they weren’t designed to be bad ideas. My Compact Oxford Thesaurus gives me various synonyms for ‘inadvertent’. Unintentional and unwitting I’ll accept, where it applies to education. Innocent not so much.

However the last section in Wiliam’s book helps me believe that success is possible again: Introducing a rich curriculum, improving the teachers we have, creating the right environment for educators. It’s encouraging to know that many of the things leaders are focusing on in the UK right now are the right things, but no surprise to know that we have tried and failed much of the earlier chapters too.


Play the game:
In ‘The Tyranny of Metrics’, Jerry Muller tells how American public services have responded to a range of government targets and what this did to quality. He describes the HBO series ‘The Wire’, based in the city of Baltimore and which depicts police, schools and municipal politics and their dysfunctions. Police commanders desperate to hit numbers (cases solved, drug arrests) achieve this by sacrificing truth to meet targets. Teachers in middle schools in poor neighbourhoods have to show improved student performance, so six weeks before the standardised reading and writing tests the Principal tells teachers to focus all class time on practising for the tests. It’s uncomfortably familiar. A culture of ‘gaming’ in the public services emerges and the respect of these noble professions falls within the wider population who watch teachers and the police under pressure chasing numbers.

And in hospitals there is the ‘creaming’ tactics of doctors where low-risk patients are admitted and high-risk patients are not. Which improves the hospital’s metrics of success – but risks lives. States publish ‘report cards’ of surgeons – who then reject the most risky cases to improve their scores. Hospitals punished for the number of deaths within 30 days of discharge from hospital, decide that patients with congestive heart failure – which counts negatively in the metrics – are reclassified so they are not picked up by the metrics.

Metrics are so easily misused. And wherever they are linked to rewards, human nature means that people may sometimes fudge data, obfuscate or lie. Used well, a team of doctors can collectively learn by looking closely at clinical data, but where it becomes the means of performance targets or bonuses, then at best the activity is futile, and at worst it might kill patients. Where education leaders look together at a holistic, 360 degree-view of school performance, within low stakes, this allows resource to be directed to where children require it most. But if this happens with just one or two metrics, at high stakes, school leaders may hide uncomfortable truths. At best this delays much needed action. At worst it precipitates dishonest practice: the off-rolling of students whose data is dire, discouraging schools from enrolling SEND students, making schools less inclusive and creating a football-manager culture of headship.

“Measurement is not an alternative to judgement: measurement demands judgement: judgement about whether to measure, what to measure, how to evaluate the significance of what’s been measured.” Jerry Muller

In 2001, around the time Billy Joel brought us ‘Uptown Girl’, the US education system introduced ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB). Its aim was to close the achievement gap between ethnic groups. Lack of accountability of principals and poor professionalism among teachers were thought to be the main problem. Since English and maths scores were the high stakes metric on which success or failure was judged, principals told teachers to shift class time towards maths and English and away from history, geography, art, music and PE. Eight years after the introduction of NCLB, the performance of African-American students (measured by average scores on national examinations for 17-year-olds) had not changed. After ten years, reading scores of 17 year olds came in significantly lower than they had been in 1988 before NCLB. The testing helped improve the mechanics of early reading (sounding out faster) on easy texts on everyday topics so younger students could decode texts more fluently. But these gaps began opening up again aged 13 and 17 where knowledge and vocabulary are decisive:

“Too much time is spent on test preparation and too little time gaining the wide vocabulary required for a broad vocabulary. They were under the impression that intense classes devoted to making inferences and finding the main idea would improve reading scores more effectively than learning about Egypt or the solar system or the reason why Nevada has just as many senators as New York.”
E.D. Hirsch

Look what you made me do: 

Obama introduced ‘Race To The Top’ as Lady Gaga sang ‘Poker Face’ in 2009. While NCLB focused on measuring the performance of whole schools, Race To The Top measured the performance of individual teachers focusing on value-added, with performance pay used for the first time. Results were not promising. After the large-scale New York City 2007-9 experiment, economist Roland Fryer concluded after there was no evidence that performance pay had improved student performance or changed teacher behaviour.

