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25th July
2008

First Published in The New York Sun, July 25, 2008

By Andrew Wolf
If we were somehow travel ahead in time, say a decade from now, and land in New York City, one thing is for certain: we will be still be talking of the crisis in education, complaining about graduation rates, wringing our hands over the loss of our competitive position in the world marketplace.

The Bloomberg reforms? They will fade away as surely as the morning dew.

How do I know this? Because in a way we can already make that journey through time, and evaluate the results of a reform effort like our own. All that we need to do is go to London and take a look at the education situation in Britain. The schools there are in crisis and the educational establishment in disarray, while cries are heard on the floor of the Commons for the Secretary of State for Children, Schools, and Families, Edward Balls.

Mr. Balls is in trouble because the tests on which the British education system rests have collapsed in scandal. It really isn’t fair to put the blame on the hapless Mr. Balls. He is merely reaping the fruits of a system put in place by Sir Michael Barber, then top official of Prime Minister Blair’s “New Labour” government.

If our school system were more transparent or subjected to public oversight by a properly constituted authority, Sir Michael would be better known to the general public on this side of the pond. He is the most important developer of the current ideology behind the education “reform” here, even if he is little known outside Tweed Courthouse.

In Britain, Sir Michael is well known. He played a central role in setting Mr. Blair’s education policy and later served as the head of the prime minister’s “delivery unit.” He recounts all this in his book, “Instruction to Deliver.” He parlayed his public service into a lucrative position with the global consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, despite the spotty record of the British schools.

When our time machine lands in Gotham a decade from now, I suspect that most of the officials at Tweed will be doing the same kind of work “advising” school districts how to get the results they themselves failed to deliver in New York.

I say this because for all the acclaim Sir Michael has received, even a casual reading of the British press over the last few years leads to the realization of just how dismal the results in the schools there have been.

The latest flap over testing that has caused Mr. Balls’s anguish certainly has its roots in the Blair/Barber/McKinsey model of data driven instruction. The idea is that what matters is that which can be measured and, therefore, it can be controlled.

The trouble is that the test administration and grading is as faulty there as it is here in America. The issue in Britain right now is that the all-important standardized tests given to pupils aged 11 and 14 were botched, leaving the educrats, in this case an agency called the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, or Ofsted, without timely data.

The test is what the British called the Standard Attainment Test. This is not our SAT, although the firm hired to administer and grade the test is the Educational Testing Service, familiar to us here in America. The company failed to grade many of the tests on time, lost some of the test papers, and in a panic set up emergency marking centers in hotels, even, it is reported, hiring hotel bar staff to grade the papers. The whole Barber-designed data driven enterprise is now being questioned.

Or, to put it a different way, it turns out the tests there, like those here, are now designed to evaluate adults, rather than children. And British education officials, just like those in New York, are being accused of having deliberately dumbed down the tests to boost the prospects of those adults.

As the Daily Mail in Britain noted on Monday, “chicanery is inevitable because it’s not just teachers but ministers who are being tested on their promise to improve education, so … such tests will always show that standards are rising, even when the opposite is the case. The outcome has been that, while children have been subjected to an ever-expanding battery of tests, their qualifications have become progressively devalued. As measurable achievement has been ostensibly going up, the amount pupils actually know has been going steadily down.”

Fasten your seatbelts for a trip to the future.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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