This is a book review of Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching: From Political Visions to Classroom Reality (2011) by John Bangs, John MacBeath, and Maurice Galton.
- Public Education in Democratic Nations
- Government Involvement in Public Schools
- School Funding
- A Nation at Risk
- Concluding Thoughts
Public Education in Democratic Nations
Public education is a continuing concern for democratic nations. The public school system has been expected to equalize society by providing the opportunity for children to overcome their circumstances if needed and to prepare them to become productive citizens. Although it is often viewed as a political issue, the continuous discussion of school reforms ultimately benefits the most vulnerable members of society, children. There has not been a magic formula enacted yet to fix all of the issues surrounding academic achievement but it is not for the lack of trying. From 1980 to the present, momentum has been building up in Great Britain and the United States for an overhaul of the public school systems not seen since the 1950s. However, changing societal conditions requiring schools to perform more social services for children, the need for accountability, inadequate funding coupled with the conflicting interests of the government and school officials overshadow the best intentions of school reforms. Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching: From Political Visions to Classroom Reality is an analysis of previous school reforms noting how the schools and the teacher profession have changed in Great Britain since the 1980s. New problems were introduced with those changes and some of the old ones still remain unresolved.
The stated purpose of the book was to discuss key reforms in the history of British education in order to understand the current state of the public school system in Great Britain. Interviews with former government officials were used to provide a deeper understanding of the motivations behind each reform and to give a post reform reaction in order to determine if the original intentions of the reforms were met. Upon reading the book, it can also be implied that the authors intended to provide a critique of each reform highlighting its strengths and weaknesses in order to influence the upcoming Education Bills for the 2010-2011 parliamentary session by stressing the need to provide adequate funding for education to include provisions for teacher development. Scholars interested in school politics, educational policy studies, sociology of education and the history of education in Great Britain would be interested in adding this book to their library. Comparisons are made with the United States throughout the book making it a useful resource for a comparative studies class or as a companion book to Someone Must Fail: The Zero Sum Game of Public Schooling (Labaree, 2010).
Government Involvement in Public Schools
The book’s central argument was that attempts by the government to correct the shortcomings of other school reforms have created additional problems for schools. The major reforms included were the creation of the national curriculum, the declining autonomy of teachers, and the increase in the social work activities of schools. The 1988 Education Reform Act created a national curriculum. The intent was to provide a minimal standard of education for all children regardless of income. Standardized tests were then created to measure if the standards were being achieved which led to criticism regarding teacher quality. The 1992 Education Act established Ofsted, which is the Office for Standards in Education and in 2007 was revised to include Children’s Services and Skills. Ofsted’s responsibilities include the inspection and regulation of schools (Ofsted). From 1992-2000, the Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, blamed teachers for failing schools by accusing them of using trendy pedagogy and lax standards. However, the teachers cited the lack of school funding as the reason for underachievement (Ofsted). The 2003 Every Child Matters reform was enacted because several children died from child abuse and neglect. The child service agencies and schools were not sharing information with each other. Schools were now undertaking a whole child approach which links several services such as health care, child safety, homelessness, and substance abuse (Every Child Matters, 2003, pp.5-9). According to Bangs, MacBeath, and Galton (2011), the teachers complained that the accountability procedures led to more paperwork without increases in educational achievement (p.37). This point of view was supported by government reports such as Every Child Matters (2003) which state that although progress was being made toward decreasing the effects of societal ills but truancy and educational achievement remained problematic (p.6).
Evidence in the form of quotes from government representatives and school officials to support its arguments was presented in the book. Other sources including government reports corroborated the claims made by the authors. However, I think there should have been more emphasis on the school funding issues throughout the book. School financing was mentioned as a priority in the post script when the authors were making an appeal to parliament. “Like all those concerned with education, we shared an anxiety about the potential impact of any future financial cuts and believe firmly that continuing investment in education is absolutely vital for boosting the country’s knowledge economy” (p.190). However, the book did not adequately develop this point of view. Yet, there was an ongoing contention between schools and the government regarding school budgets in Great Britain (National Union of Teachers). Also the statement, “We hope, therefore, that our book may persuade this and future governments to focus on what matters most to the achievement of an outstanding education system; a confident and positive teaching profession” was left open to interpretation and was not supported in the book. Based on the book’s content, one could logically assume that more careful planning of school reforms and communication between school officials and government representatives is what matters most in improving the public education system in Great Britain. David Larabee (2010) made a similar argument regarding public schools in the United States in his book, Someone Must Fail: The Zero Sum Game of Public Schooling, in which he asserted that national school reforms fail because they are difficult to translate from theory into practice and there is rarely a consensus among all of the stakeholders involved.
