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Same but different...

Should we follow the American education dream or question policy imports from across the pond, writes Bethan Marshall

Their portions are large, their cars enormous, their landscape is vast and their conferences are somewhat overwhelming.

Every Easter the American Educational Research Association comes to a major city in North America. This year it was the turn of San Francisco, where around 10,000 delegates turned up to consider educational matters.

The programme booklet outlining the papers to be given was more than 500 pages long: one conference centre alone, the Moscone, which in itself is spread over four cavernous sites, was unable to handle the 70 or so concurrent sessions that ran from eight in the morning until six at night over five days. Three hotels had to be brought in to mop up the overspill.

The sheer scale of it all makes the proceedings difficult to navigate with any sense of satisfaction. Out of the 2,000 or so sessions, representing about 8,000 papers, even the most dedicated conference-goer can only manage to attend around 25, maybe 30 presentations, and then only if they flit between them.

But this is enough to sense that the US is a very different place from the UK. Much that is important remains the same. The rhetoric of improving the quality of educational experience for the student is predominant, whether this is through school effectiveness, curriculum design or consideration of student learning.

Unsurprisingly, given that New Labour and the Tories before them have stolen ideas from the States, many major initiatives have a similar ring.

For the US's No Child Left Behind read the UK's Every Child Matters. For American Magnet schools see British CTCs and for Charter schools see Trust.

Concerns about literacy standards are similar too, as are worries about equity and opportunity. So are some of the structural questions.

Under the broad division heading of Educational Policy and Politics, for example, (all papers are submitted under divisional categories) one session was entitled "Are Charter Schools More Effective than Regular Public Schools?".

But the superficial similarities, rather like our common language, obscure the need for translation. Assessment practices in the US are no more like assessment practices in England than their gravy is like Bisto; accountability, just like biscuits, means something very different across the pond.

Public-private partnership in schools has to be understood in the context of a country which has no state healthcare and where individuals and families sponsor sections of road to pay for the crumbling freeways. What is most baffling about the discussions, however, and makes any sense of comparability hard to fathom, is the tension between the size of the country and the parochial possibilities of reform.

US governance is a precarious balancing act between the federal and the state, and below that again of school districts and boards. These can vary in size between one school and a thousand.

Curriculum changes, assessment practices, even teachers' qualifications, pay and conditions are argued out district by district, state by state and only rarely at national level.

Many decisions about policy go through the courts rather than through the legislature and these mechanisms dominate the way the debates are framed.

For this reason, the articulation, in the UK, of bright ideas plucked from across the Atlantic, is very different, the impact possibly greater in that the application is more universal.

Ironically, the sheer scale of the US and the way government is structured means that the effects of reform feel more localised. The possible exception to this rule is No Child Left Behind. Most discussions at AERA paid lip service to it but even then the flavour was more litigious than similar debates over here about the significance of Every Child Matters. In the end it is by acknowledging differences that we can learn.

Encountering teachers and researchers in a variety of contexts, who are grappling with the all-important issue of how children can best develop, can shake us out of our limited visions of what is possible.

Events such as AERA enable us to see our day-to-day routines through a different lens and so re-think them. But it is important always to keep a sense of perspective.

The enormity, and apparent dynamism and confidence, of all things American can be seductive especially to politicians. Hence the bold programmes of reform. Yet understanding, for example, the fine grain of sponsorship of Charter schools, the way school boards, rather than governing bodies and local authorities, operate in the US and the fiscal context in which Charter schools arise might have helped New Labour avoid the controversy of the current Education Bill.

A glance at the research from AERA could have told them the fight may well not be worth having anyway.

Dr Bethan Marshall is a senior lecturer in English education at King's college, London

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