From The Editor - An educational star that is truly worth following

24th May 2013 at 01:00

For those who are tired of imported lessons from overseas, the idea that the US state of Massachusetts is the latest star to follow will be met with literal world-weariness (see pages 26-30). The hyping of school systems like next season's must-have accessories can become exhausting. Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Poland - models circulate on the educational catwalk like ceaseless reproofs: copy this, improve that, ditch that old stuff!

So should anyone pay any attention to what is happening in Massachusetts? How cutting edge is it?

In some ways, its success isn't so surprising. It may have outperformed all other US states for several years running but it is also relatively wealthy and has centuries of educational expertise to draw on. Moreover, although Massachusetts has developed along certain interesting lines, the state is hardly unique. Its educational trajectory has a lot in common, for instance, with the Canadian province of Ontario.

All this is true, but it doesn't make the Bay State any less interesting or imitable. Despite its wealth, Massachusetts, like most regions of the developed world, has sizeable pockets of deprivation, great ethnic diversity and huge disparities in income and educational attainment. Over the past 20 years, it has developed effective strategies to tackle these challenges. It sets clear goals, expecting students to excel and teachers to deliver. And it uses rigorous assessment to make sure that those standards are met. "Results matter," as the state's education commissioner said.

So what?, you may ask. It's hardly revolutionary stuff. What high-performing system doesn't invest in its teachers, or have clear expectations and some form of assessment to make sure that they are met?

True enough, but what makes Massachusetts so interesting is not only its systematic approach to school improvement but also its measured and less than combative approach to reform. The debate is far less venomous there than in many other US states. The government takes time, for instance, to engage with the unions, which may not always be totally happy with the policies adopted but at least have a voice at the table where they are formulated.

Then there is the issue of charter schools, the US equivalent of academies in England. Massachusetts was initially extremely wary of allowing too many of these schools to operate, partly because of the drain on local school funding and partly because of their patchy record. However, it also realised that they could be great innovators and, properly held to account, could make a difference where it really mattered. So it closed the underperforming ones, screened potential sponsors and kept the successful ones on fixed-term contracts. Now, because it feels that charter schools are working with it rather than acting as cuckoos in the nest, the state has allowed their numbers to grow.

What a difference from the state of play on the other side of the Atlantic, where immovable teaching unions confront a zealous government to the detriment of the schools that all claim to champion. Both should learn from Massachusetts. Yes, educational fashion parades can be tiresome, but just occasionally they showcase a style that really is worth copying.

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