A Nation at Risk
In the United States, there were comparable education reforms to Great Britain’s 1988 Education Reform Act, 1992 Education Act, and 2003 Every Child Matters Act. The publication of the A Nation at Risk school report in 1983 influenced a wave of school reforms in the 1980s and became the foundation for later reforms such as the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994 which included teacher development provisions and a social work component that demanded that schools become safe from violence, drug free, and that children will be provided with nutrition and healthcare. Goals 2000 ultimately evolved into The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 which was even more comprehensive in its social welfare provisions to include sections on homeless children and issues of domestic violence. The education of various cultural groups in the United States was also included. It will be remembered primarily for its accountability measures. Race to the top is the latest school reform in the United States which is competition for a cash prize for the first state which meets national benchmarks as measured by standardized assessments (Hamilton, 2009). The use of standardized test scores to evaluate student progress and to gauge teacher quality continues to be the most contested aspect of school reforms in the US and Great Britain.
A Nation at Risk was met with conflicting reactions among teachers. The director of National Federation of Teachers rejected the findings of a Nation at Risk but the head of American Federation of Teachers endorsed the report and encouraged teachers to support the reform movement (Toppo, 2008). There was a call to standardize the public school curriculum and to meet the demand for public accountability. Measures were taken to standardize the curriculum increasing decreased teachers’ autonomy regarding the content that was taught and how it was taught in their classrooms. Teachers were required to use textbooks selected by their school districts (Hunt, 2008). As a result, teachers were given less control over their teaching materials. State standards soon followed which influenced curricular reform on a grander scale. Schools in the United States like the schools in Great Britain also began publishing school reports in newspapers to meet the demands for accountability (Hunt, 2008). Currently there is a movement in the United States to publish individual teacher rankings in newspapers which takes accountability a step further in making teachers seem directly responsible for academic achievement (Giordano, 2012).
Reflecting on previous educational reforms using different perspectives is a useful exercise. If it is done in timely manner, it can influence future educational reforms as the authors of Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teachers: From Political Visions to Classroom Reality attempt to do. Funding issues and gaining the cooperation of the stakeholders remain major impediments to the success of national school reform initiatives. Unfortunately national education mandates have not been successful in overcoming those challenges. Increased calls for accountability have added even more contention among the stakeholders. Future public school reformers are still faced with the challenge of showing tangible increases in academic achievement while setting educational standards for its public education systems that are high enough to maintain a super power status for generations to come without alienating the people whose support is needed to bring the reform into fruition. Perhaps frequent reassessment at pre-selected time points throughout a school reform instead of waiting until the end would be more beneficial. Replace the school reports, teacher reports, and student reports with conglomerate report of how well the national education goals are being met by state, city, and local school district with a course of action to remedy any shortcomings. A national report will make the government accountable to the tax payers who fund public education and may increase support for public school reform efforts.
Department for Children, Schools and Families. Every Child Matters. 2003. Retrieved from https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/CM5860
Giordano, M. (2012). After a Tumultuous Week, It's Back to School. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/schoolbook/2012/02/27/after-a-tumultuous-week-its-back-to-school/
Goals 2000, Pub. L. 103-227, 102, § 108 Stat. 125 (1994). Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/legislation/GOALS2000/TheAct/sec102.html
Hamilton, J. (2009). President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan Announce National Competition to Advance School Reform: Obama Administration Starts $4.35 Billion "Race to the Top" Competition, Pledges a Total of $10 Billion for Reforms. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2009/07/07242009.html
Hunt, J. (2008).A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind: DÉJÀ VU for Administrators? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(8), 580-585.
Labaree, D. (2010). Someone Has to Fail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
National Union of Teachers. Academies. Retrieved from http://www.teachers.org.uk/academies
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. 107–110, § 115 STAT. 1425 (2002). Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/107-110.pdf
Ofsted.(2012). Retrieved from http://www.politics.co.uk/reference/ofsted.
Toppo, G. (2008). 'Nation at Risk': The best thing or the worst thing for education? Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-4-22-nation-at-risk N._htm