HometownSource.com: Scottish surprises and American schools


by Joe Nathan

Some surprising differences emerged last week in a conversation with a Scottish principal/teacher named Zena Richardson. She works with 5-11 year olds in rural Southeastern Scotland.

Her first observation would shock many Americans: “We test children up to age 14 when we think they are ready.” So no national or “statewide” tests for young children are given on a particular day or week. The Scottish goal is to help each youngster achieve a national standard. Scotland allows its educators to adopt what most educators there and here know is true — students learn at different rates.

The Scottish goal is mastery (as it is in the U.S.). But Scotland gives educators the flexibility to assess when they think that students have mastered the material.

Richardson also was surprised by the number of American elementary students she saw sitting in desks. In most Scottish elementary schools, students sit at a table with four or five other youngsters. Richardson explained, “we do a lot of cooperative, group projects with young children, helping them learn to work together. While we want them to read and other things American schools promote, we also think learning to cooperate is vital. I think our children would be surprised and disappointed if we made them sit by themselves in a desk.”

A third difference is in the creation of national standards (something that is getting more discussion in the U.S.). Richardson asked, in her gentle Scottish accent, “Doncha’ have the same basic expectations for all the children, regardless of where they live?” Whether in Glasgow, Edinborough or the rural area around Selkirk where Richardson works, “we think there are some things that all students should know.”

A number of countries that have higher achievement that the U.S. have national standards. (You can see some Scottish standards at http://www.ltscotland.org/uk/5to14/html/guidelines.)

National education standards have been discussed in the U.S. But we have deep commitment to “local control.” The No Child Left Behind federal law required each state to develop standards. Several reports have concluded that standards — and acceptable student performance — now vary widely among U.S. states. That surprises many international visitors.

Richardson is in the United States to learn more about our efforts to combine classroom study, especially about good health, with some community service. Two Minnesota organizations — Public Achievement at the Humphrey Institute, where I work, and the National Youth Leadership Council, have worked with people around the world, as well as within this country, to help promote this idea. (publicachievement.org, and nylc.org). Richardson had heard a Public Achievement staff member speak, liked his ideas, and came to the US to learn more.

Richardson’s visit is one more indication that Minnesota’s schools are doing things people pay attention to, not only here, but around the world.

I hope we also learning from others, whether it is about classroom tables or national standards. Learning is not just for youngsters.

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota jnathan@hhh.umn.edu.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/18/2007 - 02:53 pm.

    It is of course valuable to compare education systems.

    However with all due respect to Scotland, and to your guest, it appears that the Scots themselves may be well advised to engage in a bit of introspective deliberation.

    “Scotland’s ranking in child literacy falls

    “SCOTLAND has fallen down the rankings of an international league table of children’s literacy, according to a report published yesterday.
    A study of primary-age children in 45 countries and provinces saw Scotland fall from 14th place in 2001 to 26th position in 2006.”


    I think you’ll agree Joe that a steady fall from 14th to 26th position over five years could accurately be described as a plunge.

    I don’t think that anyone would argue against the fact that our system of public education is in a very sad state and in need of, perhaps, wholesale overhaul, but in addition to what we have done to ourselves, we have problems that are being “imported” as well.

    Almost every district that I read of puts the number of kids that don’t speak english, and \\ or that have not had any sort of age appropriate study at all at the top of their list of “ills”.

    Since we are educating a larger proportion of the third world’s children perhaps we might be well advised to take a big, deep breath before we decide that any other developed country’s model is worth emulating, don’t you agree?

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