Sunday, November 01, 2009

Education Reform: Lessons from the UK

The Center for American Progress (a lefty think tank) organized "an insightful conversation about the community schools strategy and how federal policy can encourage the growth of community schools across the country" a few days ago. You can watch the whole thing on their website (or you can get just the audio by subscribing to their events podcast, which is where I heard it).

If you have the time and you're interested in education policy I'd highly recommend watching or listening to the first 40 minutes or so where Tony Blair (former Prime Minister of the UK) describes how his administration successfully reformed the UK public school system. He says that we actually do know what needs to be done to make the education system better; it's just really hard to do. I agree.

I'm going to cherry-pick a few things that I didn't think I'd ever hear a leader of a center-left political party say; listen to his whole talk for the proper context:
  • The teacher's unions are a challenge; they must be a partner, but must not be given veto power over reforms.

  • Successful schools have an identity-- an "independent ethos" -- and everybody involved feels pride in the school. That requires strong leadership at the school. Academy schools (charter schools in the US) are one way to get that strong identity. Extended schools (community schools here) are another way; they become the hub for the whole community.

  • Bad teachers shouldn't be teaching. Fire them.

  • Bad schools shouldn't be tolerated. And "coasting" schools are a big problem, too. Track performance and act fast.

  • Structure matters; set up non-bureaucratic, decentralized structures and give them support, but throw the system open to new providers and new ideas.

Tony Blair may have been astoundingly wrong for supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq, but he is absolutely right about how to reform education.
Between 2001 and 2005 what Blair increasingly hankered after was a way of improving the education system that didn't need to be constantly driven by government. He wanted to develop self-sustaining, self-improving systems, and that led him to look into how to change not just the standards and the quality of teaching, but the structures and incentives. Essentially it's about creating different forms of a quasi-market in public services, exploiting the power of choice, competition, transparency and incentives, and that's really where the education debate is going now.
--Sir Michael Barber (this whole interview is interesting)
After Mr. Blair's talk he and Arne Duncan (current US Education Secretary) sat down and had a conversation about community schools. I'm cautiously optimistic that the Obama administration might actually implement some real, effective reforms, but real reform would require changes on the local, state and federal levels.

Unfortunately, I don't think the Center for American Progress gets it. They are very excited about the "community schools" concept (extending the school day to better serve students and parents and making the schools the center of delivery of all sorts of social services), but don't talk at all about avoiding heavy-handed central bureaucracies or allowing new providers to inject fresh ideas and energy into our 19'th century, designed-for-the-agrarian-economy public school system.

1 comment:

Rick said...

Thanks for this Gavin - watching it now...