They're not learning, they're just doing school

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Doing School: How we are creating a generation of stressed-out, materialistic and miseducated students. By Denise Clark Pope. Yale University Press. pound;16.95 hbk. pound;10 pbk

High Stakes: children, testing and failure in American schools. By Dale and Bonnie Johnson. Rowman and Littlefield. pound;17.95

Reaching Higher: the power of expectations in schooling. By Rhona Weinstein. Harvard University Press. pound;26.50

Teaching in America - the slow revolution. By Grant and Christine Murray. Harvard University Press. pound;10.50

President Reagan's National Education Commission has a lot to answer for. Its 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, was influential on this side of the Atlantic too, and many of its demands - teacher accountability and targets, a prescribed curriculum, high-stakes testing, streaming (or "tracking"), magnet schools and parental choice - found their way into English legislation.

Today, however, Americans are less sure. In spite of 20 years of top-down reforms (and global economic supremacy) the nation's education targets have not been met. There is a growing tendency to challenge both the mood and the medicine of that earlier, apocalyptic consultation.

Doing School by Denise Clark Pope is typical of the genre. Its subtitle spells out its theme: that narrowly instrumental education reform has produced narrowly instrumental students and teachers whose most obvious skill is knowing how to work the system. Her evidence base is limited: five high-achieving students followed through their last year in a wealthy Californian high school. Are they being educated? No, she says, they are "doing school": manipulating, lying, procrastinating, even cheating in order to get the grades they need. How different are they, in this respect, from any other sixth-formers? And is this really what we mean when we talk so easily of ever higher "standards"? These are interesting and not unimportant questions and Pope's book, slight though it is, is right to raise them.

But her students are at the privileged end of American education. What has the post-1983 agenda done to those at the other end of the market, those at the bottom of the pile that's marked "diversity"? To find out, Dale and Bonnie Johnson, ex-teachers from the University of Louisiana, spent a year in a rural elementary school in the poorest part of the state, "a school with no playground, no library, no hot water, no art classes".

High Stakes is the story of that year: an eye-opening account of what happens to disadvantaged children when state-mandated tests are the be-all and end-all of education. What happens, of course, is that they fail - and in Louisiana, if they fail, they lose their summer holiday and are "retained" (they have to repeat the year). More of the same, in other words: failure reinforced, in the name of accountability.

It's riveting stuff: a powerful insight, too, into how the cycle of deprivation works at the school level as well as that of the pupil. A high-poverty school gets poor results. Teachers leave, staff turnover increases, expectations narrow, the school becomes (in accountability-speak) "inadequate"; its situation worsens.

Rhona Weinstein's Reaching Higher explores this cycle at the student level.

Her argument is that it starts with expectations that are too low, too narrowly construed and too differentiated by social status. These are reinforced by the way that classrooms and schools work and the way that policymakers and administrators think. In other words, she says, structures matter as much as "standards". There is growing evidence that the way we differentiate - among and within schools, by selection and streaming, by special education, by grade retention - is failing us. "The dangling of rewards and punishment, not surprisingly, has failed to create a school culture that effectively nurtures the learning of a diverse community of children."

It's a well-researched and well-written argument, not without implications for us in Britain. There is still a case, perhaps - after 20 years of denigration - for the essentially American invention that is the comprehensive school; a case, too, for teachers to reclaim the flexibility and openness that genuine high expectations must demand.

Which is exactly the case made by Gerald Grant and Christine Murray in Teaching in America - the Slow Revolution. It's time, they argue, for teachers to assert their own professionalism, and to win responsibility for their teaching from the policymakers and administrators who have always controlled it. But first, they have to rethink the dualism that has always underpinned American schooling, the tension between individualism and equality.

Hitherto (and certainly since 1983), it has been individualism that has, in the end, determined the assumptions and structures of American education.

Now, the authors say, the push is different: "to untrack the schools and educate all students to higher levels in more inclusive settings". They concede this will need "an enormous change in values and beliefs" - but they are convinced that is the way the wind is blowing.

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