President's Corner

Is the Grass Greener Across the Atlantic?

by Daniel A. Domenech

You do not rent a car in England. You "hire" a car. From that point, you risk your life by driving on the wrong side of the road, as opposed to the "right" side, and by driving from the wrong side of the car, the right side. Confusing? Get ready, because there are even more differences.

England has no superintendents of schools. Instead, there are chief education officers or directors, who belong to the Society of Education Officers. That is the United Kingdom's equivalent of the American Association of School Administrators. Traditionally, the presidents of our two leadership organizations attend each other's annual conference. In July, as my first official activity as AASA president, I attended the Society of Education Officers Conference in Stafford, England.

Our education systems are significantly different in ways that allow for interesting comparisons. For example, we are polar opposites in our methods of financing education. The British national government finances about 90 percent of the cost of education, while local revenues generate about 10 percent. Here in America, it is generally the other way around.

Consequently, it is not surprising to find that Britain has a national curriculum, national assessments and a national process for inspecting all schools on a six-year cycle. Listen up, you might like this. There are no boards of education per se. Every county elects a council as the local form of governance. An education committee of the council works with the chief education officers to establish school policy. They meet in the neighborhood four times a year. Not bad, huh?

School-based management is for real in England. The head teacher, similar to our principal, works with the board of governors to hire and fire staff, establish building-level education policy and make budget decisions. That board is made up of teachers and parents who volunteer to serve.

Needless to say, the locals strongly resent the higher level of national intrusion into local matters. At one conference session I attended, the crowd of directors and chief education officers were, although polite, openly hostile toward the chief inspector, the person who heads up the national inspection office. The air was filled with talk of identifying low-performance schools and the threat of withholding funding unless those schools realized dramatic improvements.

I found the debate interesting, given what seems to be a general aversion to a national curriculum or to even a national test here in the United States. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that our critics tend to beat up on our school systems, comparing them to world standards. The criticism comes in spite of the fact that many of the countries that we do not favorably compare with on achievement tests do have national standards, curriculum and testing.

Yet the Brits clearly look at the level of independence we enjoy from national governance with downright envy. Granted, there is a certain amount of "the grass is always greener" thinking here. However, I think we may both wish for some movement toward the middle.

Our pursuit of higher standards will require more support than the meager level of funding we currently receive from the federal budget, which is generally around six to seven percent. We do need to keep in mind that any extra dollars will have strings attached--a national curriculum and assessment might be the catch.

We have a great deal to learn by simply studying what our friends around the world are doing, and we can get a pretty clear idea of both the benefits and consequences.