Delegates at the recent Tenth International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, held in Memphis, had a chance to see for themselves what is going on.
Memphis was an apt choice. Birthplace of rhythm and blues and one-time hometown of Elvis Presley, it is also the symbol for American civil rights, with a national museum housed in the motel where Dr Martin Luther King was so tragically gunned down in 1968.
The Memphis school board has taken restructuring for improvement to its heart, supporting many of its schools in adopting new designs. The range of approaches to teaching and learning in these schools is most impressive. So, too, is effective collaboration between school, community, educational researchers, industry, school board and federal government.
The resulting vitality and excitement of students and staff alike are remarkable. Early indications are that the schools are on track and successfully raising the achievement of all.
One example of that early success can be seen at Booker T Washington High School, an urban secondary in inner-city Memphis. With its neighbours, it has been redesigned as a so-called Atlas Community School. The design identifies basic building blocks: * pathway - providing clear continuity and progression in learning unhindered by student age or transfer between institutions; * family and community involvement - active partnership within the community to maximise use of resources and local assets; * authentic teaching and learning - using methods to challenge students, to enhance understanding through interest and relevance; * integrated assessment - allowing students to reflect on their achievements and so learn more, as well as providing overall markers of performance.
Schools opt into a design programme that they feel will fit their needs. Funding is provided to train staff on new teaching methodologies, curriculum and assessment. Outcomes are monitored and evaluated, and the findings fed back into schools to support development. Equity is at the heart of reform. This is not an educational improvement plan for the more able, but for all students and teachers.
There are broad similarities with structural changes in schools seen here in recent years, with the authority and autonomy of each school to manage its own affairs being valued. Monitoring and evaluation are important facets of educational governance, ensuring proper accountability. But effective schooling is seen as a collaborative venture, not a Darwinian struggle for survival.
There is much support for these Tennessee schools, including: * reliable systems of assessment designed to help schools and teachers to improve teaching; * help for schools to identify curricular and teaching strategies that will ensure students learn well; * well-funded professional development and certification, improving teaching knowledge in schools and letting teachers learn new skills before they need to use them; * sufficient new technology for classrooms to improve learning and a recognition that smaller class sizes can improve learning; * multi-agency support for schools, promoting effective parental backing and better learning; * common, publicly-supported standards of achievement for all students that higher education and employers use for selection; * a system of management and governance ensures schools receive broad guidance, individual autonomy and support necessary to achieve their mission; * organisation and management structure.
Pride in the Booker T Washington school pervaded staff and students alike, and was why parent guides devoted so much time to actively supporting their school.
A different, but equally exciting approach could be seen in the elementary schools that have adopted the "Roots and Wings" design.
This brainchild of educational researcher Bob Slavin is an extension of his "Success for All" approach to reading. The notion is that no child fails, that the school does all it can to ensure that everyone succeeds.
So mastery across the curriculum is not simply a potential entitlement. Once the basics ("roots") are established, learning is extended through interdisciplinary project work - children gain "wings".
Again evidence of success was all around in Memphis, with children eager to help peers to learn in lively classrooms, supported by enthusiastic teachers. Learning was not an easy option, but stimulating and challenging; understanding had to be applied and evaluated. Pupils responded well to their tasks and were determined to achieve.
So how does the American approach match up with developments here? Essentially, the same forces are pushing schools and colleges to improve. But in the US there is a belief that the highest-quality education should be a norm for all. And realism exists - schools and teachers are given tangible support, the means to help themselves to do better.
Is there a place here for consensus on what better schooling means and how it can be achieved ? Will the pre-election political rhetoric on school improvement include debate on real partnership?
Take the area of supporting teaching and learning in the classroom. The American model of restructuring is based upon fundamental research into what makes practice effective. Individual schools are valued, encouraged to network and collaborate.
So what could the bold plans for American schools offer for their counterparts here?
First, a message that there is no quick-fix solution, but that schools need time to develop. That school improvement needs support - financial, resource, moral, political, and community. That research evidence on what can work, culled from international sources, can be put to good use. That tinkering at the margins may have little impact on how a school performs - wholesale re-structuring may be needed in some cases. And finally, that schools need a say in shaping their own destinies - there is no single route to success.
A positive climate of informed debate and support could help our schools to revitalise and, where necessary, restructure. Better schools are no luxury, but a social and economic necessity. Educationists working in partnership with all sectors of society, including politicians, can realise a dream. But it takes two to tango, doesn't it?
* Further details of the new American school designs are available in Bold Plans for School Restructuring, the new American Schools Designs, Sam Stringfield, Steven Ross, Lana Smith (eds.) Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, New Jersey, 1996.
Steve Gater is the deputy headteacher of Washington School, Spout Lane, Washington, Tyne and Wear.