All the way from America

12th April 2013 at 01:00
Cheerleaders, proms, graduation ceremonies - what's next in the Americanisation of our schools? The answer is the way we teach. But why are we adopting US methods when it performs no better than the UK in international league tables? Richard Vaughan reports

The children get up from the floor at the count of one, all big eyes and toothy smiles. At the count of two they start to move, chanting the syllables of words in unison before taking up positions behind their chairs. At the count of three they are allowed to sit down.

The teacher sings a command - "Move to the red words, no-ow" - and the class splits into pairs: a reader, who reads aloud, and a "tutor", who comments on the reader's performance. The room fills with the low chatter of children, punctuated by audible remarks from the five- and six-year-olds such as "good job" and "excellent reading".

The teacher then makes a noise and uses sign language to indicate that the students should swap roles. The exercise is soon completed and the children sit on the carpet to be taught as a whole class. It is a display of highly choreographed, even regimented, classroom control.

Welcome to King Solomon Academy, an Ark-sponsored, all-through school nestled among the concrete motorway flyovers, shisha-vending coffee shops and crowded housing estates surrounding central London's Edgware Road. And welcome to a method of US-inspired teaching that is rapidly emerging in the UK.

While we watch the class, the academy's primary head, Vanessa Willms, explains why her member of staff is singing commands and using sign language. She talks about the importance of "economy of language" and "tight transitions". This is teaching US-style, and it is likely to soon be appearing in a classroom near you. These methods are part of a growing trend: the Americanisation of British schools.

The creep of American culture into our own is hardly anything new. From the corrupting influence of rock and roll in the 1950s to the obesity-inducing Big Mac and the fierce competition of cheerleading, the US has been shaping our society for years. Then there is the school prom. Ten years ago, British teenagers and their parents were aware of the phenomenon only if they watched American teen soaps. Today, the prom business in the UK is said to be worth #163;80 million, with the average student spending around #163;250 on the increasingly important school leaving do. Firms offering goods and services for proms and school graduation ceremonies are flourishing, such as those that create high-end, keepsake yearbooks. There was no market for such an industry a decade ago.

You might dismiss these as gimmicks that have gained a foothold thanks to the relentless stream of popular culture exported to the UK by the US. But American ideas on teaching and even the curriculum are now creeping into our state schools.

Why are we so ready to adopt methods from a country that performs no better than us in nearly every international league table? (See panel, page 27.) And why are we Americanising our schools when many might feel that America should be copying us?

One group of schools that has borrowed liberally from the US is the Ark academy chain, which sponsors King Solomon. Comprised of 18 schools, Ark represents a tiny percentage of the 24,000 schools in England. But for such a small organisation it has a huge amount of influence, and is often praised by politicians and education reformers.

Teachers who join the Ark family of schools go through a week-long induction where they are expected to learn the different teaching models used across the institutions: "cold calling", for example, where teachers fire unexpected questions at students to check they are paying attention; "strong voice", where a teacher pauses mid-sentence to show they know that not every student is listening; and "finger clicking" by students to show encouragement when their peers answer a question correctly. Watching rows of children clicking as their teacher questions each of them in turn is more than a little West Side Story. It's also very, well, un-British.

Such teaching methods have led to accusations that Ark takes a "cookie-cutter" approach to its teachers, but in the classroom at King Solomon, Willms rejects this. "We're very clear about what we want our lessons to look like in our schools," she says. "Each (Ark) school will teach (its) teachers and teaching assistants how we do it, but our schools look and feel very different from one another."

Many of the methods are those promulgated by Doug Lemov, an American teacher and the author of Teach Like A Champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college (2010). Lemov is also managing director of Uncommon Schools, a chain of 32 charter schools (the US equivalent of academies) operating in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. These have become the highest-performing schools in their districts, despite being located in some of the most deprived communities.

Lemov's book has become a "bible" for thousands of teachers in the US and the UK, and in 2012 he followed it with Teach Like A Champion Field Guide: a practical resource to make the 49 techniques your own.

High-flyers fly to the US

King Solomon Academy's senior leadership team, like many in the Ark stable, is made up of Future Leaders. The government-backed Future Leaders Charitable Trust supports young teachers, who are fast-tracked to become heads. The aim is that they will work in schools in the country's most challenging areas.

Lemov's Uncommon Schools are often visited by Future Leaders, which is why the charity is one of the biggest promoters of US teaching methods in England. Once a year, it flies a group of UK teachers to the US to see how particular schools in some of the poorest regions of the country function.

Heath Monk, chief executive of Future Leaders, says that the purpose of the US trips is more to do with school culture than pedagogy. The US as a whole, he admits, does not perform well, but there are pockets of brilliance where schools are working miracles.

"We are looking at very small subsets of very successful charter schools; schools that are achieving, by US standards, outstanding outcomes," Monk says. "And they are doing so with some seriously challenging kids. It shows what can be achieved with an outstanding school culture, even when their pedagogy would likely be judged by Ofsted as requiring improvement."

Many of the US schools they look at, Monk adds, are hugely aspirational, managing to bring students who are four or five years behind their peers up to standard. And many are a good fit with the UK because of the common language and, above all, the yawning inequality in US society.

"We took a trip to Sweden once to see what they were doing, but it just wasn't the same. If you look at, say, some areas in inner-city Chicago where you are more likely as a black youth to be murdered than to gain a college degree, and you see kids from those communities committed to going to college, you can't help but come away inspired," Monk says.

For him, it is not what these teachers are teaching, it is how they are teaching it. But even what is being taught in UK schools is now being influenced by the US.

