Will lessons from America be lost in translation?

11th December 2009 at 00:00
At Boston's high-achieving charter schools, the teaching is lively, the staff are bright-eyed and the pupils - mostly from deprived inner-city backgrounds - are impeccably behaved. William Stewart crossed the Atlantic with a group of British teachers to find out whether the controversial model can work back home

The neon "checks cashed" sign glowing into the night as a bus full of British teachers trundles through Boston's inner suburbs is an early reminder of the poverty that blights the lives so many children in America's cities.

Next morning as the group sits in a school housed in a former bank, just yards from where jets scream down the runway of Logan Airport, 13-year-old Kevin brings that reality home.

The teenager stands up in a room packed full of his classmates, teachers and strangers from England and calmly spells out his "motivations" for doing well at school.

"I want to beat the bad influences and help my family," he says, explaining that he has a brother affected by drugs, a cousin harmed by alcohol and a mother who doesn't always have the money they need.

"I want to hang out with the good kids and not the bad ones. I want to become a lawyer and I want to be able to help my family with money."

Where America leads, Britain so often follows. In recent decades, that post-war truism has extended to the deprivation, middle class flight, gang culture, and lack of expectations that can combine to make running a successful inner-city state school a difficult proposition on either side of the Atlantic.

But while some argue that the US-style free market, consumer choice model of society has created problems for the British urban school, others believe it could also provide the solutions.

Since the 1980s the charter school movement in America has allowed independent education providers to spend public money schooling children in the hope that they can succeed where state-run schools have failed.

Today there are more than 3,000 charter schools in the US, some run by profit-making companies, others set up by universities or educationists who think they can do better than the state.

Their record is mixed. This summer, a Stanford University study showed that 37 per cent of charter schools were giving pupils a "significantly worse" education than standard state schools. Only 17 per cent of them delivered a better education, and 46 per cent made little or no difference, the study said.

That has not stopped the Conservatives from promising a new wave of academies for England based on US charter schools and Swedish free schools, should the party win power next year.

Nor has it quenched the thirst among some British educationists to learn from the best that the charter school movement has to offer.

This autumn, as part of the National College's Future Leaders scheme, 60 teachers training to lead our toughest urban schools fanned out across New York, Chicago, Washington DC and Boston to see the cutting edge of American state-funded non-selective urban schooling for themselves.

At the Excel Academy in East Boston - the charter school attended by Kevin - the reasons behind the trip to the US quickly become apparent.

We observe circle time for the eldest, eighth grade pupils in this 10-14 middle school.

"Ladies and gentlemen please be silent," says the principal. And instantly there is complete silence.

Over at Roxbury Preparatory Charter, another middle school housed on the third storey of a nursing home, a history lesson begins with the teacher saying "five, four, three, two, one".

They are the only words uttered for the next five minutes of uninterrupted study.

This is the "Do now" period that kicks off every lesson. Pupils know what to get on with because their "Do now" task is written on the whiteboard.

It is over as suddenly as it began with another countdown and the teacher telling his class how excited he is about what they are going to cover today. By now the pupils are settled, quiet and ready to learn.

Just as impressive are the test results. Last year, Roxbury, which serves some of Boston's most deprived neighbourhoods, out-performed nearly 80 per cent of middle schools in the entire state of Massachusetts, one of the most prosperous in the US.

At Excel, in 2008 pupils outperformed their local and state peers at all grades in the English, maths and science tests taken by pupils in every publicly funded Massachusetts school.

As Kevin's story illustrates, these are not children from prosperous middle class homes. Three quarters of Excel pupils qualify for free or reduced school dinners and 69 per cent are Hispanic, the most underachieving group in Boston. But Excel manages to buck the trend.

How? Well it is not just the teaching. To a layman it looks amazing. Excel teachers hold their pupils' attention completely, delivering pacey, carefully structured lessons. Activities like "mad minute", where pupils have 60 seconds to write everything they can on a subject, break an hour up into short bursts that do not give the class an opportunity to become bored.

But the Future Leaders visitors from England - who include some very experienced heads - while dazzled by the school as a whole, were less impressed by the pedagogy itself.

What really stands out are the routines established in these charter schools that underpin all lessons, to help maintain order and achieve consistency.

Teachers expect pupils to SLANT: Sit up straight, Lean forward, Ask questions, Note key information and Track the speaker. Or to DEAR: Drop Everything And Read.

Allison Crompton, head of Middleton Technology School, is already introducing some of these American stategies to her Greater Manchester secondary.

"They are such small changes," she says, "but they make an incredible amount of difference to the culture of the school."

Throughout our visit to Excel a distinctive clicking sound can be heard. It punctuates otherwise silent classrooms and comes over in waves during circle time.

"Let's hear some snaps," says the principal, and pupils begin, as one, to click or "snap" their fingers. It is a way for them to show their enthusiasm or appreciation without disrupting a lesson by calling out.

At Roxbury pupils don't snap their fingers; they wiggle them, silently. If a teacher says something that is particularly well received, you can see an entire class waving jazz hands in the air.

The silent applause idea neatly encapsulates the essence of the charter schools we see. All are uncompromising when it comes to discipline and behaviour.

"We will suspend students here and send them home for things as small as cursing," says Kyra Wilson Cook, director of dissemination at Roxbury.

"We believe if we make a big deal about the small things we can stop the big things from happening."

But while phrases like "no excuses culture" can conjure up a rather severe, joyless image; these schools are anything but.

During circle time at Excel, staff have pupils in stitches with their humorous, faintly sarcastic descriptions of the rewards that can be won through good behaviour, such as passes to use the staff "bathroom", complete with illustrative pictures.

If tight discipline is one charter school essential, long hours are another. The basic school day can run from 8.30am to 5pm.

