Stars and gripes

15th February 2013 at 00:00
The United States is often held up by politicians here as a guiding light for education policy. But its system is fragmented and assessment is as much a source of controversy as it is in the UK. Laura McInerney reports

American high schools look just like they do in the movies. Anyone who has ever watched Grease or High School Musical would be hard pushed to walk around a US school's cafeterias and locker-filled corridors without imagining that at any second an assortment of jocks, cheerleaders and Pink Ladies will burst into song. But eerie familiarity aside, unless you have ever attended or taught at a US school, it is likely that everything you thought you knew about them is wrong.

For a start, a larger proportion of US children attend private schools than in the UK. In England and Wales, the figure is 7 per cent of pupils; in the US it is 10 per cent. The higher number is almost entirely due to the fact that religious schools in the US cannot be government funded. Although few people in the UK will know the names of top private schools in the US, they dominate university admissions in precisely the same way as schools such as Eton and Westminster do in England.

An even more unexpected quirk is that US schools operate without any form of national curriculum. In fact, US schools operate according to very little national policy at all. The US Constitution does not mention education, meaning that school policy is a matter for individual states rather than the national government. This can feel odd until one imagines how Britain might feel if the European Parliament tried to run its schools.

For many years, most states allowed local school districts - of which there are 14,000 across the country - to make curriculum choices. Lots of districts allowed schools free rein. More recently, state governments have imposed their will and last year all but five states signed up to "nationally agreed" standards in English and maths. In most other subjects, however, the curriculum is still highly fragmented.

Not every state has a relaxed approach to the curriculum. Texas is famous for its curriculum reviews completed by the 15 elected officials of the State Board of Education who painstakingly read aloud, line by line, their 120-page state-imposed curriculum, raising and voting on amendments as they go. In the most recent round of amendments, changes were tabled to rename the "slave trade" as the "Atlantic triangular trade" and to require the current president's full name - Barack Hussein Obama - to be used in all textbooks (in the end neither was passed).

Decisions made in Texas, however, have an effect far beyond its borders. As the second most populous state, Texas is a major textbook purchaser and when it changes its curriculum, publishers pay attention. Consequently, the decisions of those 15 officials significantly influence what lands on the desks of pupils all across the country.

This is one reason why curriculum converts such as E.D. Hirsch - an influential former college professor much admired by education secretary Michael Gove - are becoming more important. Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation developed a curriculum for Grades K-8 (Years 1-9) that covers "fundamental" knowledge and skills, and he is now lobbying for schools to adopt his curriculum rather than teach whatever appears in textbooks.

From a UK perspective, the idea of not having a national curriculum may seem a relief, but the fact that the US does not have a national school- leavers exam system can feel disconcerting. All US students can gain a high school diploma but this is not the same as GCSEs or A levels. The diploma is passed by completing assignments designed and marked by a student's class teacher. The assignments are not sent off for independent checking, which has led to charges of grade inflation. To counteract this, some states now set "exit tests" but each does it very differently. Universities, therefore, have to select an intake from 26,000 high schools that all teach different subjects and assess them in different ways.

At this point, readers with some knowledge of the US may wonder: what about SATs? Doesn't everyone sit those in the US? The answer is no.

SATs (originally Scholastic Aptitude Tests) are multiple-choice tests required for admission by several top universities. Although SATs are the most famous, ACT (American College Testing) is a growing competitor. People in the UK often assume SATs are similar to GCSEs or A levels but they are actually more like IQ tests. ACT tests would seem more familiar to Britons - they attempt to judge what a pupil has learned - but they are still very different. Unlike GCSEs, there is no automatic right to sit either.

Students wanting to take SATs must usually register independently, pay for the test and travel to an SAT test centre. For rural students, the nearest location may be more than an hour's drive away. And then there is the problem of revising. SAT questions are quite particular and the skills to answer them are not often taught in schools. Hence an entire exam revision industry has developed, selling textbooks and extra tuition. Wealthy students can easily afford it; poorer students struggle.

With such unequal exam access, it becomes easier to understand the "college preparation" fixation of famous school chains, such as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program). KIPP schools are relentlessly focused on ensuring that students develop the maths and English skills so commonly tested in SATs or other college entry exams.

Teacher colleagues in the US can be very defensive of their system. Noises from government pushing for all students to sit the same "exit exam" have caused consternation among teacher associations, and suggestions that it might help social mobility are generally derided. A common retort is: "Not every kid needs to do these exams." Another typical reply is that it would cost too much to have everyone's work externally marked.

Gove has mentioned the US more than 20 times in his speeches since taking office. He has praised US school autonomy and glorified Hirsch. "It has worked in America" has often been the cry, as if that means a policy will inevitably work here. But while the corridors of US schools look eerily familiar, they really are part of a quite different educational world. The UK can and should learn from the US, but let us never presume it is perfect. In reality, their system is just as fragmented and problematic as our own.

Pirls 2011

(Progress in International Reading Literacy Study)

Distribution of reading achievement, 4th grade (Year 5):

1st - Hong Kong

6th - US

11th - England

Percentage of students reaching advanced benchmark:

1st - Singapore

5th - England

7th - US

Timss 2011

(Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study)

Maths, 4th grade (Year 5):

1st - Singapore

9th - England

11th - US

Maths, 8th grade (Year 9):

1st - Korea

9th - US

10th - England

Science, 4th grade:

1st - Korea

7th - US

15th - England

Science, 8th grade:

1st - Singapore

2nd - England

3rd - US

Pisa 2009

(Programme for International Student Assessment)

Reading (15-year-old pupils):

1st - Shanghai-China

17th - US

25th - UK

Maths (15-year-old pupils):

1st - Shanghai-China

28th - UK

31st - US

Science (15-year-old pupils):

1st - Shanghai-China

16th - UK

23rd - US.

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