Michael Duffy is intrigued by the notion that some British innovations could be the cure for the US education system
Who's Teaching your Children?
By Vivian Troen and Katherine Boles
Yale University Press pound;17.50
This is one of those books about American schools that strikes chords of recognition on this side of the Atlantic. Its subtitle, bannered in scarlet on the cover, trumpets "Why the teacher crisis is worse than you think and what can be done about it". It has a familiar ring.
The dedication, though, is more unusual. "To the hardest-working, least appreciated, most undervalued worker in our society," it reads, "conservator of our most valuable national asset, indispensable determiner of our future: the classroom teacher". Don't blame teachers, the authors say, for the faults and failings of American public education.
It's a slightly surprising beginning, because the authors (both of them teachers and teacher trainers, and in some eyes therefore clearly suspect) make no bones about their standpoint. The standard of teaching, they say, is lower than it has ever been, and so is parental confidence in a school system that was once regarded as the bedrock of American democracy.
But how, they ask, could the situation be otherwise? Three decades of increasingly strident "reforms" (again, overtones here of our own experience) have been, they say, no more than "Band-Aids and boondoggles" (sticking plasters and palliatives) that have left the fundamental problems either unaddressed or worsened.
The fundamental problem, they say - and they have a confident, even passionate style that brooks little contradiction - is what they call the "trilemma of dysfunction" that besets American schools and schooling. Too few academically able students are attracted into teaching; those who are attracted are ill-trained and ill-prepared; those who make it to the classroom have an unacceptable professional life.
The first part of the book examines both the propositions and the Band-Aids and boondoggles that have been proffered to relieve them. Again, there is much that is familiar.
By and large, American schools are still locked into a 19th-century framework of egg-box classrooms and lessons; teachers are still often treated as semi-skilled workers; too many of them (as many as one in five) abandon the classroom within three years; far too many of them (three in five) have to supplement their incomes with other jobs; too many schools depend on what are often unqualified or minimally qualified temporary appointments.
Is anyone surprised to learn that in schools that serve largely minority populations, children have a worse than evens chance of being taught maths or science by teachers qualified in those subjects?
The authors' argument is that the various reform agendas and "solutions" only tinker with these fundamental weaknesses. What is needed is neither more testing ("the latest panic-driven fad"); nor more homework (which often just widens the already yawning gap between the affluent and the poor); nor "teacher-proof" curricula (a revealing phrase, as they rightly say); nor more choice (vouchers and charter schools and "schools for profit" are at best, they claim, leaky life rafts for parents desperate to get out of the system); nor incentives for recruitment; nor even smaller classes, unless teachers transform their teaching to take advantage of reduced class numbers.
The key, they say, is transformation; not just of teaching, but of the teaching profession. And what form will this transformation take? This is where UK readers get another surprise, because although they don't say so, Troen and Boles want to see some of the developments that have been happening over here: a tighter specification of teaching standards and initial qualifications, school-linked teacher training, statutory induction and mentoring, performance management with clear promotion ladders, an entitlement to professional conditions and professional development. How convincing you find their arguments to be depends on how far you think that the measures described have transformed our own educational systems.
But their case doesn't end there. The last section of this highly engaging book envisages the sort of elementary (primary) school that could be created, they say, if the dysfunctional trilemma were resolved: a school that is open all year and that is the focus of community needs and services; a school where teachers teach in teams that are professionally resourced and where leadership is shared; "a small school, where the failings of an individual child will never go unnoticed". It means pooling the resources of several services, but yes, they claim, it really is affordable.
It is a beguiling vision. Seventy years ago Cambridgeshire's Henry Morris saw something very like it, and created the village colleges. Is it really possible, after all the changes, to recreate them? Or are our teachers and schools doomed to struggle always against unrealistic expectations? Perhaps we needed more, in this book, about the social context of teachers' work: more about those crippling expectations. Even so, it makes enjoyable and stimulating reading.