Divided by a common complaint

5th May 2006 at 01:00

An obsession with targets and top-down prescription is killing creativity on both sides of the Atlantic. Michael Duffy surveys the damage

John Lofty is an English-born American. Educated in this country, he moved to the United States in 1973 and became a teacher and then a teacher of teachers; he is now professor of English and English teaching at the University of New Hampshire. If anyone is in a position to compare and contrast the experience of teachers on either side of the Atlantic, it is him.

Lofty kept in touch with his contemporaries in England and with what was happening in English education. He was particularly interested in the imposition in 1988 of the national curriculum and the framework of assessment and inspection that came with it, prefiguring as it did the 1990s movement for state-wide standards and high-stakes testing in American public schools. Both developments, he thought, were over-prescriptive, bureaucratic and educationally narrow, inimical to the autonomy and control that are essential if teaching is to retain its status as a profession.

From 1997 he began to test this hypothesis in his native Derbyshire and in New England. Over the first two years he recorded a series of extended conversations with experienced teachers of English in different schools and contexts. He followed these up in later visits. As a research project this has limitations.

Few teachers were involved (in Derbyshire, four or five, plus a county adviser; in Maine, a similar number), and Lofty's conclusions are unsurprising. The US's No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002 - which imposed federal testing standards on what had always been a state or district model of public education -merely reinforces his conviction that the politicians' "shock and awe" approach to "reform" is damaging to teachers and learners alike. So, no doubt, does the remark of one of President Bush's advisers that he quotes here: "If there was any piece of legislation I could pass, it would be to blow up the colleges of education."

But it is not as research that this book is best read, and the concluding chapter (which, with its numerous Foucault references, is rather self-consciously academic) is not the best part of it. What is most vivid here -and what best makes Lofty's case for the profession - is what the teachers say about their work. Whether they are in Derbyshire or on the coast of Maine, they speak in a register that is instantly familiar about things that concern us all. However experienced they are, they know that they are learners, too.

They don't pretend to know all the answers, but they do think all the time about the questions. How different from the policymakers.

We start with Marilyn (all the names are pseudonyms), head of English in the struggling pit-town secondary school that Lofty himself attended. It's in special measures now; the national curriculum attainment targets frame every lesson. "You have to keep your eye on all the boxes," she explains.

Everything has to be documented; every assessment has to be provable.

Somehow (it doesn't fit the boxes) she makes space for an oral history project that draws on her pupils' lives, but there's an overwhelming sense of pressure. When Lofty returns, though, this has lifted. Ofsted has revisited and the school is no longer in special measures.

Angie and Elaine, experienced primary teachers in the same town, are wrestling with the literacy hour in key stage 1. They enjoyed the ferment of curriculum thinking that ceased so abruptly in 1986. They felt they had been getting it right, and they are scathing about the barrage of ever-changing government prescription they face. Though they recognise the benefits of greater conceptual rigour, they resent the imposition of specific time frames. With so much to "deliver" - as Lofty says, a key word in English practice - there is gruelling, energy-sapping pressure here as well.

Tony, head of English in a market town comprehensive, feels the pressure less. He sees the limitations of the national curriculum, resents the falsity of the "consultation" that preceded it ("at one point I considered leaving the profession") but recognises its legitimacy. He can afford to: his school is successful, rated as outstanding, and he is confident enough to use the assessment framework to structure both teaching and learning.

His major reservations concern the least able pupils. Confronted with repeated failure, he thinks, they find it almost better to say, "I didn't try," rather than, "I tried, and didn't succeed."

The picture Lofty paints is of committed, thinking teachers, held back by the mechanistic edicts of distrustful, belt-and-braces legislation. In Maine, in a very different context, he finds a similar pattern. Until the early 1980s, teachers here, as elsewhere in the United States, were constrained only by the textbooks mandated by the school district for their course. Then the limitations of textbook teaching became apparent: here, too, there was a sudden flowering of professional debate about curriculum and method. This was cut short by what was perceived in the Reagan years as a national education crisis: school districts, and then states themselves, began to lay down the standards that schools were expected to achieve.

During the 1990s Maine decreed first a "common code of learning" and then a list of "learning results" (expected achievements). It is in the context of this legislation that Lofty reports his conversations.

The differences are instructive. The common code is not by any means a syllabus, and certainly not a scheme of work; the results are less specific than our own attainment targets and allow for more effective outcomes. They gave rise, though, to similar resentments. "We were doing this," these teachers say, "and what's more, we were talking among ourselves about getting better. That's gone."

Catherine, one of the teachers charged with delivering the results, knows this wasn't true of all Maine's teachers; she recognises that some of the resistance stems from the fact that innovation dents the comfort barrier.

She speaks powerfully, though, about the excitement that comes from innovation that teachers own or share; excitement that, as Lofty says, on both sides of the Atlantic we are in danger of losing.

It may be Erin's story, though, that tells us most. She works in a middle school, with the sort of children who have never read for pleasure. "They can't deal with silence," she explains. "Never had it." Patiently, she teaches them how to be quiet; sits beside them, with her book, until, "You hear their breathing change, and suddenly, they're reading. They're in another world."

As she says, that's not the sort of teaching that the common code of Maine assumes, and it's not the sort of learning that assessment looks for. She sums up her philosophy thus: "We need to attend through our senses as to how our pupils are learning."

Quiet wisdom indeed.As important as the author's more predictable conclusions.

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