UK viewing US charter schools as models for education reform, says renowned educationist

By Surojit Chatterjee

The U.K., which has exchanged education policy reform ideas and efforts with the U.S. for several years, is currently viewing U.S. charter schools as possible models for reforms in England, according to University of London’s Institute of Education (IOE) Director Prof. Geoffrey Whitty.

Prof. Geoffrey Whitty, director of the Institute of Education (IOE) at the University of London, is seen speaking on Policy Tourism and Policy Borrowing: Why Does It Happen and What Good Does It Do? at Teachers College, Columbia University, Monday, Nov. 8, 2010

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Whitty, in his lecture entitled “Policy Tourism and Policy Borrowing: Why Does It Happen and What Good Does It Do?,” delivered at Teachers College, Columbia University, Monday, emphasized on the deep relationship the two countries – the U.S. and the U.K. – have forged, especially in the field of education, and how the U.S. had looked to the U.K. for education policy ideas during the past couple of decades.

However, in recent months, the English interest in U.S. reforms has assumed new proportions, Whitty said, especially with the Conservative party in power.

Last month, in Conservative Conference 2010, UK Education Secretary Michael Gove “presented charter schools as a model for academy schools and free schools in England,” though the very same charter schools were themselves influenced by grant maintained schools in England, Whitty said.

Gove, Whitty said, was also impressed by the education reforms implemented by the Obama administration, which included providing cash and other incentives to encourage more charter schools.

However, the professor warned that the politicians should not be content with just ‘what works’ because ‘what works’ does not synthesize research.

“Researchers quiet rightly want to ask questions that go beyond ‘what works.’ And, it is often the answer to these questions that explains why ‘what works’ often doesn’t work!” Whitty said.

Whitty also said the way in which academic research is being used as part of ‘evidentiary base’ by politicians is very “disturbing.”

“Particularly frustrating,” the professor said, “is that politicians looking for evidence to support what they already think or want to do are not really interested in the more profound questions we ourselves want to ask.”

However, “Politics is significantly shaped by symbolic considerations that may have little to do with the real effects of policies” and though “this does not excuse blatant misrepresentation of research findings, it does indicate that we have to be realistic about the context in which our work is used,” he said.

“While we, as researchers, may ideally want policy to be based on robust research findings, in reality, policy is driven by all sorts of considerations. The findings of education research will sometimes be pretty low down the list,” the professor added.
Whitty also said policy tourism and policy borrowing can do any good only if they are interpreted intelligently within communities of practice among and between those who are their bearers and recipients. “Policy inoculation may thus be a more appropriate metaphor than policy borrowing” though such a view may not appeal to politicians who are “looking for magic bullets,” he said.

Especially in the context of cross cultural research and policy borrowing, it is “necessary to ask questions about ‘what works where with whom’ and why,” and education researchers as “public intellectuals in addressing broader public attitudes to education policy and reform” have the duty to reinforce messages of “not just about what works, but also about what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t work,” the professor concluded.

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