Learning from London about school improvement


As education policymakers in North Carolina grapple with how to improve low-performing schools, they might want to consider the experience of their counterparts in London.

Since the late 1990s, the academic performance of elementary and secondary school students in London has risen dramatically and now exceeds national averages. Strikingly, the improvement is due largely to significant gains in the 13 boroughs (districts) of Inner London that have the greatest concentrations of low-income and ethnic-minority students.

Last fall we spent a month in two of these boroughs, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, in order to identify the policies that drove what has been dubbed “the London Effect” and what we, as North Carolinians, might learn from them.

One of the first things we noticed was that schools were well-funded. Having resources, of course, is no guarantee that they will be well spent, but strong financial support from the central government enabled school leaders to implement promising policies and programs. Aside from the value of adequate funding, we came away with three major observations:

1 The power of districtwide strategies. Leaders in both Hackney and Tower Hamlets adopted areawide strategies to improve student outcomes. Rather than focusing on a handful of low-performing schools, they sought to strengthen the overall capacity of the borough to serve all children in the area. They established a culture of cooperation and mutual responsibility in which strong schools helped weaker ones, headteachers (principals) and teachers collaborated across schools and borough leaders were able to deploy resources flexibly and efficiently in order to minimize any systemic inequities.

The area-wide approaches that we observed in London contrast sharply with school improvement strategies in the U.S. that focus on improving a few isolated schools while ignoring the broader needs of districts as a whole. Likewise, the London approach is antithetical to having charter schools function as independent entities with no stake in the overall success of the districts in which they are embedded.

The concept of areawide reform strategies is gaining attention in the U.S. in the form of proposals that would put groups of struggling schools under centralized management. Analysis of the London Effect suggests that these will be successful only to the extent that they exist in geographically coherent areas united by a coherent vision shared by all relevant stakeholders. “Innovation zones” set up by local school boards as part of a districtwide strategy could fit this bill. “Achievement districts” consisting of a hodge podge of geographically disparate low-performing schools under state control most certainly would not.

2 The benefits of broader accountability systems. Like many other developed countries, England has an accountability system under which teams of professional inspectors visit schools and write reports that pay attention not only to student outcomes but also to leadership and managerial capacity and to internal policies and practices. By focusing on processes as well as outcomes, inspectors provide useful and actionable information not only to schools themselves but to borough officials. Boroughwide performance reviews by national inspectors also played a major role in improving education in both Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

England’s use of an inspection-based accountability system differs significantly from the test-based system in place in the U.S. from 2002 to 2015 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Congress has now abolished this system, and states now have greater flexibility under the Every Student Succeeds Act to explore new forms of accountability. North Carolina policy makers would do well to move toward a system that goes beyond test scores, that incorporates input from trained professional inspectors, and that holds entire school districts, not just individual schools, accountable for student performance.

3 The need for support within school systems for disadvantaged students. The shared vision that defined the educational culture in both boroughs was built on the convictions that all children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can learn and that, by implication, poverty is not an excuse for low achievement. Significantly, both boroughs backed up this belief by directing significant resources to helping poor children deal with the particular challenges that they bring to school. Teachers use detailed and sophisticated data to diagnose the learning needs of each child and to address them promptly. They organize individualized and group tutoring, breakfast and other health programs, and after-school and other enrichment programs.

Although former President George W. Bush famously decried the “soft tyranny of low expectations” for disadvantaged children, it is only recently that federal policy has paid significant attention to the kinds of interventions that disadvantaged students need to fulfill their potential. U.S. policymakers are now becoming increasingly supportive of programs such as early childhood education, universal preschool, expanded health care and the provision of nutrition supports and wraparound social services in some communities. Although local districts and schools obviously lack the capacity to eliminate poverty across the board, they can, by working together, mitigate many of the ways in which poverty has a negative effect on student learning.

Some of the English educators with whom we spoke suggested that there was nothing particularly new or innovative about the strategies they were pursuing. Rather than experimenting with governance or structural changes that have little direct impact on what happens in classrooms, they focused their attention on time-honored fundamentals of good education. With No Child Left Behind now a thing of the past, there is no reason why North Carolina policymakers cannot use their new flexibility to do likewise.

Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor of the New York Times, edits the Fiske Guide to Colleges. Helen F. Ladd is professor of Public Policy and Economics at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke.