America:the state they're in

11th November 2005 at 00:00
Besieged: School boards and the future of education politics

Edited by W G Howell

Brookings Institution pound;21

Teacher Unions and Education Policy: Retrenchment or reform?

Edited by R D Henderson and others

Elsevier pound;57.50

The Inside Story of the Teacher Revolution in America

By Don Cameron

Rowman Littlefield pound;18.99

Inside Teaching: How classroom life undermines reform

By Mary M Kennedy

Harvard University Press pound;16.95

There are many differences between local education authorities and American school boards. There are far more school boards, and nominally they have greater powers. They are rooted in tradition: synonymous with the institution that is the American public school. They are also directly elected: they represent local democratic control of education in a way that our education committees seldom did.

But, like our LEAs, they are in possibly terminal decline, which lends real interest to Besieged: School boards and the future of education politics, an impressive and non-partisan overview of the realities of school control.

The similarities are striking. Federal funding now makes up more than half of the school boards' revenue (in 1920, it was less than 1 per cent), and "site-based management" determines the spending priorities for the rest. Choice and competition replace top-down accountability with the disciplines of the market; federal standards legislation (typified by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act) imposes educational and financial compliance. Local funding becomes ever more precarious. For school boards, as indeed with LEAs, the writing is on the wall.

But does it matter? The consensus in these pages is that school boards have been too conservative, too concerned to defend a status quo rapidly slipping from their grasp: "If you believe public education in the United States is in need of fundamental reform, it probably makes sense to look elsewhere for policy recommendations and the independence and initiative to implement them."

So much for local democratic control. A frequent criticism of elected school boards, advanced in Besieged, has been that teacher unions have often dominated them, protecting teachers against much-needed reforms.

Teacher Unions and Education Policy: Retrenchment or reform? is a detailed examination of this thesis. Many of the contributors have a teacher union background; unsurprisingly, they take issue with this. Their arguments are research-based, though, and this is necessary reading for students of American education and politics and a solid contribution also to the international debate on the future of the teaching profession.

Don Cameron's The Inside Story of the Teacher Revolution in America covers some of the same ground. Cameron, too, has a union background: as a teacher of English and history in Michigan in the 1960s, he joined the National Education Association, the older and at that time the more restrained of the US's two great teaching unions, and rose through its ranks to be its president and then, until his retirement in 2001, its much-praised executive director.

His account of those years is part memoir, part analysis, but it's very much for the general reader and you don't need to be an expert on American education to enjoy it. The issues that he writes about - the public perception of teachers, the realities of the classroom, the lack of funding, or the importance of collective bargaining and the dangers of "merit pay" - are live issues for every teacher, and the central narrative about rapprochement with the powerful and media-savvy American Federation of Teachers has particular resonance for UK readers.

It's the style, though, that makes his story so refreshing. This is education and politics from the inside, told with a lack of inhibition that our libel laws would be unlikely to permit. Here he is, for example, on a long-serving AFT rival, who had held virtually permanent office until at the age of 76 he was caught "with his hands up to his elbows in the union cookie jar. A hitch in the slammer finally got him out of office." It's lively stuff.

The shortcomings of teachers, whether real or perceived, are the subject, too, of Mary M Kennedy's Inside Teaching. Her book is subtitled "How classroom life undermines reform", and her thesis - not wholly unfamiliar this side of the Atlantic - is that too many "reforms" fail simply because those proposing them are either ignorant of or fail to take account of school realities.

It is the story of a research project which observed "ordinary" top-primary teachers at work, and noted the various interruptions and obstacles (including their own teaching assumptions and styles) that they encountered. In some respects, UK teachers would have managed better than those we meet here - better training, better induction, more professional development, less reliance on the textbook or the programme - but every teacher will recognise the constant feature, the unpredictable kinetic energy in every class of children and the fact that if something can go wrong, it probably will.

Grasp this fact, Kennedy says to the baffled reformer, and your various policies for school improvement will work better. Fail to grasp it, and they may not work at all. Worse, they could be counter-productive. Who could argue with that?

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