Lessons to Learn from Across the Atlantic: Who has a better educational system, the U.S. or U.K.? by Rebecca Grant

“Do you prefer the educational system here or in the U.S.?” a parent recently asked me.

For context, I am an American living in the U.K. Having taught at the elementary school level in each country and now as a parent, I suppose I am uniquely placed to answer such a question.

The answer is, there is no easy answer.

There are pros and cons to each approach, but I believe that both countries can learn from each other.

Since I am a teacher, let’s start with a story…

Switching On

Fifteen years ago, I taught Year 3 at a primary school in central London. There was a 7-year-old boy in my class. Let’s call him Sam. Sam was already far behind academically and completely uninterested in school.

Our science topic was electricity. I brought a large box of circuit components into the classroom and modelled how to connect them. Then, the students paired off and had a go.

Some students got their circuits working right away, but many others struggled. I felt overwhelmed trying to get to all of the pupils with their hands raised for help. And I was struggling to get some of the circuits working myself.

I noticed that this boy Sam had his circuit working so I asked if he would help me. He came over and managed to get the bulb lit.

I made a big deal out of his success and pointed out that he was the one who got the lightbulb working and not me. A real smile lit up his face.

Next, I asked if Sam would be my expert helper and go around the class to help students get their circuits working.

Something clicked for Sam that day. I think the light bulb switched on in his head. It may have been the first time he felt successful in a school setting. From that day forward he had a new attitude toward learning. He still wasn’t the top reader in class, but boy was he suddenly motivated to learn. He made huge progress over the course of the year.

I cannot extol the benefits of a rich and varied curriculum enough. For some children, it is a lifeline. When they have nothing going for them and they suddenly discover a talent or passion they never knew they had, it can be life-changing.

 Developing a talent or pursuing a passion leads to confidence which spills over into all other areas in life. It may be just the connection a pupil needs to switch on his/her brain and ignite a passion for learning.

A Look at the Standards

Pros Of The National Curriculum — U.K.

In the UK, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland follow the National Curriculum.

The national curriculumis a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schoolsso children learn the same things. It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject.

In U.K. primary schools the following subjects are compulsory: English, maths, science, design and technology, history, geography, art and design, music, P.E., computing, religious education and even modern foreign languages.

Yes, compulsory. That means that even if there are significant budget cuts these subject areas are enshrined in the national curriculum and therefore not put up on the chopping block.

Obviously, the quality of instruction varies from school to school and some state schools rely on PTA funding to bring in specialist teachers and experts.

The U.K. educational system provides a rich and varied curriculum to all pupils. This helps students like Sam (above) and appeases parents like me.

Since my son was already reading when he started school (I couldn’t help myself, I was a teacher), I didn’t want him to spend the majority of his day on phonics instruction. The varied U.K. curriculum ensured he was offered new and interesting learning experiences.

The Cons

As a primary school teacher in the U.K. I often felt like I was on a hamster wheel. I had to go, go, go all the time so I wouldn’t fall behind in my coverage of the National Curriculum topics.

Sometimes I felt like I was ploughing ahead before students were ready to move on. Some pupils needed more time to process the learning or wanted to delve into certain topics in greater depth. I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to do this.

As a new teacher, I would have benefitted from a national curriculum. Although my heart was in the right place, I often prioritized the wrong activities when I started teaching in California. Looking back, I wish I had had more guidance during my first few years as a teacher.

Now, as a more experienced teacher contemplating a return to the classroom, I don’t want to get back on the hamster wheel. I have developed my own ideas and opinions about education and I would love to have the freedom to implement them.

This is the problem with a rigid curriculum. Sometimes schools need to be more flexible in their approach and consider the individual needs of pupils and teachers.

Now that I have read Michael Matera’s book, Explore Like a Pirate, I want to bring a game-inspired course design into my classroom. I don’t believe I would have the freedom to do so in the United Kingdom.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative — U.S.

In the U.S., standards vary from state to state and even district to district. Many states have adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

 The Common Core State Standards Initiativeis an educational initiative from 2010 that details what K–12students throughout the United Statesshould know in English language artsand mathematicsat the conclusion of each school grade.

The Common Core Standards provide year-end standards but do not specify a curriculum. Local communities and educators choose their own curriculum.

This approach allows for educators to be more flexible, however, the only subjects currently provided for are English Language Arts and Math.

The current high stakes testing climate also forces teachers to focus on these areas first and foremost. Often other subject areas are neglected. When there are budget cuts, art and music programs are the first to go.

Only The Basics

I believe that the quest to ensure that no child is left behind in the U.S. often leads to everyone else waiting for children to catch up. This approach doesn’t benefit anyone. Back to the basics movements often translate into teaching only the basics and nothing else.

As a parent, this is my biggest concern about the U.S. elementary school system. As an educated woman, I am able to help my children with reading and math. I would like them to be exposed to many other subject areas and experiences during their school day.

But what about the children coming from limiting backgrounds who do not have help at home?

The Pros of the U.S. System

This is where we can look to the flexibility of the U.S. system to find some solutions to the problem of the huge gaps between children from different socio-economic backgrounds.

First, we should look to successful charter schools that have discovered unique approaches to help all children thrive.

This is not a political post and I realize many charter schools in California (where I am from) have been mismanaged and closed down with devastating effects on pupils, parents and teachers. We must proceed with caution and only borrow from the most successful programs.

Working at a charter school in San Diego I saw firsthand how students from low-income backgrounds rose to the high expectations set by the school. These students performed well on standardized tests many would assume they would fail.

The flexibility and experimental model of this charter school led to these results.

How to Ensure All Students Learn

Our charter school had the flexibility to experiment.

First, we offered an extended day. Every term teachers assessed students. If they were behind in certain areas, they would be required to stay after school in a small group setting for intensive instruction.

Pupils benefitted from the small group, targeted instruction. They were also incredibly motivated to do well on the next set of assessments so they wouldn’t have to stay after school. They worked hard to test out of this program.

Extended day and free preschool for low-income families would do so much toward levelling the playing field for these pupils. Also, having a shorter summer vacation with more time off during the year would prevent children from losing many of the gains they make during the academic year.

Benefits for Everyone

In my ideal school, all students would enjoy a rich, varied curriculum during the school day with many opportunities for hands-on learning. After school, teachers would offer small group, targeted instruction for pupils needing more of the basics. Teachers would be well-compensated and given appropriate planning time.

This flexible approach would give students from disadvantaged backgrounds real opportunities to catch up with their peers and also access to a variety of subjects to ignite their curiosity.

The Importance of Valuing Teachers

The charter school I worked at also valued its teachers. We were paid more than other district teachers. Every Friday afternoon pupils left early so we could have catered lunch together and pursue professional growth opportunities.

I felt like a valued team member doing something worthwhile with my life.

If we truly want to leave no child behind, it is up to us to offer a rich, varied curriculum that challenges all pupils. We must also provide opportunities for those with limiting backgrounds to access early childhood education. If they are still behind in school, we need a more flexible approach that would allow them opportunities to catch up. As a society, we need to value teachers and pay them fairly and also respect our children enough to offer them an enriching curriculum.

Rebecca Grant is an Every Child Matters Writer please check out her profile.  

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