A Dark Cloud on the U.S. Horizon?

A teacher's experience in England is a cautionary tale

By Melissa Schieble

Illustrator: Jean-Claude Lejeune

Photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

I lasted two long, bitter years. Sadly, these years were the first two of my teaching career. After months of job searching and phone interviews, armed with a teaching certificate and two crammed suitcases, I moved to England in 2001 to teach abroad, to work side by side with British colleagues in a public secondary school.

I knew little about the English educational system, but one thing was certain: High stakes testing was extremely important. With the determination of a novice, I assumed the system change would be rough, but manageable. I had done a little test preparation during student teaching, so how shocking could it be?

Schooling in England is under tight government control, regulated by a rigid system of standards and testing — known as the National Curriculum — first introduced by the Education Reform Act (ERA) in 1988. Given the heavy testing agenda under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the increasing numbers of U.S. educational reformers talking about a standardized “core” curriculum and looking to England as a model system, my experiences offer a warning of where this may lead.

As a secondary English teacher at Oliver Park School, part of my heavy workload required me to teach two classes of year 11 (grade 10). Year 11 is considered an “exam year” — the final year of secondary school — and teachers spend nearly all of this year on explicit test preparation and practice. If students fail to achieve at least a passing grade of “C” on a minimum of five tests, their hope of one day “going to university” dies. Students who do not pass at least five of their exams may then be steered toward technical schools or labor jobs such as construction, cosmetology, and other trades.

The grades leading up to year 11 are spent teaching to the standards in order to prep students with the skills needed for the exam at the end of each “key stage”: the ages of 7, 11, and 14. Oliver Park is recognized nationally for graduating students with high exam results. In fact, parents are so desperate to enroll their kids at Oliver Park (the English system is one of open enrollment) that while I taught there, the school had a six-year waiting list for students outside its boundaries. Because of the constant pressure to keep scores high, a rigid system of tracking was in place at the school.

Years of poor test scores and lack of engagement — in part a result of the testing craze — dumped the year 11 students who struggled to achieve into the bottom English class of a 12-track system. Yes, these students were at the bottom of 12 sections, ranging in descending order from the “high flyers” to the hopeless, neatly sorted by test scores. I taught this class, referred to at the school as the bottom set, and my job was just to get them through the exam year.

My bottom set students, not surprisingly, represented the few students of color at this school and kids from low-income families in the area. Many of the students talked about living in the subsidized housing estate across from the school, and the shabby and often tattered appearance of their uniforms separated them from the general population at Oliver Park. Some had aspirations of labor or technical jobs for the following year, while others remained silent about what lay ahead. Teachers and administrators openly discussed how these kids would never pass the high-stakes exam at the end of the year — known as the General Certificate for Secondary Education (GCSE).

Unfortunately, these students in the lowest track received very little care or attention from the school, as their projected examination scores did not fall on the critical C/D borderline: a group of students whose test results are crucial to the school’s improved annual success on the high-stakes exam. Teachers’ projections, mock exams, and exams from years past helped to make these predictions. In fact, because exam results were so important, more experienced teachers were strategically arranged to teach the classes that contained the “borderline” students. New teachers (like me) or less qualified teachers taught the bottom set.

My struggling students suffered tremendously, bound by a system that failed to recognize their gradual and delicate progress as significant. The National Curriculum is precisely what bound them. Throughout year 11, we painstakingly trudged through the depths of what we were required to do under the National Curriculum. Forty percent of a student’s final grade came from coursework — a series of essays and speaking activities. Each essay had to focus on a topic or reading under categories such as Shakespeare, pre-1914 prose, and 20th-century drama, to name a few. This system is stacked to reward middle- and upper-class students and disadvantaged my bottom set.

Given that the majority of students at Oliver Park come from middle-class, white households, the school’s high examination results do not reflect better teaching (though its teachers are talented and dedicated) but rather that most of its students are set up by the system for success. Exam questions, such as tracing the successful elements of an article’s argument in standard, sophisticated English, come much more easily to students who have had similar conversations at the dinner table their entire lives.

