Lessons UK can learn from the US education system?
May 17, 2014 4:04 PM   Subscribe

What lessons can the UK learn from the US education system in order to close the achievement gap? I am writing a report on the pivotal role education plays in increasing the ability of low-income Americans to move up the income ladder. Central to the American ethos is the notion that it is possible to start out poor and become prosperous - it is hard work and not circumstances you were born into that offers real prospects for success. The class system in the UK is deeply entrenched and a mindset that higher education is for "posh" people. Why does the US have much more social mobility? Or is the reality not so encouraging? I am looking at inner-city schools in New York City in particular but any opinions about the US in general would be very appreciated.
posted by ashawill to Education (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

I would encourage you to look at some data on social mobility in the UK versus the US; my understanding is that, contrary to what one might expect and contrary to America's central myths about itself, the US has significantly less social mobility than the UK. I would definitely look at some numbers, and think about how you're defining your terms, before drawing any lessons out.
posted by ClaireBear at 4:09 PM on May 17, 2014

Why does the US have much more social mobility? Or is the reality not so encouraging?

The latter. As Paul Krugman noted not long ago, "America has less social mobility than most other advanced countries." The study he links to places the U.S. among the very bottom tier—though the UK is actually even a bit worse.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:09 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Holy God have you actually looked at the US statistics? You are asking "what lessons can we learn from X?" but I think you are making up X and asking us to come up with statistics to confirm your bias. Four year college (ie, University) graduation rates among poor white, black and latino kids are atrocious. The NYT article linked in this post from today should make mandatory background reading for you.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:11 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure that the only lessons the UK can take form the US on these issues would be negative. You can try to avoid making some of the mistakes that we make. We're a bit of a total disaster when it comes to education and social mobility.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:11 PM on May 17, 2014

At this point the American educational system would make a better "bad" example than "good" example. In some cities the majority of high school graduates are functionally illiterate, for example.

There was indeed a time when our educational system taught the kind of Protestant Ethic to which you refer, but these days the schools are immersed in teaching kids how to hate their country, and to think of themselves as victims who should be compensated for being victims.

As a result, home-schooling is on the rise, big-time. So are "Charter Schools", which generally do go back to the idea that a student's future is their own making and will be improved by hard work.

If you want a "good" example, charter schools would be your choice. (There aren't very many of them, though; and far more parents want their children to attend than the charter schools have capacity to admit. That's because of opposition from the teachers' unions; most charter schools are not unionized, and the teachers' unions are big-time contributors to certain politicians, who work to try to minimize the number of charter schools.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:12 PM on May 17, 2014

Yes, I agree with everyone else that your premise is flawed.

The only lesson that the U.K. could consider taking from the U.S. is possibly the idea of having mandatory general education up to 18 instead of 16, and possibly having students specialize later the way they do in the U.S. I wouldn't even necessarily argue for those things - I think there are significant pros and cons to the secondary systems of both countries - and I don't think it'd alter social mobility. But if your project needs to focus on comparing and contrasting the US and UK systems, that's one possible avenue to investigate.
posted by leitmotif at 4:16 PM on May 17, 2014

The US spends more money per child on education than any other country and yet despite this, it statistically has less to show for it than other nations who spend less.

So I think one major lession the UK can learn is that throwing money at the problem does not help in the least.
posted by manderin at 4:21 PM on May 17, 2014

Off the top of my head:

Our K-12 education sucks so bad that it tends to be more bad example than good. BUT our college education is more open to older people returning to school than you see in a lot of other countries. Thus we end up educating the world (at the college level specifically) but kind of not so much our own people.

There are good lessons you can learn from the difference in how we handle college versus how a lot of other countries do it but that system is really very different from how we handle public k-12 education.
posted by Michele in California at 4:26 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a highly politicized issue, but I'm going to have to disagree with Chocolate Pickle. The largest studies that have examined charter schools at the national level find that 2/3 are doing the same or *worse* than comparable public schools.

