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The Unprinted Letter about Changes in U.S. Education

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A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times printed an adulatory interview of Sir Michael Barber about what needs to happen in American education. Mr. Barber was at one time a close educational advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair. As best I can make out, he advised him to do more testing at every grade.

Recently Mr. Barber (sorry, but being an American, I can't bring myself to call him Sir Michael) has been working for the McKinsey consulting firm and advising American educators, most notably Chancellor Joel Klein of the New York City Department of Education. His advice, it appears, is to decentralize authority to each school and hold principals and teachers accountable for test scores. Maybe his advice is more nuanced than that, but that is the main point that has come through the public media. In what was said in the papers to be a response to Mr. Barber's advice, Chancellor Klein wiped out the regional structure of the school system and essentially set 1500 schools afloat as little islands on their own, with only minimal supervision. At the end of each year, test scores will determine which students get promoted and which get flunked, which adults get a bonus and which get fired.

But is Mr. Barber's theory right? A British education official, Richard Pring, who is now responsible for reviewing the education of students from 14-19 in England and Wales, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times that was never printed. The Pring letter was circulated on the Internet, and I sought and obtained Mr. Pring's permission to reprint it here in the Huffington Post. It ought to cause school officials in the U.S. to slow down and think twice before buying the line that Mr. Barber is selling. It may be time to reflect on the possibility that a nation of good test-takers is not necessarily a well-educated nation.

Herewith the letter from Richard Pring that the Times did not print:

Editor

New York Times

Dear Editor,

I have read with interest the report of Sir Michael Barber's address to New
York Principals on the lessons to be learnt from Britain on how to improve
schools. (NYT 15 Aug. 07) However, may I along with so many in
England who have seen the consequences of the innovations led by Sir
Michael, urge caution. Not everyone agrees with his analysis, and
indeed the £1 million Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training
in for England and Wales, which I lead, is not, in the light of
evidence, presenting such a rosy
picture.

It is not surprising that Sir Michael, having been Director of
Standards and Effectiveness at the Department of Education and Skills
and then head of delivery in the Prime Minister's Office at No. 10,
should have finally moved to McKinsey's, which believes that what is
real can be measured and what can be measured can be controlled. In
the last few years, England has created the most tested school
population in the world from age 5 to age 18. School improvement lies
in scoring even higher in the national tests, irrespective of whether
these tests bear any relation to the quality of learning, and schools
which see the poverty of the testing regime suffer the penalty of
going down the very public league tables.

The results of the 'high stakes testing' are that teachers
increasingly teach to the test, young people are disillusioned and
disengaged, higher education complains that those matriculating
(despite higher scores) are ill prepared for university studies, and
intelligent and creative teachers incleasingly feel dissatisfied with
their professional work. I believe it
is no coincidence that, according to the recent UNICEF Report,
children in England are at the bottom of the league of rich countries
in terms of happiness and feelings of well-being, or that England now
criminalises 230,000 children between 11 and 17 each year (the highest
in absolute and relative terms in the whole of Europe), or that nearly
10% of 16-18 year
olds belong to the Not in Education, Training and Employment group,
despite the massive investment in that group over the last ten years.
And why should one expect anything else as most of their day light
hours consists of preparing for tests, totally disconnected from their
interests and concerns, present or future?

The Nuffield Review is starting from the basic question, never asked
by Government during Sir Michael's turn in high office, namely, 'What
counts as an educated 19 year old in this day and age?'. The answers
which we are receiving from teachers, universities, employers and the
community would point to a system very different from the one which
Sir Michael nurtured and is now selling to the United States.

Yours sincerely
Professor Richard Pring
Lead Director, Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and
Training for England and Wales
Former Director: Oxford University Department of Education Studies

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