England vs Scotland: Competing school reform visions

Here is a post about the different ways that England and Scotland are approaching school reform — with echoes of the U.S. reform debate — by Marc Tucker, president of the non-profit National Center on Education and the Economy and an internationally known expert on reform. He is also editor of “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.” This appeared in Top of the Class, the monthly newsletter of the Center on International Education Benchmarking.

By Marc Tucker

England and Scotland may both be part of Great Britain, but they do not share a primary and secondary education system.  Indeed, those two systems appear to be headed in decidedly different directions.

Michael Gove, the rather energetic English education minister, is worried.  The achievement of English school children, he observes, like that of American school children, is no better than average in the international league tables.  Standards, he thinks, have been falling.  The A Levels, he says, are no longer the gold standard they should be. He does not buy the assertion by some that the performance of English students improved under the preceding Labor government, using instead the rise in English students’ grades as evidence that standards have fallen.  Spelling, punctuation and grammar have gone to pot, he says.  Students can’t do their times tables and aren’t even studying the classics—or, perhaps, the right classics.  Because teachers knew which scenes from Shakespeare would be on the exams, their students got those scenes, but the plays—not so much. Fuzzy thinking about the importance of interdisciplinary studies and skills have devalued the importance of actually knowing something he thinks, and he means to fix that, too.

Gove’s response is to get tough on English schools, teachers and students.  He is leading a major overhaul of the English curriculum.  The new curriculum is far more specific than the one it replaces about what students should know (what is now called “essential knowledge”).  Spelling, diction and grammar will be assessed in student writing and will count for an important part of the marks students get.  Students will be expected to understand how to use the subjunctive and the correct use of the apostrophe.  There will be a list of words they will be expected to spell correctly.  Shakespeare makes a required appearance in the English curriculum at an earlier grade than heretofore and the classics generally are getting pulled out of retirement.  Standards will be raised all along the pipeline, so that it will be harder to get through the upper reaches of the qualifications system.

Many English education professionals are not happy about these policy changes.  In an uncharacteristic move, The National Association of Head Teachers (school principals in the United States) recently passed a vote of no confidence in the government’s education policies.  They think the new policies elitist, are worried that many students, especially those who come from low-income and minority families, will fail in the new system.  They believe the emphasis on factual knowledge and rote learning is retrograde, representing willful ignorance of what is actually demanded of adults in the new economic reality.  And, finally, they don’t like the implication that the government holds professional educators responsible for the perceived fall in standards and is prepared to dictate in detail curriculum matters that England’s teachers think should be left to the discretion of its education professionals.

It doesn’t help that many schools in England are exempted from these detailed curriculum requirements, pitting those that are not against those that are, though—strangely—all will eventually be exempted.

Things are rather different north of the Scottish border with England.  The Scots have been concerned for a long time that their schools were below par.  But their diagnosis as to the reasons for the poor performance of their schools was almost the antithesis of Gove’s analysis in the English case.  The Scots decided that there was far too much testing and the curriculum was overly prescriptive, and insufficiently interdisciplinary.  The Scots believe that exams measure only a small part of what is most important in an education, and concluded that over-reliance on them had narrowed the curriculum unacceptably.  They wanted a curriculum that was very demanding but very flexible, full of pathways that would enable students from many different backgrounds to excel.

The result was the Curriculum for Excellence, first introduced in 2004, and not yet fully implemented.  Descriptions of the Curriculum emphasize the importance of the Four Capacities: Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Responsible Citizens and Effective Contributors.  And they cite the Seven Principles of Curriculum Design: Challenge and Enjoyment, Breadth, Progression, Depth, Personalization and Choice, Coherence and Relevance.  Visitors to Scottish schools implementing the new curriculum are struck by the high student engagement they see, partly a function of the highly applied project- and problem-oriented work they see going on in and out of classrooms.

