Growing the UK education reform movement – part 2

In the second of two articles in Education Executive magazine, Co-founder Ty Goddard shares his views about what the UK education reform movement can learn from its counterparts in the USA, in particular the incentives available to those driving reform. The article is shared below in full:

As many of you will have read in last month’s issue, the Education Foundation, the UK’s first cross sector education think tank, were fortunate enough to welcome a delegation of leading American education figures to London recently, with the aim of sharing best practice across the Atlantic. We were delighted that Mary Laura Bragg, Director of State Policy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), Florida, was able to join us for the tour, highlights of which included school visits, a policy discussion at Number 10 and a meeting with senior Department for Education officials. (In addition, subsequent to the article being written Ian Fordham attended a reciprocal visit to the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Education Reform Summit in Washington DC in November 2012)

Mary has been part of the drastic improvements that have taken place in Florida’s education system over the last 10 years. In 1999, a reform movement was instigated by Governor Jeb Bush with good results. After being one of the worst performing states at the beginning of the process, Florida’s students are now achieving well above the national average. Interestingly, some of the big advances have been made by students of Hispanic and African-American heritage. The Florida model has now been exported all over America, by both Republican and Democrat States, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education has attracted backing from heavyweights such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So how was this transformation achieved, and what lessons can we learn from it?

One of the major drivers of change was to offer schools monetary rewards, directly related to elevation of grades. $100 per student is given directly to schools for improving a letter grade, i.e. moving a student from a C to a B. The majority of these funds are used to provide bonuses to teachers and staff, which in turn helps to attract the best people to the profession. Similarly, incentives are also offered to schools by the Race to the Top programme, a $4.35bn (£2.68bn) initiative that was introduced by President Obama in 2009 in the form of an inter-state competition that challenges States to meet certain educational criteria.

Whilst the UK has no direct equivalent offering performance-related incentives for improvements in educational performance, the worthwhile Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) does occupy a similar space. The EEF describes itself as “…an independent grant-making charity dedicated to raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in English primary and secondary schools ”. Rather than rewarding educational excellence per se, its mission statement is more related to innovation and the scaling-up of projects which are cost effective and replicable. It funds trials and projects within a research framework, in the hope that they will then be worked up and introduced on a wider scale.

Initiatives like of EEF and Race to the Top reflect the growing emphasis that is placed on education reform in the States and in the UK. Whilst education remains a politicised policy area in the States, the debate can often be far less vitriolic than in the UK. Witness, for example, how Jeb Bush’s pioneering reforms have led to him being courted by the Democrat party. He is working with the former Democratic Governor of West Virginia on digital learning, and last year President Obama said that he was “grateful to him (Bush) for the work that he was doing” after Jeb showed him around an improving Miami High School. In the UK, will we see the same level of cross party cooperation outside the coalition relationship?

The successes of the incentive programmes in America suggest that there is scope for similar schemes in the UK. The process of structural reform initiated by the Labour government and accelerated by Michael Gove is now well underway, and approximately half of state secondary schools are academies or planning to convert. But by introducing incentives for those schools related to attainment, not just structure, could we further consolidate and grow the practice that defines success?

These incentives seem to work because they are positive – and structured within a ‘challenge’ mentality. Could we frame incentives for excellence in the UK, alongside or indeed within the pupil premium that further encourage schools and pupils to strive to be the best they can be?

Postscript: It is also noticeable that the bipartisan nature of the education reform movement in the US is taking hold, based on the view that to solve such a major challenge as the reboot of the American education system will take efforts at Federal and School district level on both sides of the political fence. Indeed even Randi Weingarten the head of the largest union in the US, which holds significant power both politically and on the ground, seems to be moving to a position of consensus around issues such as teacher recruitment in her Wall Street Journal article which argues for a ‘bar exam’ for teachers to raise the status of the profession and the quality of entrants to schools. (Ian Fordham)