A British teacher takes a bite of the Big Apple

Absence of national testing frees lesson plans and minds.

David James

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I sometimes wonder if teachers in US schools know how lucky they are. Sure, you’ve had to deal with (on the one hand) Diane Ravitch and (on the other) Michelle Rhee, but coming from the UK I am staggered that you don’t encounter the US equivalent of Ofsted (if you don’t know what that is then think the Spanish Inquisition without the charm), league tables for school examination results (yes, you read that right).  I also like the fact that US schools do not have high-stakes examinations for 10th grade students like we do in the UK, called GCSEs.  I learned such things after spending some time in the US after teaching for all my career in UK independent schools.  It was, I am glad to say, an education.

I was recently awarded the first Zagat Global Fellowship at Riverdale Country School, in the Bronx. Now, any mention of that infamous borough conjures up images of tough neighborhoods bombarded with every possible social issue facing the city today.  But look at the name of the school again, and you’ll see that it also references a more pastoral side to the city’s educational heritage which saw the need for young people to escape the city so that they could be be more active, spend more time outdoors, and (hopefully) develop into more well-rounded young people as a result. To some extent this urge to combine a robust physical education with a demanding academic course of study is a defining characteristic of English public schools, as well as finding its most coherent international articulation in the work of Kurt Hahn.  And so although I have hopped over the Atlantic, the ethos of this school is not dissimilar to the schools I have worked in and inspect.

A broader understanding of education

Conscious of its privileged position, the school remains ever more committed to a view of the world which sees its students actively engaged with others, rather than being inward-looking and focusing on themselves, and their academic results, to the exclusion of everything else.  A significant number of its students have their fees paid for by the school and come from all backgrounds and boroughs across the city.

Riverdale’s philosophy has evolved to embrace resilience and character, and these ideas are put forward, in practice and in print, by the school’s charismatic and influential head of school, Dominic Randolph.  The school is proudly forward-looking and committed to making positive change in the world, and this no doubt reflects not only the ethos of the school’s founding principles, but also reaffirms the values of its faculty and the parents who send their children here.  

And it is there in the teaching.  I’ve visited lots of schools in the UK and the US, both state and independent, and the biggest difference I see between teachers in independent schools in both countries is the absence of a GSCE equivalent which amounts to high-stakes testing starting in the 10th grade. This releases space and imagination to teach in a more liberating way.  In the UK, I have even seen curriculum specifications as a classroom management tool (the idea being that, for example, students are more likely to behave if you stress that the lesson counts towards 5% of their final mark).  This is absent in US schools where, admittedly, other pressures apply (and I must admit AP and portfolios do look intimidating, as do their scoring). Instead, the focus is on the learning, and its innate worth.  At Riverdale I have not seen or heard teachers emphasising tests, examinations and other summative assessment models once.  

Not surprisingly, I haven’t missed it one bit.

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David James picture

David James

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London

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