'Why wouldn't we give our students this leg up?'

Miami seeks 'competitive edge' as it imports English exams

America may be the world's richest economy but it has long struggled to keep pace in terms of educational performance. Now, in a bid to improve its international ranking, it is turning to England.

This week, the fourth biggest school district in the US announced plans to give students a global "competitive edge" by offering IGCSEs and international A levels. In the next three years, English exams will become available in 70 schools in Miami, Florida, with more expected to follow.

The deal is the first of its kind in America. But the English exam board behind it believes that US interest in its qualifications - now used in more than 160 countries - will grow because of the "fear of competition" from abroad.

Michael O'Sullivan, chief executive of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), said that this "angst" was being driven by the increased importance of international league tables such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). His board is already investing in American English versions of its qualifications to meet the demand.

"It is an aspect of globalisation, a fear of competition in the developed world," he said. "There is a lot of angst in the US about comparative performance in education compared to other countries. It is quite a driver of what government tries to do, and what states try to do, and what school districts and schools try to do."

Robert Strickland, director of school choice at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said that the deal puts his district at the "cutting edge" of the trend towards offering a more international education. "This gives our students the option of seeing where we are globally," he said. "It gives us that kind of barometer. Why wouldn't we give our students this leg up?"

The school district, which serves 345,000 students in the city of Miami and surrounding areas, has been using the International Baccalaureate programme for about two decades. The Switzerland-based qualifications are available in about 20 Miami schools - this provision is second only to Chicago in the US.

After the deal with CIE, part of the University of Cambridge, the number of Miami schools using its tests will rise from 16 to 70. The board will offer teacher training in Miami to allow the swift expansion to take place, and more schools could follow.

"This is something that I don't think has been done before on this scale and it is very possible that it could end with a lot more schools," Dr Strickland said. "Every school that was approached for (the qualifications) wanted it badly and once they were selected others were saying, 'What about us?'"

In the most recent Pisa tests in 2009, the US came 14th in reading, 23rd in science and 25th in mathematics. US secretary of education Arne Duncan said that the disappointing results showed that US students were "poorly prepared to compete in today's knowledge economy" and that "a host of developed nations are out-educating us".

But Miami-Dade has demonstrated that this need not be the case: some of its students have already achieved globally outstanding scores in Cambridge exams.

Some Miami schools are likely to switch completely to CIE qualifications, while others will offer them as options alongside domestic courses. The district has planned the provision so that students will be able to study for the qualifications throughout their school careers, if their parents want them to.

"Miami-Dade is the highest performing urban school district in the US, as well as its most diverse," Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of schools, said. "In a knowledge-based economy, the partnership with Cambridge provides students (with) an international competitive edge and is a perfect match."

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