Thursday, 7 October 2010

Imported From Britain: Ideas to Improve Schools

WASHINGTON — During a decade in power in Britain, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair made efforts to improve English schools, with some apparent successes. Because American public education faces similar challenges, like what to do with failing schools and how to recruit better teachers, some educators believe there is much to learn from England’s experience.

A few are turning to Sir Michael Barber, a senior adviser to Mr. Blair from 1997 through 2005, who received his title in recognition of his educational contributions. As a partner at McKinsey & Company, he has been advising education policymakers, including the Ohio State Board of Education and Joel I. Klein, the New York schools chancellor.

Sir Michael’s recent book, “Instruction to Deliver,” is a favorite of Mr. Klein’s. Last year, the schools chancellor asked Sir Michael to address hundreds of New York principals atLincoln Center about school improvement strategies.

Sir Michael elaborated on those themes in a recent interview in the dining room of the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, where he was staying during a consulting trip. A gray-haired fellow who often cocks his head to one side when emphasizing a point, he occasionally asked and answered his own questions, and he stressed the importance of improving teacher quality.

“What have all the great school systems of the world got in common?” he said, ticking off four systems that he said deserved to be called great, in Finland, Singapore, South Korea and Alberta, Canada. “Four systems, three continents — what do they have in common?
“They all select their teachers from the top third of their college graduates, whereas the U.S. selects its teachers from the bottom third of graduates. This is one of the big challenges for the U.S. education system: What are you going to do over the next 15 to 20 years to recruit ever better people into teaching?”
South Korea pays its teachers much more than England and America, and has accepted larger class sizes as a trade-off, he said.

Finland, by contrast, draws top-tier college graduates to the profession not with huge paychecks, but by fostering exceptionally high public respect for teachers, he said.

Under Mr. Blair, Sir Michael said, Britain attracted more talented young teaching candidates by offering stipends of £7,000, or about $14,000, for college graduates undergoing a year of teacher training. The government set up a national curriculum to govern such training and started a nationwide public relations campaign aimed at persuading prospective teachers that society would value their work, he said.
“We completely recast our teacher recruitment and training system,” Sir Michael said.

Before joining the Blair government, Sir Michael experienced England’s educational system personally, in stints as a schoolteacher, teachers’ union official and university professor. He lives in the East End of London with his wife. Their three daughters are fully grown.

Public education in England and the United States evolved along similar paths, he said.
In the early 1980s, government reports deploring educational mediocrity rattled both nations, inspiring movements to improve standards and accountability on both sides of the Atlantic. And during the last decade, both nations began federally driven school improvement efforts, he said.

“But it’s a lot harder to do education reform in the United States than in the U.K.,” Sir Michael said.
That, in part, is because of sheer size, he said. England’s elementary and secondary educational system, which has about seven million students and 24,000 schools, he said, is more akin to California’s, which has about 6.3 million students and 9,500 schools, than to the United States’, which has about 50 million students and 90,000 schools.

But more important, he said, Britain’s political system endows its prime ministers with greater powers to impose new practices than any corresponding American official enjoys, since basic education policies in the United States are set in the 50 states and in the nation’s 15,000 local school districts, he said. Even though President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law has considerably increased federal influence over what happens in American schools, Washington still plays a subsidiary role to states and municipalities, he said.
“Once Britain’s prime minister is elected, he has a majority in Parliament and it’s much easier to change things,” Sir Michael said. “In contrast, the founding fathers created a political culture where you have to get consensus from competing factions.”
In Ohio, for instance, Sir Michael led a McKinsey team last year that helped produce a 102-page report recommending new education policies based on the best practices in Britain and other countries.

(The report can be seen at

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