Failure is not an option...

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Last week in Washington, American and British policy-makers alike threw out the idea that academic failure can be blamed on pupils' difficult backgrounds. Bob Doe reports on the transatlantic 'all-kids' agenda aiming at success for all

SCHOOL managers must stop making excuses and accept responsibility for ensuring all pupils succeed. That was the message of the first transatlantic conference on turning round low-achieving schools organised by the UK and US governments in Washington last week.

The common refrain of ministers, officials, heads and teachers was that high academic expectations for all was fundamental to school improvement - the "all-kids agenda", as one US administrator put it.

The challenge, according to Michael Barber of the British Government's standards and effectiveness unit, is the elimination of pupil failure.

But it is clear that it is not only in failing schools that achievement gaps would need to close. UK schools minister, Estelle Morris, told the conference that current educators would be the first to enable all children to be literate, numerate and to have the skills for active citizenship.

The elimination of low performance, according to Michael Cohen of the US department of education, involves the belief that "every one of our students can learn no matter what their background", a point reinforced by other speakers.

Robert Slavin, chairman of the Success for All Foundation, told the conference:

"All children can learn. The question is whether all teachers can teach."

For Peter McWalters, Rhode Island's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, the "all-kids agenda" was an economic and social imperative. "Our quality of life depends upon it."

"Making judgments about teaching quality is alien to our culture but that is where we are going." The gap between teacher practice and high achievement for all must be eliminated.

"Teachers are the problem. They are doing very well - better than we've ever done." But results remained predictable by class, race and district and accountability systems needed to confront this.

According to Gene Bottoms, director of the southern regional education board's High Schools that Work project, success for all required evaluation which, instead of fixing the blame for failure, fixes systems to make them successful. He advocated a move from an "ability" model to an "effort" one with high expectations for all, not just the few judged to be able.

Peter Clark, the former headteacher who stepped into the breach when The Ridings school in Calderdale broke down and who is ow a Department for Education and Employment adviser, called for a rejection of the idea that:

"There is no such thing as a failing school, just schools operating in failing communities."

Children had to be helped to achieve their potential no matter how challenging their circumstances. Key factors included teaching and management skills. But belief in the need for change was also fundamental.

Dr Joseph Johnson, director of a research project at the University of Texas looking at high-performing but high-poverty schools, said those achieving exemplary status against the odds were those accepting a "no excuses attitude" and focusing on high academic attainments for all.

"Schools which don't make the assumption that all can achieve do not have to look at how they can improve their teaching."

They needed management which engendered a passion for improvement. "You can't get

people to go whole-heart with a ho-hum."

"Successful schools understand that improving instruction is the core of school improvement. What is it that students don't know but need to? How should teaching learn to ensure they learn it?"

School districts that set challenging goals and had a sense of urgency about achieving them were more successful that those where school boards spent time excusing failure.

Successful schools "approached the school year like they approach the table", with an appetite for improvement. They ended the year with "eyes wide open, looking to see where you won or lost", gauging progress at every step of the way.

There was a dialogue about improving teaching; looking at children's work ; looking at teachers' work. Asking hard questions: is this the best we can do?

Mike Tomlinson of Britain's Office for Standards in Education described how 600 schools had emerged from special measures, not as a result of OFSTED's work, but through the hard work of teachers, parents and children.

Failed schools and those with serious weaknesses are supported by agencies but, fundamentally, the school itself had to decide to improve and how.

Indeed, many continue to do so after emerging from special measures, some outstandingly so, going from failure to beacon school status, demonstrating that it was teaching and management that made the difference, not the intake.

The conference delegates visited Patuxent elementary school in Upper Marloboro, Maryland, which has more than doubled its success scores in reading, science and maths in the past four years. Judy Dent, the headteacher, said: "There is no magic here, just consistently hard work."

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