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.

 

A meeting to remember

James Turner reports on a discussion between students on the Sutton Trust US Programme and Mrs Heinz Kerry, wife of the US Secretary of State

There are some meetings which will live with you for a lifetime, some which give you a renewed conviction for your work and for life in general.  Last week we were fortunate enough to host a round-table with Theresa Heinz Kelly – IMG_5295_resizedbusinesswoman, philanthropist and wife of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry – for participants on our US university programme.  For many of us, this was one such meeting.

Mrs Heinz Kerry found time in her hectic London schedule (she’d flown in the day before from Istanbul and was heading home the day after) to spend over an hour talking to our students – asking them about their own university choices and offering them advice on education and career paths. The conversation ranged widely; Mrs Heinz Kerry also gave us tantalising glimpses into a whole range of areas of her academic, philanthropic and professional life, from her efforts to combat apartheid in South Africa to her concerns for the environment.  Wisdom and common sense peppered her remarks, and the consensus was she was an impressive and inspiring lady.

As the discussion closed, and Mrs Heinz Kerry was saying goodbye to the students, I reflected that this has been an extraordinary journey for the Trust, our partners the Fulbright Commission and, of course, for the young people who have been on the Sutton Trust US programme.IMG_5306_resized

Eighteen months ago we were sitting in Millbank Tower planning the initiative – tea for us Brits, Diet Coke for our American colleagues – asking just what could be achieved by a non-profit in such a competitive space, and wondering whether more than a handful of our students would be successful in gaining admission. Yet here we were, in Millbank Tower again, almost 20 of our students bound for US universities this autumn, accessing millions of dollars of aid, with one of the most influential women in the world taking a genuine interest in what we’ve achieved.

For the young people themselves, many had never seriously thought about studying in the US until they saw our programme – and even then, it seemed a very distant prospect indeed.  But, thanks to the exceptional efforts of those involved in running the scheme and their own sheer hard work, we now have ordinary (in the best sense of the word) state school students heading to some of the highest ranked US universities in the world.  The don’t live in million pound houses or attend elite schools; they simply have talent and motivation and that has shone through.

IMG_5313_resizedIt is a high bar we have set ourselves for this year’s group of 150, who we’ll be taking to MIT and Yale in the summer.  But having met many of those young people over Easter at our selection residential, I am confident we have a great starting point for this year’s programme. There were some exceptional young people with some incredible stories, a voracious appetite for learning and for expanding their horizons.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if, amongst them, we have some future leaders of the likes of Mrs Heinz Kerry.

Two countries united by a common access problem

James Turner considers access issues State-side

I had some respite from the London cold last week, when I was invited to speak at a British Council event at the University of California, Los Angeles, on widening access to university.

It was a fascinating session and underlined that – while our weather may be quite different – our two countries are facing similar issues when it comes to educational inequalities.

Even in setting the scene, the contextual factors at play are strikingly resonant – low levels of social mobility compared to many other developed nations; increasing inequality leading to a widening gap between rich and poor; and marked segregation in the school system, which makes the pre-college playing field anything but level.

The debates on either side of the Atlantic have been brought further into line because many in the US now see class and income, rather than ethnicity, as the defining obstacle to wider university access.  It is poverty more than colour that dictates chances of progression.

And both countries face the conundrum that, between them, they have the majority of the top-ranked universities in the world, but opportunities to study at these institutions are far from equitably spread, with those from better-off homes dominating admissions.

As in the UK, one of the major reasons underlying this trend in America is the lower levels of achievement of poorer students, allied to issues around aspirations and the quality of advice and support they receive.  Such is the complexity and breadth of the US higher education scene, that college counselling is critical – but, as here, it is often worst where it is needed most, in those communities with little experience of further study and no networks on which to draw.   This is exacerbated by the fact that school resources depend on parental income, with school districts funded through local taxation.

One difference though – at least for the time being – was that affordability and credit constraints have played a much larger part in the US picture.

While debt aversion has always been a factor in the debate, research from OFFA a couple of years ago showed that bursaries did not make a difference to English students’ decision making.  In other words, it wasn’t the cash that mattered, which is why the Trust has long-argued for more investment in outreach work in schools.  Whether this holds true under the new fees regime, of course, remains to be seen.

Participation rates in the US are higher than here, markedly so in fact, but the need for college graduates remains strong – in fact, the US government forecasts a demand, particularly in STEM areas, that is not being met by current supply. That should give heart to those in the UK pushing for more high quality higher education opportunities.

The final session of the conference looked at new digital platforms – including the possibility that College education could be made free, or at much lower cost, through the web.  Bandwith, content and hardware have converged, meaning that now could be the time that this type of provision really takes off.

If that happens, and the currency of the courses remains high, then the opportunity to share in the bounty of university could extend well beyond those who physically enter the lecture halls of our great universities.

So there were reasons for optimism – but it was an overall sobering prognosis, despite the LA sunshine. Such is the arms race of social mobility – and the understandable willingness of affluent parents to spend money to give their children a competitive advantage – that closing the university access gap seems like a very high mountain to climb indeed.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try —  and our work over the last fifteen years has shown that progress can be made. Every great journey starts in the foothills.