Heading to the Old World in Search of the New

One of the first questions lobbed at me in my telephone interview with the UK Fulbright Commission was, “Why England?” And really, what do I know about England? I’ve never even visited. They were calling from London and there I sat at my little farm in Tennessee, sheltered from the wide world by the foothills of Appalachia. Like many Americans, all my images of British education come from novels. “Hogwarts,” I wanted to say foolishly, “seemed to do pretty good job giving Harry an all-around education.” But then I remembered that even Harry was a drop-out, finding that traveling the English countryside fighting Death Eaters gave him more than enough qualifications to become an Auror.

Instead of poking out my Potterhead and exposing my ignorance, not to mention my nerddom, I spoke of how both the US and the UK are making big changes in our educational systems, trying new initiatives that are usually handed top-down to teachers from politicians. Both countries keep a close eye on our standings in international educational rankings and engage in bombastic media debates that rarely give even a nod to educators, much less a voice. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have an experienced educator research the similarities and differences in our systems and have a first-hand look at which of these new changes are working and which aren’t? Shouldn’t our two countries be learning from each other’s successes and failures?

Many Fulbrighters head to shining examples of successful educational systems like Finland and Singapore. While the information they gather is enlightening, it is difficult to compare countries with governmental systems and cultures so different from our own, especially with UNICEF reporting Finnish child poverty levels around 5% compared to 23% in the US. The UK measures about 12%, but was side-by-side with us in the rankings a decade ago, before a series of reforms led to dramatic improvements.

British and American children rank closely on UNICEF’s measures of educational well being (that is to say, near the bottom of the developed nations), and our nations are side-by-side (at #23 and #24 out of 29, woo-hoo!) in the number of students aged 15 – 19 who are not in education, employment or training (the so-called NEET’s.) While we have these similarities in outcomes, there are some striking differences in our implementation, especially among the options available for students 16 to 19 years old. After two years of secondary education leading to GSCE qualifying exams, students in the UK choose a path based on these qualifications to prepare for the university setting, a vocational training college, or the job market. Here in the US, there are some differences between the states, but most have a single diploma path. In my home state of Tennessee, our graduation requirements changed four years ago to become more homogenous, and the class of 2013 was the first to graduate under these new rules. In order to receive a high school diploma, this class had to attend four years of high school and earn 22 credits, the majority of which were college preparatory courses assigned with little regard for the student’s post-graduation interests or aptitude.

My question is whether the push toward more variety in education and training options, or the change to a more uniform path is best suited for the challenges of the new world economy. In particular, I am interested in the choices offered for students with mild disabilities such as learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and attention deficits. Is it true that the jobs of tomorrow largely require a college education? Or could it be that, like Harry, many of our students could be better prepared by real-world experiences and on-the-job training?

To be honest, I really have no memory of what I said during that telephone interview with Fulbright; I was too nervous. I guess my answers must have been at least minimally sufficient, because I find myself about to embark on an exciting project in the United Kingdom. As recipient of a Fulbright Distinguished Educator Award, I will be working from September to March with researchers at the University of Leeds in Northern England, exploring the similarities and differences in the ways our two nations prepare students with learning challenges for post-secondary education and job training. Follow me as I visit schools, interview students and educators, and try to find answers beyond the posturing and hype.


UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (2012), ‘Measuring Child Poverty:
New league tables of child poverty in the world’s rich countries’,
Innocenti Report Card 10, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence

UNICEF Office of Research (2013). ‘Child Well-being in Rich Countries:
A comparative overview’, Innocenti Report Card 11, UNICEF Office of
Research, Florence.


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