The importance of education reform

September 07, 2010 2:01 PM

Back in 1999, charter schools began opening up across New York City. They are funded by the taxpayer, but with one crucial difference to traditional state schools: they are not run by the city. We've written about their success many times on this site. Put simply, kids that attend charter schools in NYC receive a better education, are more disciplined and are much more likely to go on to further and higher education than those attending state schools that are often next door to charters.

An assumption might be that because the schools are independent, they simply select the brightest pupils in the area, or those from middle class families. But they are not selective. Places are distributed on a pure lottery basis. No past transcripts are looked at, and selections are often as random as pulling a student's details card from a pile of applicants. What's more, many of the charter schools in New York are based in poorer areas anyway, meaning that children go into them with often identical familial and social backgrounds to those attending traditional state schools.

As Michael Gove's school reforms are debated we should be looking at such obvious successes with eyes wide open. Studies such as Professor Caroline Hoxby's of Stanford University clearly show that NYC's charter schools have improved the lives of many children from poor areas.

City Journal have published a superb and important article that demonstrates all this - and more. It's well worth taking the time to read it, and shows what good teachers can do when given freedom from bureaucracy. They feel safer, as one particularly striking example shows. Comparing Democracy Prep, a charter, and ACE, a traditional state school, the author says:

"In the New York City Department of Education’s annual survey last year, when asked to evaluate the statement “I feel safe in my school,” 79 percent of ACE’s teachers “strongly disagreed,” while the remaining 21 percent just plain disagreed. The teachers were right to worry: ACE had qualified as a “persistently dangerous” school....To achieve that designation, a school must experience at least six “serious” incidents per 100 students for two consecutive years. Serious incidents include such offences as homicide, robbery, assault resulting in serious physical injury, and use of a weapon. Many believe that schools like ACE have such toxic environments because the students who attend them are monsters created by poverty and racism. But if that were true, you might expect Democracy Prep to be equally dangerous: its main campus sits directly across the street from ACE; the lottery’s preference for children in the local district ensures that most students in the two schools are neighbours; and Seth Andrew, Democracy Prep’s founder, estimates that about half of ACE’s current students entered his school’s lottery in past years. Nevertheless, in the city’s survey, all of Democracy Prep’s teachers agreed that they felt safe in school."

This shows why demand for places at the schools is soaring. Of course, as the article concludes, random choices shouldn't determine whether a child receives good or bad education in the long run. But state education in the UK is at a crucial crossroads and there is a real opportunity to improve the educational standards of millions of children. As lessons from abroad show, school independence does not have to mean selection, it can mean just the opposite.

Crucially, state schools that are independent to set their own pay, their own standards of discipline and expectations, have proved to be wildly successful in New York. As well as improving standards for children, teachers enjoy better and safer working conditions, and in many cases better pay as schools are not hindered by unions demanding defined benefit pensions and centralised pay deals. They're lessons we would do well to heed in the ongoing debate, as the NUT and the LEA bureaucracy do all they can to block much needed reform.

Back in 1999, charter schools began opening up across New York City. They are funded by the taxpayer, but with one crucial difference to traditional state schools: they are not run by the city. We've written about their success many times on this site. Put simply, kids that attend charter schools in NYC receive a better education, are more disciplined and are much more likely to go on to further and higher education than those attending state schools that are often next door to charters.

An assumption might be that because the schools are independent, they simply select the brightest pupils in the area, or those from middle class families. But they are not selective. Places are distributed on a pure lottery basis. No past transcripts are looked at, and selections are often as random as pulling a student's details card from a pile of applicants. What's more, many of the charter schools in New York are based in poorer areas anyway, meaning that children go into them with often identical familial and social backgrounds to those attending traditional state schools.

As Michael Gove's school reforms are debated we should be looking at such obvious successes with eyes wide open. Studies such as Professor Caroline Hoxby's of Stanford University clearly show that NYC's charter schools have improved the lives of many children from poor areas.

City Journal have published a superb and important article that demonstrates all this - and more. It's well worth taking the time to read it, and shows what good teachers can do when given freedom from bureaucracy. They feel safer, as one particularly striking example shows. Comparing Democracy Prep, a charter, and ACE, a traditional state school, the author says:

"In the New York City Department of Education’s annual survey last year, when asked to evaluate the statement “I feel safe in my school,” 79 percent of ACE’s teachers “strongly disagreed,” while the remaining 21 percent just plain disagreed. The teachers were right to worry: ACE had qualified as a “persistently dangerous” school....To achieve that designation, a school must experience at least six “serious” incidents per 100 students for two consecutive years. Serious incidents include such offences as homicide, robbery, assault resulting in serious physical injury, and use of a weapon. Many believe that schools like ACE have such toxic environments because the students who attend them are monsters created by poverty and racism. But if that were true, you might expect Democracy Prep to be equally dangerous: its main campus sits directly across the street from ACE; the lottery’s preference for children in the local district ensures that most students in the two schools are neighbours; and Seth Andrew, Democracy Prep’s founder, estimates that about half of ACE’s current students entered his school’s lottery in past years. Nevertheless, in the city’s survey, all of Democracy Prep’s teachers agreed that they felt safe in school."

This shows why demand for places at the schools is soaring. Of course, as the article concludes, random choices shouldn't determine whether a child receives good or bad education in the long run. But state education in the UK is at a crucial crossroads and there is a real opportunity to improve the educational standards of millions of children. As lessons from abroad show, school independence does not have to mean selection, it can mean just the opposite.

Crucially, state schools that are independent to set their own pay, their own standards of discipline and expectations, have proved to be wildly successful in New York. As well as improving standards for children, teachers enjoy better and safer working conditions, and in many cases better pay as schools are not hindered by unions demanding defined benefit pensions and centralised pay deals. They're lessons we would do well to heed in the ongoing debate, as the NUT and the LEA bureaucracy do all they can to block much needed reform.

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