Letter from America, Part 1: researchED New York gets real, real fast

26th October 2014 at 20:20

New York always means superheroes to me. I grew up with reprint Marvel Comics where Spider Man lol'd around Manhattan and liked punching middle-aged men like the Vulture or Doctor Octopus who in turn liked kidnapping Gwen Stacey (fair enough) and robbing banks dramatically. As a kid, I used to look at the three-storey wasteland of Glasgow and wonder how anyone, even one with spider serum, could swing anywhere without dragging his ass on asphalt. It all made sense the first time I saw Manhattan, and its cumulonimbus-bothering corridors of skyscrapers. Someone at DC Comics once said that Metropolis was New York from Central Park down, and Gotham City was just the bad bits. Which is kind of a pity that the latter gets the guy with the batarangs and the former gets the one who can lift Mount Rushmore. Even superheroes have a city-caste system.


But little prepares you for the interactive version. It's a blender permanently switched on, and you're the penny. Just crossing the avenues feels like Indiana Jones grabbing his hat. It exhilarates and exhausts simultaneously. I have never returned from New York feeling refreshed. It boils. Built on an epic scale, it feels like the slightly decayed legacy of an elegant, Art Deco race of alien architects, kept fashionable by money and movement. It is the only place I've been to that makes London feel quaint, quiet and careful. It is precisely everything you imagine it will be. When Russian peasants in the most remote gulag imagine the United States, they imagine New York, and they are right. Go to Wendy's in the afternoon for chilli fries and a coke, or burrow into a 50 ounce, 80 dollar steak at Ma Peche on 56th Street in the evening, and you will have had an authentically American experience in both circumstances.


I was there for reasons that still makes me click my fingers with pleasure; I'm putting on a researchED conference there in May, and I had come over to talk to Dominic Randolph, the avuncular principal of Riverdale Country School, who has graciously agreed to host. It's in the Bronx (and God, I'd give my back teeth to be able to effectively replicate the Bronx accent. I guess I'll just have to fuhgeddaboudit), although Fort Apache this ain't. Country schools are an interesting phenomena; it became fashionable at one point to take children out of the concrete jungle and educate them in an environment more verdant, echoing Rousseau's principle that society corrupted the noble savage, and the only remedy was to make for the country. But Rousseau said a lot of things.


Riverdale, it is safe to say, is not short of facilities. When I visited, they were serving breakfast to the students (all day, no boarders) from a line chef who flipped eggs and scraped a griddle like a man on stage. You could marvel at their astonishing full-size football pitch perched on the side of a hill. Students could avail themselves of cappuccinos made from vanilla milk; hormone-free milk was also available for those trying to cut down on their hormones.


American education is like English education, but on Earth: mark II; exactly like us but different. In a country where welfare liberalism is often seen by some as naked communism, a cash-poor state can, in places, struggle to build provision that meets need (although everywhere, state schools do that of course. I've never seen a profession more capable of making miracles happen than teaching).


American Education X


Another aspect of American schools, familiar to teachers everywhere, is the context of increased expectations of student outcomes, and the often punitive ways that this creates a system where quantifiable success is an expectation rather than an option. Students are graded for every essay in high school. It used to be the case that universities would aggregate these grades for the last year of the student's career, and make a decision based on that grade average. Increasingly now they ask for the last four years' worth of records and make their decisions – like a bank deciding a loan, by an algorithm – based on that. Can you imagine the pressure? If you had a bad start at school, but turned it around later, tough, you can wave good bye to Princeton.


This, of course, gives a lot of power to the teachers where grades are internally moderated – but with great power comes great responsibility, and teachers can find themselves on the sharp end of sharp elbows and unhappy parents. I think I prefer the outsourced, abdicated responsibility of terminal exams, which allows you to shrug and say, "it's the exam board, innit".


More controversially, perhaps, is the practice of recording the student's behavioural record and adding that to the soup of the university selection dance. How this does anything other than reinforce and reproduce existing social structures, I don't know. God save them. (Happily, almost a quarter of Riverdale students are there on financial assistance – the full fees of the other three-quarters pays for the subsidy, creating a micro economy of redistribution.)


Having said that, they don't have an A-level or GCSE season. So there's that. Another thing that stands out about American schooling is that there are so many different versions of it. There isn't a federal model or command structure anything like our jolly Department of Education; education decisions, curriculums and so on are decided, not even at the state level, but often on a county level. There's more variety than in a pack of Pokemon. And like most cultural trends, they sneeze, and in the UK we catch a cold. I look forward to spending more time finding out more about this complex system. 


It's an extraordinary venue for our first venture abroad. And it's heartening to see the same altruism and professional support exist there as much as here – Riverdale is reaching out to educators and their partners in the same way that so many UK schools already have. I'm clutching myself with excitement at the thought of putting on the show in America, the land where radioactive spiders give you superpowers instead of toxic shock and baldness.


I'll work on the accent.


For more details about researchED New York, click here: www.workingoutwhatworks.com