But really, it makes no more sense to generalize about "American charter schools" than it does to generalize about "American public schools." There are incredibly wonderful schools in this country and incredibly horrible ones. There are charters and public schools in each of those categories. Any generalization or simplification about the American education system (other than breaking schools into tiers based on the socioeconomic groups they serve) will obscure more than it will reveal. Just a word of caution if you end up going in that direction.
posted by leitmotif at 4:26 PM on May 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: This is a very complicated question and, frankly, I distrust quite a lot of what I read because I don't know what bias might be involved. For example comparison of graduation rates ought to control for admission standards. Almost anyone in the US can get into some kind of "college" including those who are unprepared and who have little chance of success. It may well be that there are segments of US society with good mobility, and segments with poor mobility, but it may be politically impossible to be candid.

Still, I think its clear that the problem lies mostly outside the school system. The study in the news concluded that success is strongly correlated with parent income. Well, income can be a proxy for lots of other things. What is clearly true is that you learn how to live from your parents. If discussion at the dinner table is about starting businesses and management issues, you are going to have a different outlook than if are discussing the difficulties of being a taxi driver.

The child of a high income family also has a more settled life than the child of a poor family. The poor move to get work, and the children are dragged from one school to another. Each move may set them back a half year in academic achievement.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:39 PM on May 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Economic and social mobility are quite high in the US, but their is a much wider gap separating the richest from the poorest than in most of the EU. I think what you are asking about is the American Ethos of if you work hard and apply yourself well you can become anything-and move up BOTH the social and economic ladder. Education does play an important role in this, and it is at the heart of why there is SO much competition to get into elite schools at both the grade school (public education till you are about 18) and even more at the collegiate level (getting into an Ivy League school carries a HUGE amount of social capital in US and in many ways is a class signifier, much more than what your last name, parentage or heritage is).

The US has lived up to this ideal to various degrees throughout its history, but my understanding is that their is much less social class stratification here than the UK. There isn't really any notion of 'commoner' here that isn't tied into income more than any other factor. When people in the US talk about class they aren't strictly talking about social station so much as they are talking about income levels and behaviors not family heritage and parentage. And so someone born in poor circumstances, can theoretically anyway, rise above those circumstances and be accepted by whatever class their increased income levels would put them into. In the US if you display the right wealth signals and personal behaviors, chances are you will be accepted into that class without any problems by most people. We do have our old money, but that part of society is so far out of the day to day experience of most people to be effectively invisible. Also, unfortunately, having the wrong skin color will work against you also (no idea if this is true in the UK) so that you have to be MORE perfectly display those behaviors to be part of that class than a 'white' person would have to. And a lot of people in the US will elevate the social standing of a person if they achieved a rise from their birth conditions through their hard work.

Right now, circumstances in the US is pushing at this and the social status and mobility is definitely lessening and getting 'locked in' to some extent.

My understanding of UK social standing is no matter how hard you work or how wealthy you become, it is very difficult to move to higher class. This may not be correct, but I think it is what you are getting at. For instance, when Prince Henry married there was a lot of commentary I heard about how she was a 'commoner' despite coming from a VERY wealthy family. This is somewhat mystifying to American sensibilities about who is and isn't high class.

I am not sure their is so much you can do different in school, as it is a larger social shift and idealogical divide. The US system of governance and social mores are founded in the enlightenment whereas the UK is more the result of a long period of history dominated by new ruling class invading and taking over (starting with the Saxons and going on from there).

From what I have gathered from friends and books writing about this subject, one of the key differences is not locking in a lifetime choice of education level at a young age (leitmotif says it better than I just did) and a VERY large tolerance for mistakes and even encouragement of failing as a way to get ahead in life (meaning taking chances and failing, learning from that, and getting better each time).
posted by bartonlong at 4:46 PM on May 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for your responses thus far. Could you please explain what charter schools are?
posted by ashawill at 4:55 PM on May 17, 2014

A charter school is funded by the government, but not run by the government. They are run by outside organizations which may or may not be nonprofit.

Typically, charter schools are not "neighborhood" schools - they don't have to take everyone (or keep everyone who starts). Kids might be selected through an application process followed by a lottery, for example (this is typical in Chicago).

The idea is that charter schools provide a sort of laboratory - you can try out new ideas in education, keep what works and toss the rest. In practice, that's not really what happens.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 5:04 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia: Charter School. (Very long section on charters in the US.)
posted by DarlingBri at 5:18 PM on May 17, 2014

Well leitmotif only gets it partially right.

The Standford Credo Center has also found in repeated studies that if you are a student from a disadvantaged background you will likely do much better in a public charter school.

