Obama reaches out for educational reform

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
In the first of a series examining schools systems around the globe in the build up to the UK general election, William Stewart reports from the US where, one year after the presidential inauguration, the battle lines on autonomy have been drawn

Flipcharts, coffee-stained cups, scribbled notes and PowerPoint printouts litter an anonymous meeting room in a nondescript office block in suburban Washington DC. The scene is redolent of any one of the thousands of corporate strategy meetings that take place every day in every city of the world. But for anyone with an interest in the schools revolution about to take place in the United States, and in how England is influencing it, this is a remarkable gathering.

Among those grabbing a working breakfast of bagels and orange juice are some of the most influential people in the US education system. They include Brad Jupp, the man heading President Barack Obama's drive to improve teacher quality, Margaret Spellings, education secretary under former President George W Bush; and a representative from the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation, the charitable behemoth that holds massive sway over school reform in the US.

They are joined by prominent figures from the charter school movement and representatives of leading American non-profit education organisations. The room contains, as one participant observes, "a lot of firepower". The "summit" has been organised by Teaching Leaders - a scheme aimed at developing the capacity of middle leaders in England's secondary schools - to see if a similar venture can be developed in the US.

As conversations later in the day reveal, it is only the latest occasion on which American education policymakers have drawn on the experience of their counterparts across the pond. The composition of the meeting is, in itself, helpful in understanding the direction in which power in the American schools system is heading.

Individual state governments are being required to draw together similar coalitions of public, private and charitable actors if they want to get their hands on some of the $4.35 billion in federal funding offered under the Obama administration's new "Race to the Top" programme, aimed at kick-starting school reform across the States. In England, a corresponding push to give the same kind of non-government actors a bigger role is likely to take place if the Conservatives win this year's general election.

The US may be out in front in ending the state monopoly on running state-funded education. But it is at least a decade behind England on two other touchstones of current US education policy: school autonomy and the increased use of data. In many ways, US education today resembles the system that existed in England and Wales before the Education Reform Act 1988. Local education authorities - school districts, as they are known in the US - remain all-powerful. Central government has little direct control over schools and there is no national curriculum or national testing system.

Most state schools have no control over their budgets, buildings, how much they pay staff and, sometimes, which staff they take. The charter school movement, which pre-dates England's similar academies scheme by about a decade, has started to change things, but only at the margins.

Now a more fundamental shift is afoot. Jay Altman, an energetic New Orleans charter school leader who worked for the Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) charity in London, co-founding the Teaching Leaders scheme, describes what the Obama administration is planning for education as "huge".

"Obama is taking on real education reform," he says. "These are the biggest changes in my generation. He is proposing performance-related pay and closing down failing schools. It is a willingness to take on entrenched institutional interests in favour of what will produce the best outcomes for kids."

For "entrenched interests", you could probably read: teaching unions. They are likely to oppose much of what emerges from "Race to the Top", but were among President Obama's biggest backers in his election campaign. Despite this, it is he who risks upsetting them. Mr Altman likens the situation to 1972, when a right-wing Republican president did what people least expected and reached out to one of the world's two great communist powers.

"It's like Nixon going to China," he says. "The battle is within the Democratic party. Obama is not anti-union, but he is pro-teacher effectiveness and pro-kids."

This willingness to offend natural allies and to continue and deepen a path of reform that was actually begun under George W Bush is one reason why US schools could be on the cusp of such big change.

The second is money. The economic downturn is likely, eventually, to result in UK schools having to tighten their belts. But in the States, the federal government isn't just responding to the crisis by bailing out banks, but also by pouring billions of extra dollars into education.

A one-off extra federal fund of $48.6 billion is being dished out to help state governments pay for education. But to get their hands on their entitlement, states had to agree to four basic principles of reform that make up the basis of the Obama agenda for schools. Those principles are: using robust assessment to ensure pupils reach the standards required by univerisities and workplaces; recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals; building data systems to measure pupils' "success" and informing teachers how they can improve; and turning round the lowest-performing schools.

The same fundamental points are the basis for "Race to the Top" - a competition between state governments to come up with the best reform ideas to make the principles reality. The $4.35 billion on offer is much less, but because only the "winners" will share it, this still represents a sizeable sum.

The scheme addresses a key problem for any US president - how do you get your way on education when it is school districts and states that hold all the real levers of power?

You could try to create a more centralised structure, as has happened in England over the past two decades, but that would be risky in a country where so many are suspicious of federal government. Instead, the Obama administration has given a powerful incentive for states, and school districts that can compete for another smaller fund, to come up with their own solutions.

"We want to be tight on ends and loose on means," Mr Jupp told The TES. "We are not going to change the present civic structure. But whether you are a school, a school district or a state, we want to see to you working as hard as you can within your climate to reaching the goals that President Obama has set. We have the system we have and what we need to do is make it work."

If it works, the strategy will not only prevent states from just paying lip service to the federal principles, but could, by allowing the most enthusiastic administrations to show how things can change, provide powerful examples for the whole country. As a delighted Mr Altman puts it: "They have empowered the reformers."

And it is not just federal government challenging the American status quo. Last summer, the New Teacher Project, a non-profit organisation aimed at improving the quality of teachers for poor and minority pupils, published an influential document called "The Widget Effect". Its basic point is that it is the individual teacher rather than the school that is key to improving education. It is a view shared by increasing numbers of academics, think tanks and politicians in the UK.

In the US, where many state-school teachers enjoy security of tenure and are often left largely to their own devices, this presents a particular problem, the paper argues. It says the evaluation of teachers by the school districts that employ them is a paper exercise that almost invariably concludes that they are good, regardless of the reality.

