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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 11/02/2007

For decades now Scotland has benefited from inward investment from the United States. Many cite the skills of the workforce and their work ethic as reasons for coming here. I hadn’t given much thought to what this meant about the American education system. However, I’ve been reading a lot about American education performance as part of a research project and all that inward investment now makes more sense.

Nowadays about half of college students in the USA have such poor academic skills that they need to attend remedial classes in maths or English. It is estimated that $16.6 billion dollars a year are spent trying to improve the basic academic skills of students. Achievement is not only a problem for students but there are also millions of children, particularly from poor backgrounds, who never master basic skills. Education Week concluded in 1999 "that most fourth graders who live in U.S. cities can’t read and understand a simple children’s book, and most eight graders can’t use arithmetic to solve a practical problem."

There has been considerable activity in the US in recent years to remedy the problem. In 2002 President Bush launched his ‘No Child Left Behind’ initiative in an attempt to improve educational standards at the bottom end. At the same time there has been a great deal of effort to improve America’s world-wide competitiveness by improving educational standards, particularly in maths and science. This has led to various initiatives designed to target potential high achievers. Commentators point out that there is a great deal of tension between these two agendas.

As educational attainment figures have dropped more and more states have thrown money at the problem. Between 1960-90 class sizes decreased by a third and teachers’ salaries tripled. Since 2001 federal spending on education has increased by $15 billion – an increase of almost 40%. Spending on programmes designed to improve teacher quality has reached almost $3 billion under the Bush Administration. This allows local school districts to use federal funds to hire new teachers, increase teacher pay, and improve teacher training and development.

Twenty years ago a physican called John Jacob Cannell did some private research which he published as the "Lake Woebegone reports". He named them after the mythical Minnesota town created by Garrison Keillor where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children above average." The first of Cannell’s reports documented that all fifty states "were testing above the national average in elementary achievement and concluded the testing infrastructure in America’s public schools was corrupt." The second of his reports outlined what he called "the systematic and pervasive ways that American educators cheat on standardized achievement tests."

Cannell’s two reports received a huge amount of publicity and spawned what is now referred to as the movement for "tougher standards". During the 1990s this movement led to increased testing in many states. Schools that did not perform well were sanctioned or put on probation while the high performing ones were rewarded. Individual pupils who failed were held back a grade. This ‘high stakes’ testing as it is called, is now mandated by law as part of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative.

A battle royal now rages in America between ‘the tough standards’ lobby who see rote learning, homework and testing as the way to drive up standards and more liberal educators who decry such a crude approach to education.

The irony is that none of these activities are producing much effect. The National Association for Educational Progress produce an annual Report Card on the state of American education. In their latest report (2005) they are quite candid that all the pump priming (and presumably introduction of more tests) is hardly making a difference. They write: "When will public policy makers finally understand that simply focusing on reducing classroom size, pumping more and more money into public schools, raising expenditures per pupil, hiring more school staff, and raising teacher salaries will not improve learning?"

No wonder Scotland seems an attractive location for investment.

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