Obama promises change; give him time to deliver

If the new president is to reform US education, he must confront a host of vested interests at federal, state and local level. Might the UK's top-down system have something to recommend it, after all?

James Richardson

Barack Obama will begin to clear up the mess of the Bush administration in four days' time. The sense of optimism here in the US is palpable. But those involved in education are deeply concerned that Obama will not be able to overcome deeply ingrained distrust of government or change a school system that resists all challenges to the status quo.

His aim to improve the education system will be hampered by the mish-mash of federal, state and local officials who govern education policy here. The roll-call of influence is long: the president, state governors, state education boards, mayors, district superintendents, principals, lobbyists, unions, parents. Because each one of them funds a school to varying degrees, everyone must be consulted if change is to happen. And because everyone disagrees, nothing gets done.

The idea that schools should be funded and governed locally is so vehemently defended that the president's power to bring about change is severely limited. Bush's highly unpopular No Child Left Behind Act was an attempt to introduce federal accountability to all 16,000 school districts (similar to local education authorities) through annual targets and testing. As Obama renews the act, expect to see his approval ratings plummet as teachers' unions, superintendants and principals resist at all costs.

Obama is acutely aware of the challenge that a fiercely competitive India and China pose to the US education system. Britain is faced with the same problems, but is much better positioned to deal with them.

We Brits may lament the national curriculum and a top-down approach, with targets, tests and initiative overload, but when reform is needed we have a relatively unbureaucratic structure to push it through quickly.

We have become critical of Labour's education policies over the past 11 years, but it is worth remembering that when schools needed more funding, they got it; when teachers needed protected time to plan, they got it; when teachers said the national curriculum was too prescriptive, it was changed.

The British system ensures schools can meet the challenge of India and China's industrialisation. Not so here.

States across the South and Mid-West are still arguing over whether evolution should be taught in schools at a time when China turns out 600,000 engineers each year.

But Obama's greatest challenge will be to bridge the US political divide. In Britain, public funding for schools is an accepted part of mainstream politics. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, the 19th-century American writer, we understand that with our taxes we buy civilisation by funding our schools appropriately and paying our teachers well.

In the US, Republicans believe that schools should be funded through local taxes: "I worked hard for my money, therefore I will spend it on my own children" is a commonly voiced opinion. Using your taxes to pay for another child's school is deemed at best charity and at worst socialism. Taxes that serve a common purpose have no currency in a society that still values individualism over all else.

The prospects of improving the US education system and the culture that pervades it in one four-year term is beyond even the audacious political ability of Obama.

Let us hope that the people give him time to turn his rhetoric of change into results.

James Richardson, Thouron scholar, Graduate School of Education, Pennsylvania University, and former head of humanities at Sale High, Greater Manchester


A teaching pack for British schools is being launched to coincide with Barack Obama's inauguration on Tuesday.

The pack, co-written by a deputy head, features 10 illustrated biographies of inspirational black and Asian people, including Obama, racing driver Lewis Hamilton, author Malorie Blackman, Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai and boxer Amir Khan.

Aimed at key stages 2 and 3, the pack includes posters of Obama and the other luminaries.

Shazia Azhar, deputy head at Spring Grove School in Huddersfield, co-wrote the pack with former teacher Peter Tidy.

Ms Azhar said: "In my 10 years in teaching in multi-ethnic schools, I've always struggled to find inspirational texts for children about the achievements of black and Asian people."

The pack, Did You Know?, is a follow-up to a previous pack produced in 2006, which focused on other personalities. The pack contains 16 copies of the book and a CD-Rom. It costs Pounds 145.


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