This "decades-old fallacy" means teachers cease to be understood as individual professionals, but rather as interchangeable parts, or "widgets", it says. The "denial of individual strengths and weaknesses" is "deeply disrespectful to teachers" and "gambles with the lives of students".

The report has already had a huge impact on policymakers and local school districts. As Mr Jupp admitted when he addressed the Teaching Leaders summit, from the time a teacher reaches tenure until they retire, "we go silent".

According to Mr Altman, England has the edge when it comes to the general quality of staff leading schools in the most difficult areas. "You have a stronger and more veteran talent pool in the inner city," he says. "In the US, you don't have this pool of people who know what the key levers of high-performing schools are."

The Obama administration has also been impressed by what happens in England. Mr Jupp has studied Westminster governments' responses to teacher recruitment problems between 1987 and 2004.

"You took a teacher supply crisis and turned it into an extraordinary response to make teaching a great job that changed the market and the demand for teachers into something different," he says.

Ms Spellings is another Anglophile when it comes to education policy. She says former Prime Minister Tony Blair and George W Bush shared a "common approach". "This whole accountability orientation was sort of at the core of their philosophy, so we had a lot of notes to compare," she says.

That "orientation" led to the No Child Left Behind Act, which Ms Spellings helped devise and launch as an adviser to George W Bush during his first presidential term. It aimed to hold all state schools accountable by insisting that they give all their pupils state-administered tests.

Ms Spelling describes Sir Michael Barber, who advised Mr Blair on education at the time, as a "buddy". So, did he have any influence on No Child Left Behind? The answer seems to be yes. "Well, I met Michael for the first time when he came to Texas when Bush was governor," he says. "So yes, there have been ongoing discussions across the pond because our issues are quite similar."

President Obama has described No Child Left Behind as having problems that need fixing. Members of his administration believe that, by being too top-down, the measures allowed local administrations to "shrug them off". But the core principles are not being abandoned. Ms Spellings commends the Obama administration's pursuit of reform "to the great dismay of lots of their union friends". And she is particularly pleased that there is a continuing emphasis on the use of data. This is one area where England is light years ahead of the US. As Mr Altman notes: "Over here, we don't have enough, but in England you have too much."

The English experience has highlighted clear downsides to relying too much on data. But Ms Spellings refuses to countenance critics' arguments. "Are these people suggesting we don't measure, that we go back to the good old days of not finding out, not caring enough to ask how our kids are doing?" the Texan asks incredulously.

The suggestion that data can be unfair because it compares schools in very different circumstances is also bullishly dismissed: "Frankly, both here and in your country, my opinion is that that is pretty overstated."

But if some Americans sound blissfully unaware of the problems that can emerge when data becomes central to a schools system, the British may not quite realise what they are in for if charities start to play a much bigger role, as the Conservatives would like.

The Bill Melinda Gates Foundation is pouring billions into the US schools system - money that brings a lot of power. Pablo Sierra, principal of Pritzker College Prep, a successful charter school in Chicago, describes the charity as "the five-hundred-pound gorilla". "The Gates Foundation basically dictates the size of schools," he says. The foundation has allocated more than $250 million in subsidies that act as incentives to create smaller schools.

Mr Sierra says that means he will lose $750,000 of his school's $4.5 million annual budget if it goes one pupil over 600.

"Gates is so far-reaching," he says. "Every blighted urban (school) district is affected by Gates because the foundation has targeted these districts as areas that need help, and rightfully so. And, in their wisdom, they have decided they need small schools. So in New York you have these constructs where they take these schools that were made for 2,000 kids and chop them up into four. So really, you have met the criteria, but have you met the spirit?"

On balance, Mr Sierra thinks the existence of the Gates Foundation is a good thing because it encourages innovation. He is also optimistic about where schools are heading under President Obama. "In 20 years from now, we will see this as the beginning of an incredible change that is going to transform urban education," he says. "There is going to be more autonomy and more decentralisation of districts and more choice for kids."

Greater school autonomy is an explicit aim of "Race to the Top", and enthusiasts for change such as Mr Sierra can sense power ebbing away from the school districts he describes as the "bureaucratic monster".

One participant at the Teaching Leaders summit likened what they thought was about to happen to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it is easy to get carried away. While schools may gain more English-style autonomy in some areas and the role of districts could change, these local authorities will not disappear.

President Obama wants change in the schools system, but there is no way his administration is going to take on local democracy over it. Nor will every school become a charter school. Washington wants state government caps on the number that can be opened to be lifted. But, just as importantly, it also wants them to hold charter schools accountable "in a rigorous fashion".

In Mr Jupp's words: "We don't support charter schools; we support effective charter schools." He describes them as playing a valuable "research and development role" for the wider non-charter-school system.

Many right-wing pundits in England believe the Conservatives' charter school and Swedish "free school"-inspired plan to allow outsiders to set up state-funded schools can solve the existing system's problems at a stroke. For these enthusiasts, the US offers a sobering lesson. Even after more than a decade of charter schools, with a charter school-friendly administration in power, there is no belief that they represent the main solution.

Swedish ministers have emphasised that their main priority is conventional state schools, not the small minority of "free schools" that have won so much international attention. And Mr Jupp has a very similar message.

"Ultimately, we have more than 100,000 schools that we need to pay attention," he says. "The role that charter schools can play as a research and development sector will always enhance our understanding of school performance, but we will never be able to count on charter schools - at least in the pending future - to take up more than a small portion of that portfolio of schools."

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