The remaining 60 percent of a student’s final grade for English was determined by the high-stakes exam. The exam for English and English literature consisted of a series of essay questions and writing prompts, all designed for students to display their mastery of form, genre, and literary analysis within standard English. Exams were sent away and graded by “external markers,” largely comprised of teachers working for extra pay at the end of the year. While there was some room for discussing personal and social issues in books or articles we read — or for exploring issues with a critical eye in writing assignments — often these experiences were sidelined or glossed over to focus on mastering the art of “taking the exam.” Because the exam was so important, a substantial number of my lessons were spent frantically teaching to the test: “Don’t forget to read the question, take notes on the piece of nonfiction text, remember to follow the bullet points, use connectives and rich vocabulary — don’t forget time! — analyze the presentation of the article and any graphics/ pictures that accompany it, write with fluency and originality . . .”

I rushed through all of this (because the exam was ever looming and we had mounds of skills and questions to prepare for) with a class of bored and frustrated students. My students would frequently ask, “Why do we have to do this, Miss?” And, under pressure to achieve good test results, I would craft an answer that supported the National Curriculum and the exam. But in the back of my mind, I asked myself the same question.

My students possessed immense abilities to articulate certain injustices or personal thoughts about literature, but they needed time to hone these skills in writing — more time than the National Curriculum deemed necessary. In my opinion, we could have helped them develop their reading and writing skills by discussing young adult novels and poetry that connected to their lives. I wanted to provide opportunities for them to understand society as it exists, rather than teach a series of lessons on test taking with no application to the world beyond the boundaries of schooling. But I had no choice: I had to follow the National Curriculum.

Student behavior is a significant problem in England and rarely discussed in international test-score comparisons. Because my students were bored with test preparation and frustrated with the tasks at hand, we battled our way through the year. Many of the students in these bottom set classes were frequently suspended or placed on reduced timetables for offenses ranging from swearing to refusing to do work, disrupting and harassing other students and staff, fighting, breaking windows, and a number of other nightmarish situations. I hate to admit it, but my colleagues and I dreaded teaching these classes due to sheer exhaustion from constantly dealing with difficult behavior. The behavior issues stemmed from students’ boredom with the drill-and-kill curriculum and reaction to their status in the school. Even teachers with many years of experience struggled. Inspiring students through meaningful work was nearly impossible.

My students weren’t the only ones who were frustrated. I desperately wanted to respond to their boredom with creative lessons and projects that built on their interests, rather than forcing them to write a standard, five-paragraph character essay on Mrs. Havisham from Great Expectations. What these students needed was to feel their lives connected to our materials in class; they needed to be thrilled and excited by their readings, because many had not experienced the pleasures that reading a good book bring. These are the reasons I went into this profession — and it did not take long for me to want out.

During exam time at the end of the year, I helped other teachers in school supervise the English and English literature test. My eyes darted from one long face to another with every passing minute, hoping that at least one part of the exam would be recognizable to my students. I watched in dread as their body language conveyed defeat: fidgets and restlessness, irritating pencil tapping on the desk, doodles marked all over what should have been pages of fluent prose.

My bottom set was incredibly sensitive to their place, determined by exams and tracking in this school. Earlier in the year, when I tried to teach a combined lesson with a teacher whose class was of a more advanced level, my students pleaded with me not to make them go into the other classroom. They said the other students were the “boffins,” English slang for students who are too attentive to schoolwork. Their put-downs indicated to me that my students felt they did not measure up. Hours upon hours of wrestling with mock tests seemed in vain — a clear waste of what could have been useful class time. This exam served as nothing more than a final slap in the face after a year of struggle writing essays and sitting through hours of mindless test preparation under the National Curriculum.

The Price

The National Curriculum in England comes with a heavy price — a price mostly paid by England’s struggling students, many of whom are low income or of color. Few teachers in the United Kingdom would deny that the National Curriculum has significantly narrowed what can be taught and has reinforced, if not introduced, a skill-and-drill approach to schooling. It’s virtually impossible to avoid when there’s such an emphasis on examination results and classroom teachers are held accountable for students’ test scores.

Back home in the United States I’ve heard praise for the British system — how “accountable” teachers are there, and how equitable it is to have a “rigorous,” uniform curriculum. Well, I’ve seen this future, and it’s not so great. Teachers will spend even more time on test prep. Inequality will become more pronounced. Students’ behavior will deteriorate as they rebel against an empty curriculum. Fewer and fewer students will be exposed to material that encourages them to reflect critically about social issues. As the United States moves more and more toward a standards- and test-driven curriculum, I hope my experience offers a warning of what lies ahead.

Melissa Schieble (mbschieb@wisc.edu) is currently working on her Ph.D. in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.