The extraordinary paradox in comparing educational standards in the United Kingdom and the United States is that two of the most important recent English educational reforms – the introduction of specialist schools and academies – both originated in US schools. In the 1960s and 1970s, Magnet schools, which besides teaching a broad curriculum,
were centres of excellence in one or more particular subjects, were an important American schools innovation. For various reasons, including their use by the federal government in an abortive attempt to integrate ethnic minorities into US schools, Magnet schools became less popular. They have, however, recently become popular again. Magnet schools were introduced as Specialist Schools in 1994 in England, where they now account for 90 per cent of all schools. Similarly, the British City Technology Colleges, and their successors, the City Academies, emulate US Charter schools. There are now over 3,500 charter schools in the United States, but they still only account for 3.5 per cent of all US public schools, whereas the goal in England will be to have at least 400 academies equivalent to nearly 15 per cent of the 3,100 secondary schools. If these two great American reforms have worked so well in the United Kingdom,
why have they been less successful in the United States? Could American schools learn from the way that specialist schools and academies have transformed English schools, as well as from other English reforms such as the introduction of the national curriculum and national accountability started in 1988? Before answering this question, it is necessary to review the current state of public school education in the United States. As described in Chris Whittle’s book Crash Course,1 the ﬁrst issue is the sheer size of
the American school population, which makes it very diﬃcult to generalise about US educational standards. The total school population in the United States is approximately 49 million children. Each age cohort is over 3 million children (note: the 49 million estimated children include PK-12, a total of 14 ‘cohorts’. In addition, the number of students in each cohort is not the same. For example, in 2005 there were 3.6 million children in kindergarten and 3.1 million in 12th grade), compared to just 650,000 in England. There are an astounding 14,000 school districts, compared to just 140 local authorities with educational responsibilities in England, with 97,000 schools in the public sector of which 73,000 are primary or middle schools (primary schools for children aged 6-11 and middle schools for children aged 11-14) and 29,500 are senior high schools for children aged 14-17.