How do we fill in the gaps in education policy? A look at the US and the UK.

It almost goes without saying that education is the key to success. But it does still need to be said, because huge achievement gaps in primary and secondary education stubbornly persist in both the United States and the UK. Children from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds are simply not awarded the same educational opportunities, a discrepancy that has profound consequences for their chances later in life. This gap is often quantifiable. For example, why is it that in 2008 test scores for black seventeen-year-olds in the US, as opposed to their white seventeen-year-old peers, reflected a difference in learning approximately equivalent to three fewer years of school? Why are there two black Caribbean students for every three white British students in the highest testing tier at age fourteen, even when these students’ test scores at age eleven were equivalent? Clearly, something crucial is missing in the approaches that both countries currently take to educating diverse groups of students. The question that follows is whether current policy is capable of addressing these trends, and, if not, what the most effective and efficient policies might be.

Currently, both US and UK education policies place great emphasis on accountability. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), passed in 2002, each state in the US is responsible for creating its own testable standards and improving outcomes, and must bear the consequences if it does not. These consequences are harsh: if states do not develop adequate standards and test their students accordingly, the federal government is empowered to cut their funding. This would obviously have the worst kind of impact on students, who would bear the brunt of state non-compliance. Critics of NCLB also point out that mandatory standardized testing forces teachers to limit curriculums and teach to the test, and that poor performance – which may be rooted in any number and combination of socioeconomic, cultural, familial, and environmental factors – can both stigmatize and have adverse financial impacts on schools, teachers, and students.

The UK approaches financial carrot-and-stick measures with a different attitude. Rather than cutting essential funding if schools do not comply with national obligations, Pupil Premium, a funding program launched in 2011, allocates extra money to schools per disadvantaged student, based on how many students sign up for free school meals (FSM). As of the 2015-2016 school year, schools will receive £1,320 per primary-aged FSM student, £935 per secondary-aged FSM student, and £1,900 for each student who meets the criteria for a particularly disadvantaged home background. Additionally, there are annual prizes of up to £250,000 awarded to schools whose use of the funding has significantly improved the achievement of disadvantaged students.

In order to ensure that such large amounts of money are being spent appropriately without micromanaging schools’ budgets, the government holds schools accountable via annual inspections by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) that focus on whether the children who attracted the extra funding have made progress and narrowed achievement discrepancies. Schools that are deemed to be “requiring improvement” are then obligated to draw up an action plan for their Pupil Premium money in conjunction with a “system leader” (a government-accredited person with a record of success in reducing achievement gaps).

Extra funding, however, does not address another issue facing many British schoolchildren: the practice of streaming, or separating children into classes based on ability. One out of six children in England is grouped in this way, but available evidence indicates that streaming widens the achievement gap. High-performing students tend to do even better when surrounded by similar peers, whereas when low-performing students are clustered together their national achievement test scores consistently worsen over time. When it comes to testing tiers, which students encounter in secondary school, it appears that one’s tier is correlated with achievement: even the highest-scoring students in lower testing tiers do not score as high as students in higher tiers. One convincing hypothesis points to teacher expectations. Students who know that their teachers do not expect much of them – in this case based on the fact that they have been placed in a lower tier – seem to be less motivated and to perform worse. This has been identified as a potential factor in the aforementioned underrepresentation of black Caribbean students in higher testing tiers. These students are almost twice as likely as white British students to be written up for behavioral, emotional, and social difficulties at some point in their educational career, which some have argued leads teachers to perceive these students as academically weaker than they might in fact be.

No Child Left Behind has been stymied by similarly persistent and apparently mysterious achievement discrepancies. Between 2004 and 2009, everyone’s test scores rose – which meant that the achievement gap more or less remained. However, the skeptical observer might ask whether, in the high-stakes, punishment-motivated testing environment that NCLB created, test scores rose because curriculums narrowed, meaning that students were prepared for the annual test but not for the next year of school, the transition to university, or life more generally.

Schools clearly face a variety of issues that are outside the scope of financial solutions. Or are they? The 2014 Pupil Premium Awards highlighted some incredibly creative and financially efficient solutions directed towards underachieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as funding a private tutor to address gaps in math learning for a student whose military family had moved frequently.

Alongside increased funding, however, is the need for an attitude shift that has already begun to take hold in the UK: as evidenced by some winners of the 2014 Pupil Premium Awards, targeted individual interventions are often the most effective and efficient way to improve a student’s academic performance. This could be the key to truly ensuring that no child is left behind, and should be the focus of future government education policy in both the US and the UK.

By shifting away from a traditional idea of education as classroom learning and towards an understanding of education as life preparation, schools could begin to recognize and support whatever it takes for a child to succeed. There is a myriad of factors underlying a child’s success or failure at school, many of which lie outside of a school’s traditional purview. By both legally and conceptually expanding this purview and taking a holistic perspective on the relationship between a child’s life inside and outside the classroom, schools could begin to tackle, and perhaps even close, the dreaded achievement gap.

Samantha Mercadante

Education Editor

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