A divided nation losing its American dream?

Lee Elliot Major on how political grid-lock is harming education in the US

Manhattan’s frenetic streets in New York have always been a thrilling, nerve jangling experience for visiting Brits. Perhaps I’m just getting less relaxed in my middle age, but last week during a Sutton Trust visit, I noticed that the traffic has become all but grid-locked on the famous mesh of streets and avenues that define the city. All road etiquette seems to have been abandoned, as the yellow taxis and black limos fight for every inch of space, with little respect for people crossing the road. I opted for the much easier mode of transport: travelling by foot.

This image stayed with me as I flew back to London – as it symbolised so perfectly America’s current troubles. As someone who had admired greatly the United States for its aspirational spirit, ‘can do’ culture and work ethic, I came away feeling like I’d left a deeply divided and dysfunctional country. I worry that this will damage the nation’s education prospects. And render the American dream a relic of a once golden past.

The problem is that Senators and Congressmen are aping the worst tactical games of our Members of Parliament in the UK. Personal or local considerations are being sacrificed for the greater interests of the political party as a whole. That sort of works in Westminster, where the ruling party enjoys a majority of votes in Parliament; but not in Washington. In contrast to the UK, the executive and legislature are separated in the US: even if President Obama wants to pass a Bill he doesn’t have the loyal foot-soldiers in the Senate and the House of Representatives to make it happen. And to make matters worse, the very concept of federal Government action is anathema to some Republicans.

Education is the helpless victim of this political impasse. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who oversees billions of dollars in federal education budgets, is all but powerless to enact some of the programmes he envisioned for his second term. One flagship policy was to fund pre-school education for all four year olds from low income homes – to narrow the stark education gaps that already exist when children start school. Instead he has had to oversee cuts to education spending as part of the recent compromise budget agreed by Republicans and Democrats.  Education, unlike a bad economy or a military action overseas, is by its nature a long term issue, unlikely to get the immediate political spotlight. It was conspicuous for its absence from the Presidential election debates last year.

From a London-centric UK, it has always been refreshing to experience the fierce independence of the different States in the US (which allocate around 90% of education funds).  But across the country bitter battles are being fought over education at state level as well.

On one side are reformers wanting to introduce more competition between schools, common test scores and teacher evaluations that distinguish genuinely between good and poor performers. On the other are the skeptics, backed by the powerful teacher unions, who argue that the focus on competition and test scores will hinder not help teaching and learning in the classroom.

The uncomfortable truth for the US is that progress is only likely if these two polarised camps can find some common ground. Nations that have performed well educationally on the global stage have one stand-out feature: a partnership between Government reformers and teacher leaders working together for the greater good.

The real victims in all this are of course America’s children. The most shocking divide is that between the education haves and have-nots – in this nation once the global beacon of social mobility. Just to quote one of many depressing statistics: seventy-five percent of students at the most selective colleges and universities in the US are from the top quarter of the income distribution; while only 3 percent are from the bottom quartile. The US is slowly but surely losing the global education talent race.

An educationalist respected on both sides of the Pond, Sir Michael Barber, recently posted a thought on twitter after visiting Silicon Valley: “Incredible entrepreneurship + the Common Core = US at forefront of global education reform. May be?”

I really hope his slightly guarded optimism is proved right. The impact of establishing common standards across States should not be underestimated. But right now I can only remember the cars jammed against each other amidst the fumes, stuck in New York’s streets, all sense of common purpose seemingly lost.