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Diane Ravitch


The Unprinted Letter about Changes in U.S. Education

Posted: 09/04/07 12:54 PM ET

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:

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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