Of all the ideas Ed Balls, Secretary of State, could have taken back from his visit to New York this year, he chose perhaps the limpest initiative in American education: school report cards. The idea seems to appeal to politicians obsessed with quantitative comparison, with the hundreds of lessons and hours of learning condensed into one grade. Declaring the idea to be the latest element of parental choice and accountability, Mr Balls was inspired enough to introduce it into English schools in the recent White Paper.
American politicians assume parents want a method of comparison for their schools, and without league tables or inspection reports the single grades offer a cheap and easy alternative. Yet even they acknowledge that its usefulness amounts to little more than "soft transparency", and should certainly not be mistaken as a measure of accountability.
Should Mr Balls decide to visit the Big Apple again in search of inspiration, I suggest he visits the Julia Richman Education Complex on the Upper East Side, where he can observe six highly effective schools working with the city's most disaffected students.
The Julia Richman High School, as it was a decade ago, became synonymous with gang violence. The New York school system, not known for its adventurous streak, cited it for closure and suggested it was divided into six separate, autonomous schools, no bigger than 400 students each. The building, unchanged on the outside, now caters for nearly 2,000 children, sharing facilities and expertise when necessary; all the economies of scale of a large school without the alienation.
The Urban Academy occupies the second floor, drawing its 140 children from the poorest parts of the Bronx, many of whom have been excluded from other schools. Some students are young mothers and value the health and childcare centre on site. Year groups and standardised lessons have been abandoned, and instead of pushing students to graduate in four years, they allow them to continue to take classes, working on weaknesses and preparing for the SAT college entrance exam. The results are staggering: 97 per cent of children attend university, many receiving means-tested scholarships.
Ann Cook, the school's co-director, attributes part of the success to its flexibility. "The whole staff should be able to sit around a table and come to a consensus on school decisions," she told me when I visited recently. She believes that when schools get too big to know every student, and staff rooms have to seat over 100 teachers, there is an anonymity that undermines the cohesion of the community.
Mr Balls, perhaps preoccupied with opinion polls and dwindling budgets, missed the best of American school reform and returned with a toothless initiative to placate the electorate with an illusion of change. As Schools Secretary, it may have been his last chance to witness what can be achieved when teachers are invited to rethink school organisation and empowered to implement changes.
James Richardson is Thouron Scholar at Pennsylvania University and former head of humanities at Sale High School.