Some weeks are just hectic. Four North American cities in four days. In Washington, New York, Boston and Toronto I led seminars, worked with school and university leaders and talked to policy-makers. The cliché, of course, is that England and North America are divided by a common language, and once I had translated my own ideas into American – “elementary”, not primary schools; “principals”, not headteachers; “school districts”, not local authorities (except, of course, that the roles and responsibilities are quite different) – there was a good deal of common ground.
As we await the latest National Curriculum proposals, American public schools grapple with the Common Core standards. While England’s Chancellor was announcing substantial changes to national pay agreements for teachers, Ontario teachers began a series of one day strikes in protest against their province’s plans to address its $14.4 billion deficit by saving money on teacher conditions of service.
So the questions I was asked, and the questions we discussed, had an easy familiarity: securing system-wide change in ways which enhance both excellence and equity; funding public education systems in ways which do not disadvantage the least privileged; finding ways to move excellence practice around schools more quickly than teachers themselves can be moved; ensuring that the huge prizes of the digital revolution can be placed in the service of high quality learning rather than the other way round.
The past 20 years have seen a remarkable transformation in global education: the sorts of discussions I had with colleagues at George Washington University, Columbia Teachers’ College, Harvard and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) last week flow from global, not local, comparisons of education. We see it in England too: the facility with which school leaders and policy makers talk about the lessons of PISA, or the complexity of curriculum comparisons with the Pacific Rim. Education, and discussion of education policy, has gone global. Maybe that is no surprise in universities – used to thinking about international relationships since the Middle Ages – but it was striking that in Washington, in New York, at Harvard and at OISE, public (that is, of course, state) school teachers had joined the audiences and wanted to talk about their practice in the light of what I was saying about England.
And when they did so, of course, they threw up more of the complexities of education practices cross-culturally. Secondary teachers in England are not surprised to teach about 200 students every week, across the age and attainment range. High school teachers in Ontario teach closer to a hundred. In the United States, the figure is smaller still. That’s partly driven by different approaches to curriculum (for instance, American high school students take fewer subjects at a time, with more lessons a week for each) as much as it is by different conditions of service – but it makes a sharp difference to comparisons.
The relationship between quantitative and qualitative measures of school performance is not straightforward – in neither the United States nor Ontario is school review supplemented by an inspection model, so that school performance assessment in New York is considerably cruder than in England. And so on: the complexities of educational practice overlay differences in curriculum, funding and accountability.
But the thirst for comparison is real, and increasingly drives some very ambitious programmes of advanced professional learning. At Harvard, I met and worked with the team – and some of the students – on their new Harvard leadership programme. It is a three-year, full-time programme – yes – three years, full-time – for mid career professionals who have already been school leaders, seeking to prepare them for system leadership. The programme’s participants and the Harvard team leading it argued that the complexity of the challenges demand such a programme.
School systems are fascinatingly different: a shifting kaleidoscope, where the familiar can suddenly appear in a very different light and where apparently dissimilar features turn out to be quite familiar. On the Wednesday afternoon, walking to give a lecture at Columbia, I happened to be out on the street at the same time as school was ending. Knots of teenagers wielding mobile phones walked along the street laughing and joking. An hour later, when discussion turned to the challenges of making mobile phone bans in school stick, l felt on genuinely familiar ground.