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US experts give schools shake-up warning

New focus: Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education and Workforce Development (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

A plan to axe middle schools in favour of specialist “signature” schools has to be backed with hard facts, a top international academic warned yesterday.

Peter Cookson, senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, based in Washington DC, said statistics had to support a change to the education system.

He added: “I would vote for hard data to support decisions of this magnitude.”

Dr Cookson, who is also a sociology lecturer at the prestigious Georgetown University in Washington DC, has conducted extensive research on school choice, including the similar magnet schools in the United States.

He added: “Data is essential for making strategic changes; otherwise it’s very hard to know where a policy is coming from and its most likely consequence.

“Measurement is one way we have for knowing the wisdom of a reform.”

Dr Cookson was speaking after Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education and Workforce Development, announced in July that work had begun on proposals to introduce signature schools.

The schools, designed to have a specialised focus on particular subjects, would be introduced at the secondary level with middle schools phased out.

Mr Rabain said the signature schools plan was in line with other countries, including magnet schools in the US.

The minister added that the Progressive Labour Party held “extensive” town hall meetings with the public and consulted with teachers after its defeat in the 2012 election.

Mr Rabain said the Government’s plan came in response to the public view that middle schools were “seen as a problem” and that a “lack of trust” in the education system started at the middle-school level.

But Andy Hargreaves, a research professor at Boston College and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, said: “Simply saying the public is dissatisfied is not really adequate — unless you can point to what it is they’re dissatisfied with.

“Everybody has a right to know what is the problem to which this solution is the answer.”

A two-page document called “FAQs on the Signature School Process” posted on the government website in July said the decision to phase out middle schools was in response to “community desires for change”.

Mr Rabain said in July that the three-pronged consultation process was expected to last at least 18 months.

Kelly Bucherie, director of magnet school leadership with Magnet Schools of America, said the Government’s plan to gather feedback was “thoughtful and in the right direction”.

Ms Bucherie, a former middle and high school principal, said parents wanted to be involved in the decision-making process, but also wanted guidance from education professionals.

She added: “It’s very important not to dumb it down.

“Nine times out of ten they’ll see right through it, they’ll walk away feeling disenchanted.”

She added that the consultation process should be a collaboration.

Ms Bucherie said: “It shouldn’t be a room where someone is at the front and the rest are in the audience.”

Dr Hargreaves questioned the amount of time allocated for consultation.

He said: “This looks like a long consultation period for a pretty small system, to be absolutely honest.

“A system that is focused should be able to move it a bit faster than that, I would say.”

Dr Hargreaves has written more than 30 books, including two on middle schools.

He has also worked as an adviser for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which created specialist schools in the UK and advised the Ontario provincial government on education policy.

Dr Hargreaves said that two factors had to be considered, the likelihood of the success of signature schools and the impact they would have on mainstream schools.

He explained that specialist schools worked best when “they are authentically based on the idea that some kids have special talents, that do not fit into regular schools”.

He added: “There’s a really good argument for that, especially when the schools can form partnerships with future employers and businesses and other organisations”.

Dr Hargreaves said that it was important that Bermuda thought about the transition from middle schools to signature schools “not as a school change, but as a system change”.

He added: “So, the result is the whole system should be better, not just these particular schools.”

Dr Hargreaves said additional resources and the ability to attract top-class teachers would benefit signature schools, but might damage mainstream ones.

He added that the risk could be offset through the involvement of non-signature schools in discussions with other schools on how resources could be shared and professional development.

Ms Bucherie said three components were “vitally important” to the success of magnet schools in the US.

She added: “Some of the biggest challenges involve transportation.”

Ms Bucherie said the cost of setting up the schools also had to be considered.

She explained: “If you’re going to do a science, technology, engineering and mathematics magnet, there’s a hefty cost to that.

“Anytime you are going to do a theme, there is a cost assigned.”

Ms Bucherie added that teacher support for the change was also crucial.

She warned that failure in any of the components would “absolutely” be a roadblock to success.

The education ministry did not respond to questions on whether the decision to move towards signature schools was supported by research.