Any comparison of the two systems must start with the statement that one is not comparing like with like. The US doesn’t have a single educational system in the sense that England does. American schools do, however, have a number of accreditation bodies, who ensure that they have certain standards and fundamentals in common. US schools are also much more free to respond to the requirements, or indeed demands, of the local population. This means that special interest groups can have at times a significant effect on teaching requirements and the curriculum in those schools. This might lead to certain subjects, such as Biology, having additional strictures on what can and cannot be taught in schools. Schools in England, on the other hand, follow a single standard National Curriculum.
Teachers in both systems have some degree of personal freedom to develop their own teaching style within the structure of the particular curriculum that they follow. The English National Curriculum specifies in some considerable detail the educational milestones that children should reach on a year-by-year basis as they progress through their school life. Children are regularly assessed in detail by teachers, who use a standardised set of criteria to assign levels to their progress. Nationally, standardised tests are also employed, which give a very strong indication of how well a child is doing compared to national standards.
In the US the relatively recent introduction of the No Child Left Behind act has also introduced compulsory standardised testing in the majority of schools. The act was brought in to address America’s relatively poor performance compared to other developed countries in terms of the academic standards of its students.
International schools which follow the English National Curriculum use the same standardised testing regime and criteria as schools in England. This allows, for example, a British International School to compare and benchmark itself with the very best schools in the UK and to ensure that its standards are set at that level. Each child is assessed and set targets that are achievable for them. It’s important to note that schools are tasked with not only ensuring the progress of the very able, but also of those whose abilities are not at the top of the range. A student may not excel in national terms in all areas of the curriculum but it is important that the schools ensures that each student does as well as they can and is challenged to progress at a rate over and above that they might achieve at an ‘average’ school. These targets are sometimes referred to as Golden Targets and are often used as criteria for parents to judge the ‘value added’ by their school. ‘Value added’ refers to the progress that students in each school make over and above the average progress that a child would be expected to make, and is an important element in school evaluation in the UK.
In the US, students are compared using a variety of different standards throughout elementary school and high school. These vary from essentially IQ-based tests to tests which track progress through the curriculum based on tests of recall or understanding. The political landscape of the US is of course more varied than that of the UK, and this has inarguably had an effect on the way in which testing is viewed. International schools following a broadly US-based curriculum will generally choose one of the larger schools accreditation bodies. These are based in different regions of the US and have also broadened their responsibilities to include some overseas US schools. These bodies include WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges), NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) and SACS (Southern Association of Schools and Colleges), but there are others. They try to ensure that schools meet the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) targets specified in the NCLB act.
Schooling in the US generally begins at the age of around 5 or 6 years old. The initial focus in kindergarten is on play-based activities, with a transition to more formal structured learning occurring gradually as the child progresses through school. In many ways this is mirrored in the British system. Unlike in many areas of the US, however, a full system is in place for early years education. The Early Years/Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum is centred on developing all aspects of a very young child, both social and academic. It monitors and assesses key developmental milestones. Parental communication is heavily emphasised in the EYFS. Play is of course emphasised in the play-based learning sections of the curriculum, as are areas of continuous provision such as outdoor play, water play, sand play, arts activities and books. Even before children can read it’s important to have books around so that they begin to develop habits which will lead to a lifelong love of learning.
Moving into primary school, the key difference might be seen to be one of approach. The core areas of teaching in fact vary little. It is arguably the case that the British system is slightly more advanced in terms of maths and literacy, but in truth the variation between students is higher than that between the two systems. There is also a somewhat wider focus in the British system, contrasted with a more ‘national’ focus in the US. However, again the variation between teachers is wider than that laid down in the curriculum, with some US teachers considering it their duty to promote a wider world view where they are allowed to do so. One key area, though, is that of ‘tradition’. Many British schools still have uniforms and an explicit emphasis on teaching good manners and social skills. Both systems, of course, aim to combat bullying and other obvious social ills, but in general it would be fair to say that many US schools from primary upwards are a little more free or informal than their British counterparts. Of course this is neither good nor bad. Many parents may consider the teaching of good manners rather old-fashioned, or school uniforms a restriction of children’s freedom of expression. The British headmaster would reply that uniforms make for a family atmosphere and feeling of community, and reduce fashion pressure on both children and parents. There is no right answer to this issue, of course, and neither system can be said to be superior.
In secondary school (high school) the differences become more pronounced. Here by most standards the average British child is indeed one year more advanced in mathematics and language than their US counterpart (based on national average statistics). The differences in approach become even more pronounced, as schools across the US have a very different and more liberal approach than that of schools in the UK.
General standards in any good school in either the US or the UK will not vary hugely. The UK primary and early years system has proven to be highly successful in nurturing young minds, but aspects of the US middle school system are also being developed strongly. Both systems feature a strong emphasis on ICT skills, but the UK system is perhaps a little more outward looking. The key difference will always be one of approach. A modern forward-looking system aiming to maintain some traditional values, or a highly varied state-by-state system looking to satisfy the needs of a very varied community while maintaining a liberal tradition; in the end, it’s up to parents and students to choose the one best suited to them.