'Public' should mean what it says;Another voice;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
"I PLEDGE allegiance to the flag..." These, I had thought, would be my daughters' first words at their new American schools. Should I agree to them saluting the Stars and Stripes as is customary at the start of each school day here?

I need not have worried. In Ann Arbor, the liberal, mid-western university town where we are living temporarily, many schools have abandoned the daily pledge. It is no longer thought appropriate to require children to talk of "one Nation under God" when they all have different gods.

Even without the pledge, much else is different from school in England. Ann Arbor schools are good and over-subscribed. Yet they squeeze in all who want to come. A week before term began, we simply walked into our nearest elementary and middle schools and registered. There is no fuss; if they get extra students they simply hire another teacher.

Open access is important in this society. The phrase "public schools" means just that: open to all and belonging to the community. To talk, as we do in England, of "state schools" sounds totalitarian and places ownership with government, not the people. It is time the people took back ownership of taxpayer-funded schools.

A belief in public schooling is the nearest America gets to socialism. In a nation which regards a national health service as "socialised medicine", public schools represent equality of opportunity. They are the primary means for ensuring America's class-free, highly mobile society.

But what of the quality of education? Like Britain, this country is going through an extended crisis over the state of its publicly-funded schools. It may be little comfort to teachers in Britain to know that here too teachers get the blame.

We had been warned to expect lower standards, a "cable TV" curriculum (lots of choices, no real substance) and poor discipline. There is no national curriculum and certainly no literacy hour here. The mere notion of national government control over education makes Americans think of the tyranny the new nation revolted against in 1776.

President Clinton may agree with Tony Blair that education is a national priority. But there are none of the levers for educational change available to a British prime minister.

Yet some levers are needed. Americans, like the English, perform modestly on international comparisons of achievement in science and mathematics. Literacy levels leave much to be desired.

But it is hard to blame this on the elementary schools which, even in the "progressive" 1970s, never shifted their focus from the three Rs. Indeed the criticism of many elementary schools here is that they do little else.

My younger daughter is in 4th Grade (Year 5). Most of her school day is devoted to English and mathematics. She gets more homework in both subjects than she received in England. Yet there is also time for a broader curriculum. I have no fears of her losing out compared to her good state primary in England.

My elder daughter's curriculum is less impressive. She is in 8th Grade (Year 9), the final year of middle school. She has found her timetable dull and narrow. Most American schools operate a timetable which is the same every day. Each subject is studied for a single, 45-minute period.

The advantage of this system is the students' daily encounter with each subject. But some teachers here dislike the inflexibility of single periods and the limit this daily rotation puts on the range of subjects studied.

My daughter has just four compulsory subjects: English, mathematics, science and history. For the other three periods each day she has "electives" or options. It is quite possible to choose only non-academic options such as "sport for life", school newspaper, radio and TV, or jazz band.

She has had to drop many of the subjects she was taking in England. This narrow core curriculum and emphasis on student choice and fashionable subjects has prompted the description "shopping mall high schools" where students opt for the latest undemanding subjects.

Yet there is much to recommend American schools. The sense of public ownership of "neighbourhood schools" and the belief in "schooling for all" contribute to a society which is more community-spirited, more egalitarian, and more open to social and economic mobility than Britain.

It is time we took a lesson from America and called our free schools "public schools" too.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent. He is currently on a fellowship at the University of Michigan

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