Archive for November, 2013

First reflections on London

I’m a blogging slacker and haven’t posted since February. Work was busy, life was busy, and all of a sudden, it’s the middle of November. While I can’t promise to blog regularly in the foreseeable future, I would like to use the blog as a platform to reflect on a recent trip to the UK.

As part of the Global Education Policy Fellowship Program (affiliated with the Institute for Educational Leadership), a group of education professionals spent a week in London this October to learn about the UK education system, the strengths, the weaknesses, and how some of the UK strategies could apply to the US. We visited 5 all high performing high poverty schools, most of which had recently undergone drastic turnarounds. In addition, we met with dozens of education researchers, practitioners, and policy makers to discuss everything from early years education (0-4) to the university system, from alternative education programs to the national accountability framework. By the end of 12 days, I was inspired that change really is possible, reenergized that adults can make decisions with the best interest of students at heart, and utterly exhausted.

At the core, the UK and the US are in very similar places. Both countries rank in the middle of PISA performance and both are undergoing: a drastic push towards increased rigor (and trying to figure out how to build capacity of instructors); the constant college or career, or college and career debate; tough economic times, compounded by high unemployment rates and decreased budgets; the all too common “teach to the test” debate; lack of capacity of local education authorities (i.e. boards/governing bodies); increasing diversity; a lack of highly skilled laborers; an increase (or at least a greater recognition of bullying); and, an increasing awareness of schools needing to provide wraparound services to students.

In contrast, there are several differences in the UK that I found quite refreshing, most notably:

  • A real “culture of candor” – some call it blunt, others call it rude – but in the end, it was clear that people are not afraid to talk about controversial topics. As a result, decisions are made quickly and definitively.
  • A focus on students first – adult interests were clearly put on the back burner in all of the schools we visited, and there seemed to be a national belief that schools are for educating students, and not acting as employment agencies for adults.
  • An ethos of shared accountability – at one point, one of our speakers stated “if you’re a great principal and all you do is manage one school, then you’re not really that great of a principal.” This mentality was noted at multiple levels: from teacher collaboration, to principals (head teachers) managing several schools, to networks of high performing schools taking on low performing schools to turn them around.

While these three differences are most likely not universal across the UK, and they likely exist (in selected places) within the U.S., they stuck out early in the week and reappeared numerous times. These three pieces combine to make real change possible. Real change that’s focused on what student’s need to succeed. Real transformative change, that we so desperately need in this country. 

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