Can do, but have we the political will

The fall is a good time to visit the United States and see how current educational efforts compare just before a presidential election. A Nation at Risk, published a decade ago frightened the politicians into seeking bipartisan attempts to improve educational performance. In 1994, Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Education would remain a local and state function but federal money would be available for any state that raised educational expectations and set challenging standards.

There were eight goals, all worthy in themselves, befitting a country which thinks it is the best in the world. The half-time review was published in 1995, and proved mercifully short, claiming matters were improving but the target could only be reached by getting committed support from families. The key points for us are the bipartisan political approach and real money on the table. Would that Scotland could do this.

I visited the Senate having e-mailed the office of a senator with whom I have a little acquaintance. I spoke with some people who pointed me to two reports, the first on how Japan achieves its academic success and the second, just due to be published, on teacher training.

The analysis of Japan's success, which was done in the research and improvement unit of the Federal Education Department by Lois Peak, showed that it came from effort. This was the key and ability was not featured. It was of the "Anybody can do anything" theme, surprisingly the title of an American book of the 1960s. There were slogans on the classroom walls to this effect with public ceremonies recognising effort. There was no setting or streaming. Mixed ability was meaningless. They were all pupils with potential which the school could and would develop with daily drills to encourage perseverance, self-discipline and concentration.

The school and the family were put first. Part-time jobs, having dates and using a car were discouraged because they weakened the focus on education. It seems simple but may not translate totally to our culture pattern. I have seen Japanese "praising" ceremonies in action and have attended graduation ceremonies from kindergarten in America complete with white mortarboards. Each left a different impression. Can you understand another culture by observation?

The second report, by a national commission, was published on September 11 entitled What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future. The committee that produced it was chaired by a Democrat governor but again was bipartisan and included business people, three ordinary teachers, and (shock, horror) the presidents of the two largest teacher unions. It had three premises: that what teachers know and can do is the most important influence on what students learn; recruiting preparing and retaining good teachers is the central strategy for improving schools; school reform cannot succeed unless it focuses on creating the conditions in which teachers can teach and teach well . . .

In the 1970s America had almost eliminated the unqualified teacher but drift and a collapse of comparative pay led to a situation where anyone could teach and where subject and pedagogical knowledge were irrelevancies. This report gives factual data where three in ten teachers leave the profession within five years, the qualifications for looking after dogs are more stringent than for teaching pupils in most states, and 40 states allow school districts to hire teachers with no qualification in their subject. About 40 per cent of maths teachers are not qualified in their subject, with only a slight better showing in science and English language.

Scotland gets a mention in a table showing it as ninth equal in a list of 14 countries for mathematical performance at age 13 in 1992, and 12 out of 17 in pay scales. Teachers are 13th out of 13 in comparisons of earnings by occupation in the US. The conclusions are to raise the status of teachers by longer training, higher standards of performance, strict licensing, better pay.

President Clinton, on the campaign trail, praised the report but with prior knowledge of its content encouraged Congress to have the General Accounting Office produce figures for every state for college tuition costs as a percentage of the median family income of each state. The differences were large and unexpected.

America has 10 years to implement this report with two million new teachers coming on stream in that time. Hail 2006.

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