Many pupils stay even later for clubs, sports or extra help and some even come in at weekends, despite facing daily commutes of up to two hours.

This culture allows more learning but places an extra burden on staff as well as pupils.

At Boston's Match Charter School the Match Corps (see box) help to take the strain. But in other schools it falls on the teachers and that requires a particular type of person.

"I like to spend an hour dissecting how to set a multiple-choice question," Komal Bhasin, Excel Academy head, proudly admits. "I am a big nerd and I am looking for the biggest ones to come into this school and teach our kids."

But nerdiness is not the first thing you notice about Mrs Bhasin. The academy leader is just 28.

The Harvard graduate sounds slightly miffed at the suggestion that an average teacher age of 30 is the secret to her school's success. It is about quality, she insists, not age.

But even if it is not a pre-requisite, youthful energy must help teachers in charter schools cope with long days, average salaries of around #163;25,000 - less than in conventional state schools - and little job security.

Unlike their colleagues in the conventional American state school sector, charter school teachers do not enjoy tenure. At Excel, one-year contracts are standard and in the past the school has not blanched at laying off its entire staff in the summer and starting again from scratch.

These conditions make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for charter school teachers to buy their own homes in a desirable city like Boston.

Yet, partly through the Teach America scheme - the US progenitor of Teach First - these schools manage to attract a steady stream of able young recruits.

At Roxbury, the average age of teachers is 29. "Most of our staff are young and single," says Ms Wilson Cook. "We are the type of adults that want to change the world."

And that is the pay-off for these idealists: knowing they are shaping an educational experiment that could make a real difference.

"We all are very passionate. We want to close the achievement gap," explains Mrs Bhasin. "It feels like a think tank here. We all have bad days and the intellectual hook is what pulls you back."

But is it replicable throughout the US, and indeed in this country? Are there enough suitable staff to go round to give all American children this kind of charter school experience?

Natacha Meyer, a science teacher at Roxbury, admits: "No, I don't think there are. This model requires teachers that are incredibly dedicated. I don't think it works for all teachers. But it does work for all students."

It isn't just the short-term contracts, long hours and low pay at issue. The level of lesson observation would give the average British teaching union official a heart attack.

In a previous job in a conventional Boston state school Ms Meyer received feedback on her teaching once a year. At Roxbury she was assessed 25 times in eight weeks. But she welcomes the change because it has helped her improve "from day to day".

At Excel, Mrs Bhasin has even created a new phrase to describe it. "Deprivatisation of practice is a good thing," she says. "I used to work in a public school in New Orleans and I had to lock the door because of the crazy things that were going on behind that door. I don't want that here."

For better or worse, these top-performing charter schools have created a very different mindset. Unions are typically frowned upon, but on the flipside the schools possess an undeniable can-do dynamism.

There is no room for the cynicism and world-weariness exhibited in some English - and no doubt American - staffrooms.

Getting children into "college" is the holy grail for the charter school movement. The importance of the goal is rammed home at every opportunity: form groups are named after the teacher's alma mater and banners from the university in question decorate their room.

School corridors are adorned with slogans such as, "The road to success starts here. Our destination is higher education!"

It can seem a little strange that this message should need to be spelt out in Boston. This is a city that is deservedly known as "the Athens of America" - where there is a university around virtually every corner.

But for many state school pupils in the city, the likes of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may as well be in another country. Charter schools aim to bridge that gap by any means necessary.

But they are far from being a magic bullet, as the Stanford study shows. Even their own staff, like Ms Meyer, admit: "There are a lot of charter schools are doing more harm than good."

And success, where it is achieved, can take a long time. Excel needed two years of false starts to get to where it is today.

There are also major doubts about how easy it would be to replicate an approach that thrives on young, energetic teachers without family ties.

But the Future Leaders trainees were not flown to America so that they could become charter school evangelists.

They crossed the Atlantic to learn about particular strategies being used in carefully selected high performing schools.

And to that extent, with ideas from previous visits already transplanted and embedded in schools in England, the scheme is a success.


Future Leaders aims to equip qualified teachers with the skills they need to head some of England's toughest secondaries and transform the fortunes of their pupils.

A mixture of intensive specialised training and expert mentoring, the publicly funded scheme is in its fifth year.

Now part of the National College's Accelerate to Headship programme, Future Leaders will be welcoming applications from Tuesday (15 December) for next year.



- No more than 220 pupils, allowing consistent pedagogy and routines throughout

- Clear aspirational culture to which all pupils, parents and staff sign up

- High expectations of all pupils, regardless of background

- Strict discipline

- Focus on basics, often leading to narrower curriculum

- Extended school day, sometimes with weekend tuition

- Teachers on one-year contracts

- State school money often topped up with extra fundraising


Do charter schools select? On the face of it, no. All Massachusetts charter schools must admit by blind lottery. There are no academic tests and no overt selection.

The Excel Academy goes out of its way to attract applications from more deprived families through local newspaper adverts and leaflets in Laundromats.

"We work really, really hard to keep parents on board," says Rebecca Cass, executive director at Excel. "If we are struggling to do that we are not going to throw up our hands and say their kid is a lost cause. That is not option."

Parental co-operation is an essential part of the charter school recipe.

But that "buy-in" can be demanded before the formal application has even begun.

"Parents have to make a lot of effort," says Kyra Wilson Cook from Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. "They have to go for information meetings, they have to sign a lot of papers, they have to put in the application and they have to very actively say 'I know about your school. I want my student to come here'."

So children whose parents really don't care won't get in? "No."

Charter schools may not be creaming off the best pupils. But it remains a strong possibility that even the simple need to make an application will filter out children with the most feckless parents, ironically those whose need is greatest.

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