In Indiana a child in a charter school typically gets more learning in a school year than a district school.
Hispanic students in poverty get 58 more days worth of learning in reading and 115 more days worth of learning in Los Angeles charter school.
In Detroit students get 3 months more learning in charter schools.
"The average growth rate in math and reading in Boston charter schools is the largest CREDO has seen in any city or state so far."

But for certain charter schools aren't a magic achievement gap closing bullet and plenty of them do not do well. The success of charters depends a lot on the authorization laws and how strict they are.
posted by brookeb at 5:29 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's an article about science education in Massachusetts working: "If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore."
posted by yarntheory at 5:56 PM on May 17, 2014

You should look at the Land Grant University system in the United States -- the federal government made a grant of land to states that the states sold to fund public universities, "The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering (though "without excluding ... classical studies"), as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on an abstract liberal arts curriculum." These universities both wildly expanded access to higher education AND made it more culturally accessible (they all run what are called "county extension offices" that are responsible for disseminating knowledge from the university out to the state, principally about agriculture, horticulture, and nutrition, but also other things, so they have (and had) a lot of contact with farmers and other lower-class people and helped demystify and make accessible and realistic the possibility of college for rural kids). Many of these Land Grant Universities are top-tier flagship public universities (which particularly excel in science), including Auburn, U of Arizona, UGA, U of Illinois, Purdue, Iowa State, Kansas State, UMass, Michigan State, UNH, Rutgers, NC State, Ohio State, Texas A&M, UW-Madison, and others.

Another thing you should look at is the post-WWII G.I. Bill, which made college widely available at very low cost to returning veterans and massively expanded the U.S.'s middle class and provided massive class mobility for the parents of Baby Boomers.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:00 PM on May 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Education systems and social mobility... comparisons: US and UK
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:10 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

That's not for 50 years ago... but as things currently stand.
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:11 PM on May 17, 2014

I'm not so sure that social mobility is all that dead. Bill Clinton's a good example, for one. Making a lot of money (or even a comfortable living) in the UK is, of course, possible, but high income doesn't equal social class acceptance.
In the US, many people who go to public schools and public colleges get elected to public office, or found companies, or didn't finish college but made a boatload of money, and the general public doesn't turn up their collective noses.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:33 PM on May 17, 2014

One of the most important differences between charter schools and the public schools is that charter schools can fire incompetent teachers through a fairly straightforward and efficient process. In most public school systems that's virtually impossible.

In NYC, for instance, they've taken to assigning incompetent teachers to go sit in a room every day, at full pay, to work crossword puzzles or read books, or anything whatever that they wish -- just as long as they stay away from students. Some teachers have spent years doing this.

Tenure makes sense in college, but it's the worst thing that ever happened to primary and secondary education.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:01 PM on May 17, 2014

This is somewhat mystifying to American sensibilities about who is and isn't high class.

The hell you say. You need to meet more old line WASPs or Our Crowd Jews. (I mean to say - Bill Clinton? The original Slick Willie? If any man lacked class....)

Mostly for fun, see if you can get ahold of Paul Fussell's Class. Lot of silliness in it - he was a satirist - but not entirely off base about American class structures. Money alone doesn't do the job.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:51 PM on May 17, 2014

SemiSalt said it.

Children in primary in UK are often given difficult homework, some very difficult. Many children have no one at home to help them. Many are left to their own devices to run free which is against the law. The work round for the school is they don't mark the homework so those who cannot/ do not do it for whatever reason (normally no one to help or enforce) are not penalised.

So children who have educated and interested parents who make the time to go through homework and show interest in the work are way ahead. The school presents opportunity but it is the family that makes the difference.

Life is not a level playing field and schools can't change that. They can only present opportunities which, unfairly, not all children can take advantage of. No govt can social engineer its way out of that.
posted by claptrap at 12:40 AM on May 18, 2014

The work round for the school is they don't mark the homework so those who cannot/ do not do it for whatever reason (normally no one to help or enforce) are not penalised.

This is not true as a rule.
posted by dmt at 2:11 AM on May 18, 2014

Best answer: One thing to bear in mind as a difference between the school systems between UK and US is the degree of local funding.

