US education system’s discrepancies still replicated here

MY interview last month with a British government Ofsted Inspector of New York City schools has further exposed the discrepancies that have dominated debate in Australia over our apparent readiness to replicate the American education model.

This approach to student, school or teacher accountability, a feature of Dubbo and many other areas, is largely manifested in Naplan assessments and the My School publication of testing data. However, serious doubts have gradually emerged about New York's education accountability system.

Once eagerly embraced by Julia Gillard as Australian Education Minister in 2008, the reforms implemented by Joel Klein, Chancellor of New York City Schools, are now often being discredited.

Prominent American education historian Diane Ravitch has become one of their staunchest critics, while Australia's Kevin Donnelly, director of the Education Standards Institute, believed that "an evaluation of the success or otherwise of the New York experience suggests we may be copying his mistakes".

In fact, recent revelations by 'Alan', a highly experienced British Ofsted School Inspector, are a further warning to Australian educators about following this American methodology.

Even the need for British Ofsted intervention in New York City schooling should be enough to cause alarm. Alan emphasised to me how as late as 2006, NYC still had "no accountability for all its public schools in the five boroughs". When New York authorities took decisive action and commissioned the School Quality Review for the 2006/07 academic year, they were forced to look to the United Kingdom for highly qualified professionals such as Alan, who "were recruited because we were all Ofsted inspectors and NYC didn't have any personnel with any of that type of experience".

Alan and a team of Ofsted Inspectors then conducted rigorous evaluations of New York City schools. Armed with a clearly defined inspection procedure, they spent two days at each designated school.

Numerous interviews of all staff were carried out and work samples meticulously examined, along with several detailed observations of teachers operating in their classroom.

At the end of the second day, written records of the inspection were used to present a preliminary grading of the school's performance against set criteria - underdeveloped, satisfactory, well developed or outstanding.

The process was very clinical. As Alan recalled, "This was non-negotiable and I just delivered it and left".

What Alan and other Ofsted professionals found in New York City schools were suspect education standards. After inspecting a number of schools in New York from 2006 to 2010, he concluded, "their system is wholly geared towards passing tests. Kids learn short term and then forget what they've done once they've reached a required pass rate".

Any effective whole-class learning strategy such as differentiation, where all children receive work closely applicable to their capability, was rarely present.

Students with special educational needs were often neglected, while only the very beginning of computer technology use existed. As Alan recently stated to me, "I find it hard to believe that your country is looking to the States to get ideas on education.".

The findings of these Ofsted Inspectors cannot be disputed, having taken to New York schools, numerous years of educational experience in evaluating learning institutions.

Previously, they were an integral part of a British government organisation with the authority to ultimately determine the viability of a failing school. Under Ofsted, such under-performing schools were not allowed to merely drift along aimlessly year after year, but required to meet term-by-term improvement targets during a short period of time, or face permanent closure.

Significantly, Ofsted personnel are often sent to schools in areas where they have no potentially compromising affiliations, and are not involved in the same public service career path politics as that of school staff. They remain completely independent.

In New York City, Alan's preliminary evaluation of a school was followed by a comprehensive report that was later published. Indirectly, this process led to the establishment at Dubbo and elsewhere in Australia of Naplan, the My School website, and school performance rankings.

However, the New York system that influenced these Australian developments has lately been accused of producing dubious compilation of league table ratings, cheating on tests, the manipulation of results, and watered-down assessment content.

Actually, Alan's testimony exposed a valid reason why New York City education methods are now being largely disregarded in Australia.

Part of the Ofsted task was to train up Americans so they could then inspect their own schools in NYC. This might have appeared to be an expedient solution to the problem of low performing schools.

But as Alan discovered, these newly trained local inspectors "find it very difficult to criticise their compatriots, so the reports end up being pretty mundane".

Alan's expert consideration of the New York practice provides a vital lesson for Australian educators. Forensic assessment of schools should never be confused with their performance.

He emphasised to me that NYC authorities deserved to be congratulated for instigating comprehensive inspections of their schools, which were obviously "a solid form of accountability".

Despite vigorous opposition from most of the schools who "did not want any public criticism", My School-style ratings were put in place in New York City, and have continued to be implemented.

But Ofsted Inspectors such as Alan have clearly revealed how these measures failed to translate into higher standards. It's a warning to Australian educational authorities seeking to portray such school accountability systems as infallible.

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