THE BLOG
02/08/2013 05:37 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Learning From Britain About Charter Schools

The U.S. is not alone in its efforts raise results by expanding charter schools. The English government has taken a similar track with its 'academies' track. Will it work and what lessons are there for the U.S.?

Global educational comparisons like PISA show consistently that schools in high performing education systems tend to have considerable discretion with regard to how they set their academic direction and how they manage their resources. But far less is known about the dynamics involved, that is, to what extent increasing school autonomy will actually lead to increasing system performance.

One thing the Brits are doing well is awarding academy (charter) school status contingent on schools demonstrating excellence first. What is more challenging is to keep the status of charter schools tied to continued school success. If such reforms become a one-way street, where a one-time effort gains schools life-time autonomy, they may find themselves in a situation where some years down the road the scope for effective policy intervention is far more limited than it is today.

Here are some pointers for success.

Everyone knows that the quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of classroom practice, so the focus on teaching and its impact on learning will be key to bridging the gap between the vision for academies and reality in classrooms. OECD data also show that teachers' participation in professional development goes hand-in-hand with their mastery of a wider repertoire of pedagogical practices. We see a close relationship between professional development and a positive school climate, co-operation between teachers and teacher job satisfaction. And our analysis shows that effective professional development needs to be on-going and include adequate feedback, appraisal and follow-up.

So where do the Brits plan to get all this expertise from? Their idea is that improvement can and needs to come from the best knowledge and understanding among the academies anywhere in the system. That means that professional autonomy needs to go hand in hand with a collaborative culture, with autonomous schools working in partnership to improve teaching and learning throughout the system. They want the best teachers and the best schools to provide the expertise and resources for all teachers to update their knowledge, skills and approaches in light of new teaching techniques, new circumstances, and new research; they want the best teachers to help other teachers to get on top of changes made to curricula or teaching practice and they want the best schools to enable other schools to develop and apply effective strategies.

But knowledge is very sticky. Knowledge about strong educational practices tends to stick where it is and rarely spreads without effective strategies and powerful incentives for knowledge mobilisation and knowledge management. That means they may have to think much harder about how they will actually shift knowledge around pockets of innovation and attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classroom and to get the strongest principals into the toughest academies. It's certainly not impossible. Systems like Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, Shanghai or Sweden have a good history of teamwork and co-operation. Schools in these countries really form networks and share resources and work together to create new and innovative practice.

But this collaborative culture does not fall from the sky and needs to be carefully crafted into policy and practice. In Finnish municipalities, for example, school leaders also work as district leaders, with one-third of their time devoted to the district and two-thirds to their own schools. In this way they align schools and municipalities to think systemically in order to promote a common vision of schooling and a united school system. For school leaders to take on this larger system-level role, leadership is distributed, with leadership teams assuming some of the school leaders' tasks. Or take Shanghai. If you are a vice principal of a great school in Shanghai, and you want to become a principal, you can get there, but only if you show that you can turn around one of the lowest performing schools beforehand.

An interesting avenue England is taking, and perhaps one of the most crucial ingredients for success, is to subject all schools to one of the most thorough and professional inspection regimes that you can find. And they plan to judge a school to be outstanding for leadership only if it can provide evidence of its contribution to system-wide improvement. But more than that may be needed. Our PISA data show that if you have a school system in which knowledge is shared effectively and you are a school with significant autonomy, your students are likely to perform better on PISA than students in a school with limited autonomy, on average across OECD countries at least. But if you are in a system without a culture of peer-learning and accountability, autonomy can actually work against you.

The Brits are also working hard to ensure that a system of increasingly autonomous schools remains fair and accessible to children from all backgrounds. Here OECD data show that school choice may actually work against them, which means that they will need to redouble their efforts to avoid increasing school segregation. One thing they are exploring to this end is to require each academy to publish comprehensive data, including socio-economic data, about who applies and who is admitted. They are also trying to ensure that academies demonstrate their professionalism by providing substantial accountability to pupils, parents and other stakeholders, to ensure that there is enough support and challenge in the system, and enough checks and balances, for academies or groups of academies to be able to use their independence properly.

So, while there are still lots of question marks, it seems that the reform in England holds significant promise for system-wide improvement. The biggest reward it may reap is a shift from the prescriptive and industrial work organisation of schools, to a truly professional work organisation that builds on professional autonomy within a collaborative culture, with the status, professionalism, and the high-quality education that go with professional work. And that is precisely what we need to expect from 21st century school systems.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.