In the UK, most state schools are funded by the local education authority, generally either the county or city council; partially funded by the council tax, but there are significant top-up funds made available from the national budget in various forms; the Basic Needs fund, for example, has been in the news lately, along with the pupil premium for students on free school meals.

You also have various levels of LEA control over the schools, from various schemes by central government to reform education. Community schools are the most common and are generally owned by the LEA, and staff are hired/fired by them. There are faith schools where the grounds are owned by a church-affiliated charity, and funding and management is either fully or partially under LEA authority. Foundation schools are funded by the LEA, but run by a local governing body - the remnants of the grammar school system are mostly foundation schools these days.

Academies were the attempt by Labour to set up direct government funding and management of failing schools, particularly in areas of weak achievement. The current tory version is free schools, where they get the money direct from central government instead of the LEA, but are self-managed.

In any event, there's a lot of variety, but the common thread of the last 30 years is funnelling money from central national funds to local schools, and removing control from LEAs. Of course, you have to factor in the attitude of the students as well. How much they value education, are encouraged by their parents, and supported by their peers is very much a hyper-local thing, tied into class, and a whole other issue arguably more important than funding and management alone.

In contrast, the US is much more about devolving funding and control to the local level of school districts, though it's very hard to generalise over such a large country in comparison with the UK, especially with such variation between individual states. That said, the vast majority of US state schools are funded and run via local property taxes. Therefore if a school is in a poor area, it's much more likely to be poorly funded, and will find it hard to hire the best teachers. There's often strong resistance to taxes being moved around within a state, let alone federal funding being used to prop up failing schools.

Charter schools are an exception, and sort of the US equivalent to UK free schools; it's not hard to assume free schools were modelled on charter schools, in fact. Where the school is owned and run by a private body, but significant funding is provided from central funds in exchange for control over exams. They are often opposed at the local level, where they're accused of handing over control of schools to charities and corporations, while sapping funding from the local school system, an accusation levelled at free and academy schools in the UK as well.

So any examination of educational achievement would have to include comparison of different governing and funding models within the countries, and include state-level differences. New Orleans, DC, and New York are all very different, to pick three random examples. And then of course you also have to look at directly funded independent schools, where parent fees and charitable donations fund and are privately managed, and generally have good to very good results. Free schools and charter schools are an attempt to replicate their success, as a rule.

It's simplistic to say that wealthy parents can end up buying a good education for their kids - either by buying an expensive house in the cachement area of a great state school, or paying directly for an independent place - while poor parents can't and are stuck with crap local schools, but it's not a million miles from the truth either.
posted by ArkhanJG at 2:13 AM on May 18, 2014

(Psst - the UK doesn't have a unified education system, which may affect any comparisons you make about social inequality; Scotland and NI have different education systems, and differing number of young people who are NEET, Not In Education Employment or Training - the percentage is highest in Scotland, lower in England, and lowest of all in NI. Of course there are other social confounders there too, but a simplistic Us vs UK analysis that ignores this isn't going to cut it.)
posted by Vortisaur at 5:15 AM on May 18, 2014

Background info: in the US, K-12 public education is the responsibility of the state. The states delegate the responsibility to local government, but set standards, and have been required by the courts to guarantee "equal protection of the law." Some states, like Massachusetts, the schools very seriously, but others leave them underfunded.

The intrusion of the Federal government into public education is fairly new. It has forced its way in by the usual method of attaching conditions to the use of Federal money. This puts burdens on the states, but the states still have the primary responsibility, making for an awkward political process.

The charter school movement is a product of the conservative end of the political spectrum. They like the notion of letting parents have some say on what school their kids go too without having to pay private school fees while also paying taxes for public schools. I think this is mostly a reaction to the huge school bureaucracy that strangles the schools in most big cities.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:41 AM on May 18, 2014

In contrast, the US is much more about devolving funding and control to the local level of school districts,...

Or it was until "Common Core", which is about pulling all the control up to the federal level.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:52 AM on May 18, 2014

Anecdotally, I've heard that in general the US is better at educating children with disabilities than the UK is.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:44 PM on May 18, 2014

I'm a teacher with 25 years of experience and I found Chocolate Pickle's comment that "schools just teach our kids to hate our country" to be highly incorrect. I teach patriotism, love of country, and citizenship and don't know another teacher who doesn't do the exact same thing.
posted by OkTwigs at 7:16 PM on May 18, 2014

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