The draft of the revised national curriculum, published earlier this year, has been condemned for being too heavily focused on the teaching of facts and the importance of rote learning. The primary history curriculum, in particular, has come under intense criticism from academics and teachers who see it as too dense, too regimented and too insular.

But a great deal of the thinking behind the curriculum has been informed by the work of an American academic who is now in his eighties, after British government ministers were heavily influenced by his theories.

E.D. Hirsch, the philosopher-turned-education guru, worked as a professor at the University of Virginia in the 1970s, conducting research into reading among young people from local community colleges. He was shocked to see how students from the community college struggled to read passages on Robert E. Lee - the general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War - when students at the university had no problems. It was, he believed, because the poorer students lacked a basic understanding of the history of the Civil War.

This led Hirsch to formulate the idea of "cultural literacy", in which reading is based not only on having the skills to decode words but also on having a wider background knowledge of the subject matter.

Hirsch's book Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know, published in 1987, became a best-seller. The work was seized on by former schools minister Nick Gibb in 2008, during his time as shadow minister. Gibb readily bought into the idea of the need for a "transfer of knowledge", as he called it, from one generation to the next.

Knowledge, Gibb said in one of his first speeches as schools minister, is the "basic building block of a successful life". Although the Conservative MP is no longer in the Department for Education, his influence, and that of Hirsch, can be seen clearly in the draft programmes of study that were published in February.

Implement with care

Dylan Wiliam, an emeritus professor at the University of London's Institute of Education, who advised ministers on the curriculum, says Hirsch's ideas carry a great deal of weight. But he has concerns about their implementation.

"I spoke to Nick Gibb about E.D. Hirsch's work and I have a lot of sympathy with his ideas - when kids fail to make progress in reading at Years 3 and 4, it is because they don't understand what is being described. They may understand the words but they don't understand the context," Wiliam says.

"In the US, they have spent years trying to thrash out and define the public sphere. They can't talk about religion so they spend a lot of time on civil law," he adds. "You need a national consensus, a 10-year project to agree on what it is that defines being English. The problem is that you can never (reach) agreement (about) what should be in the curriculum."

Academics have broadcast their opinions of the revised curriculum in the letters pages of UK national newspapers, focusing on what they believe are the flaws, potential benefits and everything in between. They appear to support Wiliam's view.

Wiliam has spent a great deal of time in America and has questioned whether England should be borrowing US educational policies wholesale. While he admits that there are individual examples of brilliance, he points out that overall the country is weaker than the UK in terms of its schools.

In many American states, for example, the poorer you are the less money will be spent on your education. Students in Lower Merion, on the wealthier outskirts of Philadelphia, will have $25,000 (#163;16,500) per capita spent on them each year, compared with students in the poorer areas of the city who may have less than $5,000 spent on them.

In fact, Wiliam believes that America's teachers should be coming to Britain in their droves to learn from us, rather than the other way around. "Teaching and learning is very much stronger in Britain than in the US," he says.

Private possibility

Yet Wiliam believes that one idea from the US - the private education provider - could be of benefit here.

"Everyone accepts that it is OK for BT to make money from schools by providing phone services, but they struggle slightly when exam boards make a profit," he says. "But I am not clear why you draw the line at private providers in education.

"The US has tried education management organisations, where they take over existing schools, and they work pretty well. In Philadelphia, they have seen sustained improvement (where they have been used)," Wiliam adds.

A few years ago, Philadelphia ran a controlled experiment that compared the performance of two similar groups of schools, one that was run for profit and one that was not. Although the gap was small, the difference in favour of those run for profit was statistically significant.

Already the management of free schools in the UK can be outsourced to profit-making companies. IES Breckland in Suffolk, for example, is managed by Swedish free school company Internationella Engelska Skolan. The school has only just opened, so it is hard to evaluate its success, but its mere existence is a major line in the sand for English education.

Running state schools for profit is forbidden in England but many - those on the Left of the political divide, for example, such as teaching unions - believe it is only a matter of time before it is introduced, particularly if the Conservatives win the next general election.

Flying the star-spangled banner of profit-making over England's schools may be an Americanisation too far for the voting public, but it has already been considered, especially among right-leaning thinktanks. Whether or not we follow this route, it will not be the last educational idea inspired by our counterparts in the US.

We are now veterans of prom nights, with their stretched limousines, pastel-coloured dresses and nervous first dances. We are even au fait with the handshakes and scrolls, the mortarboards and gowns of the graduation ceremony. These are all exports from America that have become mainstays of English school life.

What will come our way next is anyone's guess. But when people in England go searching for the next big idea in education, you can bet they will be looking across the pond.

PIRLS 2011

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

Distribution of reading achievement, 4th grade (Year 5)

1st - Hong Kong

6th - US

11th - England

Percentage of students reaching advanced benchmark

1st - Singapore

5th - England

7th - US

TIMSS 2011

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

Maths, 4th grade (Year 5)

1st - Singapore

9th - England

11th - US

Maths, 8th grade (Year 9)

1st - Korea

9th - US

10th - England

Science, 4th grade

1st - Korea

7th - US

15th - England

Science, 8th grade

1st - Singapore

2nd - England

3rd - US

PISA 2009

Programme for International Student Assessment

Reading (15-year-olds)

1st - Shanghai, China

17th - US

25th - UK

Maths (15-year-olds)

1st - Shanghai, China

28th - UK

31st - US

Science (15-year-olds)

1st - Shanghai, China

16th - UK

23rd - US.

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