onathan Swift said that "comparisons are odious" and I have always believed that being tempted to compare yourself to others who are less well-off is not the best way to motivate yourself in the long term. But I can't avoid the temptation on this occasion.
A colleague and I had the opportunity to visit four American primary schools in New Jersey recently. The purpose of our visit was to familiarise ourselves with schools, as the state is interested in assessment for learning and in adapting our materials for use with their teachers.
One comparison we made right away (which teachers in Scotland will find odious) was the resources the schools had. Few classes had more than 25 students and schools had a wide range of specialist teaching and non-teaching staff.
It is with the assessment system in the United States that the comparison is much more favourable. In 2002, George Bush signed the "No Child Left Behind" law. It was designed to improve America's public schools and promised huge extra federal funding for them. In return, it required early measurement of children's abilities to read and write, add and subtract.
Where children and schools were falling behind, drastic measures were to be taken.
No one in the US argues with the intention behind the bill. Its supporters claim that it has been successful as test scores have been going up and the achievement gaps between minority and majority students have been going down. Its opponents contend that the law is spawning a full-scale catastrophe in American schools. After visiting only four schools, we obviously couldn't say which is closer to the truth. What we did observe, however, did more than give us cause for concern: it was shocking.
On entering one school, the first thing you see is a banner with the words:
"Do your best to pass the test." In that school, we sat in on a kindergarten (primary 1) class being trained to sit a nationally devised computer-marked multiple choice spelling test.
Children sat examination-style in single rows facing the board. The teacher demonstrated how to select the right answer by shading in the appropriate circle with a pencil. She drew a chalk circle on the board and showed the class how to shade it in with the chalk. "Shade in the whole dot like this," she said, "not just half the dot or it may not work." She then went through the same procedure, for rubbing out your coloured-in dot, if you changed your mind.
As the children were sitting their practice test, the teacher and the classroom assistant went round coaching children who had given incorrect answers, giving them clues to help them make corrections. I could not take my eyes of the children's faces - what was going on in their heads? In another school, we found out that the actual test would be just like this - apart from one crucial factor. If the teacher gave them any help apart from clarifying the questions, she could face dismissal.
We quizzed one of the headteachers as to what exactly happened during the testing season. In American public schools, learning virtually shuts down for two weeks each March for this to happen. Tests are delivered to schools in sealed packages and deposited in a safe. Two people are nominated to be responsible for them, one of whom must be a senior member of staff. One witnesses the opening on the day of the test. The tests are delivered to the teacher, who administers them without giving any help apart from reading out the question. Children with special needs often do not understand why the teacher cannot help them as usual.
If schools do badly, the consequences can be punitive. A school can lose funding, the principal can be removed and in extreme cases it can be closed down. Since coming back, I have read that 1,750 US schools face radical overhaul this year for failing to make adequate progress in test results.
The article pointed out that most districts are choosing less drastic measures than firing staff or bringing in new management.
I have also read a book by James Popham entitled America's Failing Schools: how parents and teachers can cope with no child left behind. Popham outlines all the harmful effects of such a testing regime and talks about classrooms being turned into "test preparation drill factories". But he concludes that "the nation's demand for educational accountability is not going to go away because too many citizens have grave doubts about the quality of America's public schools".
So Popham claims the best they can do in the US is to mitigate the bad effects of the system and produce more accurate tests, which measure more important things.
Don't just compare - contrast! Breathe a huge sigh of relief that we have a government in Scotland which is doing its level best to reconcile accountability with improvement through the Assessment is for Learning programme. It deserves our support.
Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.