US teacher quality? Public perception of teaching in the US is poor. A recent poll of high-achieving US undergraduates showed they were negative about the profession and did not see it as a well-respected job. Education was perceived as an easy major, that did not attract the best students. Eric Hanushek says the average teacher in Finland is at the 65th percentile of skills of college graduates. The average teacher in the US comes from the 47th percentile. So the US is systematically drawing from less well qualified college graduates. He analyses the economic value of a teacher to individual students and the economy as a whole:

“We know a lot about how different teachers add to the achievements of their students. If we take a good teacher at the 75th percentile, and look at the achievement we can expect from her class of 30. And then look at what happens when they go into the job market. If we take the historical pattern of earnings and then add up over the lifetime of the students what this 75th percentile teacher did, if we compare the 75th percentile teacher to just an average teacher, she creates $400,000 in future income. In present value. So that there is a real value in trying to attract and retain really good teachers.” Eric Hanushek

London Calling:
A similar metrics approach was introduced in the UK just before NCLB. This directed the attention of heads and teachers to the English and maths C grade boundary rather than the broader aims of schools. The current arts malaise and a lack of attention to excellence is directly related to this accountability system – in play for more than 15 years. By 2008 many of the same dysfunctions we can see in the US were found:

“We believe that the system is now out of balance – the drive to meet government-set targets has too often become the goal rather than the means to the end providing the best possible education for all children. This is demonstrated in: teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, focusing disproportionate resources on borderline students.” (Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families 2008).

Money’s too tight to mention:
Pay progression was introduced in the UK in September 2014. Progression based on length of service was removed and all progression linked to performance. It is difficult to find evidence that it has been successful, and it is significant that teacher recruitment has fallen ever since. Many teachers found the experience of appraisal a largely box-ticking exercise rather than a developmental process, promoting aversion to risk and a tactic of covering yourself instead of aspiring for challenging targets. And for leaders, well why work in a challenging schools when the odds of meeting targets are stacked against you? Many schools and Trusts are now recognising that it just doesn’t work, and there are strong developmental models replacing such PMR approaches (such as this one from Chris Moyse).

The UK government’s decision in 2010 to introduce the pupil premium might have been the least worst attempt to direct money at poverty at a point where it can have considerable impact. Becky Allen’s 3 blogs explain succinctly why pupil premium hasn’t worked and how it diverts the education system away from things that might work better:

“We want schools in more disadvantaged communities to provide rich cultural experiences that students might not otherwise afford, yet many of these things we’d like schools to spend money on aren’t central to raising attainment.”
Becky Allen

Instead of feeling that this is really going to help pay for x or y, many leaders acknowledge that the accountability for pupil premium funding makes them act in short term ways because they have to justify how the money spent directly caused measured increase in attainment. But life doesn’t always fit that perfectly. Nor sit neatly within annual budget timeframes. Changing the school culture may not improve the Y11 English results at the end of this year, but it might be the single best use of PP funding for poorer children in Y7 and an investment in their exam results in 5 years time. But we don’t measure that, and the Head might not be there then.

You make me feel:
Motivating our teams and providing the conditions for real autonomy are at the heart of retaining good people. But the logic of No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top and Pupil Premium places the responsibility for closing achievement gaps on those who may have less ability to do so than we were led to believe:

“That itself is a recipe for the demoralisation of teachers. Add to that the dilemma presented to teachers: pursuing the multiple aims of education versus teaching to the test; following their broad educational mission versus adhering to the narrow criteria upon which they are to be remunerated. Whichever course they choose, they lose.” Jerry Muller

The regime created by the culture of testing and measured accountability has not worked in the US and it seems like it is not growing teachers here. Instead it is forcing teachers to focus their fiercest energy into groups which ‘matter most’ to the school’s data. It is denying them the discretion to design the best curriculum for their students. The result has been a wave of retirements of experienced teachers and the move by the more creative teachers towards private schools less susceptible to metric accountability.

It is an incredible profession and an unbeatable job. We have a professional community that we can feel proud to be part of, we think carefully about our craft and now we better challenge the change foist upon the profession. Teachers, when led thoughtfully and with long-term perspective and integrity, transform communities. And make no mistake, we all get the importance of accountability, so long as the methods chosen to measure that are properly understood and stand up to hard evidence. But US education shines a light into wrongheaded ideas and suspect practices through pressure to meet short term targets. It provides a mirror with which to reflect what we are doing here in our schools.

The 4 US education experts:
E.D Hirsch – Emeritus Professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia and author. Perhaps the most important education reformer of the last 50 years
Dylan William – Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at UCL, author and living in America, and who understands the inner working of classrooms like no-one else.
Jerry Muller – Professor of history at the Catholic University of America, Washington, and author of ‘The Tyranny of Metrics’, studies how metrics are used in US/UK organisations.
Eric Hanushek – Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution – researching the impact of education on the national economy.

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