There is considerable emphasis on assessment, but the angle of vision on assessment is very different from that found in England.  Rather than tightening the screws on external assessment, as in England, the Scots focus on getting students to assess themselves against the standards, internalizing the standards.  They talk about helping students work in groups to develop peer assessment so that the groups and individuals in the group can pinpoint their weaknesses and get better.  Assessment is seen as being most useful to a student when it is keyed to their own individual learning plan. Summative assessments are referred to as profiles, a statement of achievements in a variety of formats that can be assembled as an e-Portfolio.  The mandatory exams for 16 year olds were abolished.

Realizing that goals like these could not be achieved by ratcheting up the rules and tightening the screws on schools and teachers, the Scots went in the opposite direction, trying to ensure faithful implementation of their policies by enlisting teachers in large numbers in the further development of the curriculum.  Rather than laying out a whole detailed plan as quickly as possible and then putting out a very aggressive implementation schedule, the Scots decided that they would implement their new policies gradually, over a period of many years, getting teachers involved in filling in the details of the plan themselves, in piloting the new ideas and then in modifying the plan iteratively in response to what teachers discovered as the implementation went forward.  Teachers, in other words, were to be not the recipients but the drivers of implementation.

So what are we to make of these two, very different, approaches to curriculum within Great Britain?  My own reading of the experience of the countries with the most successful education systems suggests that the Scots are more likely to produce superior student achievement across the board than the English, using the strategies just described. Education is far more than schooling.  Performance-based systems which specify a desired level of performance and then try and get as many students as possible to that level are more likely to get more students to high standards than systems designed to sort students out on the assumption that only a few can achieve high standards.  So are systems designed to encourage teachers to find very different ways to engage students so that all can reach high standards.  No engagement, no learning.  Active learning, typically applied learning, appears to have the potential to engage far more students than conventional classroom instruction.  Traditional disciplines are a tool to enable learning, not the purpose of learning.  The evidence strongly suggests that education reform plans designed to be imposed on teachers are bound to fail.

So I am skeptical about the Gove agenda.  But that does not necessarily make me a Scot.  Here in the United States and in other countries in which we have been doing research, there is increasing evidence that, as the governments push for much higher proportions of students to get more and higher qualifications, the standards for those qualifications are falling.  Students get more schooling, but not necessarily more or better education.  It is not easy to maintain standards in democracies when the voters demand more qualifications for themselves and their children.  Michael Gove has a point there.

We should be careful before we throw the standard subjects in the curriculum—the disciplines—overboard in favor of the interdisciplinary curriculum.  The disciplines provide the most compelling structures mankind has developed for organizing knowledge.  It is in the disciplines that we find the conceptual structures that enable us to make sense of the world.  Without deep knowledge within the disciplines it is very hard to develop any but the most superficial knowledge across them.  I don’t know how this is playing out in Scotland, but Michael Gove may have a point here, too.

There are many educators who take the view that, more broadly, knowledge is old hat.  Knowledge is produced so fast, and is made obsolete so fast, and can in any case be so easily found on the Internet, they say, that it is no longer either possible or necessary to stuff students’ heads with facts and knowledge.  All that is important is skills.  That is nonsense.  People who have thinking skills but no knowledge have nothing to think about or with.  The people who are formidable in life are those who know a lot and can think well, whether the subject is carpentry or nuclear physics.  Michael Gove may or may not have it right with respect to his notions of what constitutes “essential knowledge,” but, in my view, governments do need to figure out what knowledge is essential and make sure that all students have access to it.

The evidence is very strong that education professionals must be deeply involved in education reform if it is going to work, not as the objects of reform, but as full partners in it.  But that is easy to say and not so easy to do when teachers and the unions that represent them choose to behave like blue collar workers rather than professionals.  I can understand why they often do that, especially when, for very good reasons, they do not trust government to treat them as professionals any more than government trusts them to act as professionals.  But trust has to start somewhere.

These are, of course, fraught issues.  It will be interesting to see how these sharply contrasting strategies work out in practice.  The Scots decided to begin implementation of the new system in the cohort just beginning their schooling that year, and then adding a new cohort each year as the years went by.  The English will implement their new system all at once.  So it will be a few years before the two approaches can be fairly compared in the OECD-PISA league tables.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · July 21, 2013