During a decade in power, the government of former British prime minister Tony Blair made efforts to improve English schools, with some apparent successes. Because US public education faces similar challenges, like what to do with failing schools and how to recruit better teachers, some educators believe there is much to learn from England's experience.
A few are turning to Sir Michael Barber, a senior adviser to Blair from 1997 through 2005, who received his title in recognition of his educational contributions. As a partner at McKinsey & Co, he has been advising education policymakers, including the Ohio State Board of Education and Joel Klein, the New York schools chancellor.
Barber's recent book, Instruction to Deliver, is a favorite of Klein's. Last year, the schools chancellor asked Barber to address hundreds of New York principals about school improvement strategies.
Barber elaborated on those themes in a recent interview in the dining room of the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, where he was staying during a consulting trip. A gray-haired fellow who often cocks his head to one side when emphasizing a point, he occasionally asked and answered his own questions and he stressed the importance of improving teacher quality.
"What have all the great school systems of the world got in common?" he said, ticking off four systems that he said deserved to be called great in Finland, Singapore, South Korea and Alberta, Canada.
"Four systems, three continents -- what do they have in common?" he said.
"They all select their teachers from the top third of their college graduates, whereas the US selects its teachers from the bottom third of graduates. This is one of the big challenges for the US education system: What are you going to do over the next 15 to 20 years to recruit ever better people into teaching?" he said.
South Korea pays its teachers much more than England and the US, and has accepted larger class sizes as a trade-off, he said.
Finland, by contrast, draws top-tier college graduates to the profession not with huge paychecks, but by fostering exceptionally high public respect for teachers, he said.
Under Blair, Barber said, Britain attracted more talented young teaching candidates by offering stipends of US$14,000 for college graduates undergoing a year of teacher training. The government set up a national curriculum to govern such training and started a nationwide public relations campaign aimed at persuading prospective teachers that society would value their work, he said.
"We completely recast our teacher recruitment and training system," Barber said.
Before joining the Blair government, Barber experienced England's educational system personally, in stints as a schoolteacher, teachers' union official and university professor. He lives in the East End of London with his wife. Their three daughters are fully grown.
Public education in England and the US evolved along similar paths, he said.
In the early 1980s, government reports deploring educational mediocrity rattled both nations, inspiring movements to improve standards and accountability on both sides of the Atlantic. And during the last decade, both nations began federally driven school improvement efforts, he said.
"But it's a lot harder to do education reform in the United States than in the UK," Barber said.