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Learning Standards Developments

James Strickland & Christofer Johnson




Over the past two years, both the United States and United Kingdom have pursued radically different policy measures for eliminating educational performance disparities between traditionally high- and low-achieving student groups. In the US, such measures have consisted of recent changes to No Child Left Behind and the implementation of national learning standards. In the UK, measures have involved the establishment of new state-funded, non-profit “free schools” that are exempt from traditional state regulations. This paper examines and compares reforms in both countries. Whereas in both the US and UK educational jurisdiction appears to be increasingly concentrated within the national governments, the UK’s reforms allow for less regulation and greater curricula divergence.



On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This law was both an eighth reauthorization and major revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965.[i]One of the primary goals of NCLB was the elimination of a massive achievement gap between traditionally high- and low-achieving student groups.[ii] Despite being passed overwhelmingly amid bi-partisan agreement in both houses of the United States Congress, however, NCLB has become a highly-polarizing issue.

In light of Congressional inaction and mounting criticism from educators, the Obama Administration has nullified portions of NCLB by offering states waivers in exchange for alternative reforms. Among these reforms is the implementation of learning standards developed by the National Governor’s Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. Within a year of being released in June 2010, 45 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the Common Core Standards: a 150-page document that establishes grade-specific learning objectives in mathematics and language arts for K-12 students.[iii] Individual states adopted these standards in order to acquire additional Race to the Top competition points, qualify for NCLB waivers from the Administration, and ensure the continued supply of federal Title I funds for K-12 public schools.

With regards to national education curricula, transformation was also occurring in the United Kingdom. Upon the electoral victory of the Conservative Party in May 2010, Parliament passed an extensive law that allows for both the transformation of state schools into semi-autonomous “academies” and the establishment of largely unregulated “free schools.” The Tories had made the Academies Act a major platform position prior to winning election. Because of declining academic performance ratings on international league tables and shrinking public revenues, the act was intended both to improve the educational opportunities of England’s most vulnerable student groups and make more efficient use of state expenditures.[iv]

Free schools are privately-run institutions established by groups of parents, teachers, administrators, or charities. They operate outside the jurisdiction of local education authorities and exercise greater discretion in hiring protocol and pedagogical methods. Funded directly by the central government in Westminster, the schools are inspected by state authorities and do not charge tuition.[v] In September 2011, 24 free schools began operations across England with additional applications awaiting review by the Secretary of Education.[vi] Some schools are former independent (private, fee-charging) schools while others are completely new. Several have opened with great press in various areas of London and nearly all such schools are located in English, urban areas.

Despite having nearly identical goals, recent education reform measures in both the US and UK have embarked upon divergent pathways. While both nations are concentrating education policy jurisdiction towards more central levels of government, England has pursued a policy that allows for greater curricula diversification within state school. A substantial explanation for these divergent policies is that the two nations contain very different institutional structures. Whereas the US operates under a relatively strong federalist constitutional order, the UK is subject to the unitary rule of a central Parliament. Over the past twenty years, the political processes within both regimes have led to different reforms. Determining whether contemporary policy changes will lead to improved academic achievement requires several years of data collection. Regardless, the immediate divergence of reforms between two of the world’s most stable and developed democracies demonstrates the impact of different electoral institutions.

The roots of contemporary American education reform are grounded in the efforts of the Bush Administration of the early 2000s.  With the passage of NCLB, American public schools were required to measure their students’ learning through the use of state-developed standardized tests. These tests were administered every year between the third and eighth grades and at least once after the tenth grade.[vii] One of the primary goals of the law was the elimination of an achievement gap between white and minority students. The US Department of Education (ED) divided pupils into racial and socioeconomic subgroups and schools that received federal funding were subject to severe sanctions if any one of their subgroups failed to demonstrate yearly test-score improvement.[viii] By 2014, all student subgroups were expected to be performing at grade level in both reading and mathematics.[ix] Because of NCLB, statewide (not federal) learning standards and standardized tests became the chief means for diagnosing poor performance in key student groups.

The implications of NCLB were far-reaching. In 2003, 54.4 percent of America’s 90,000 public schools received Title I grants under ESEA, the federal government’s “largest program supporting elementary and secondary education.”[x] These schools were particularly impacted by NCLB. They were required to achieve “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) by improving the test performance of all student subgroups by a desired, state-established yearly increase.[xi] Student subgroups were delineated mostly by race and economic background but also included children with special learning challenges and those learning English as a second language.[xii] Most schools in South Carolina, for example, had either 17 or 21 subgroups (although a few had as many as 37).[xiii] While the ED allowed states to establish desired yearly increases in reading and mathematics proficiency, all states were required to obtain complete proficiency in all subgroups by 2014.[xiv]This requirement ensured that it became increasingly difficult for schools to obtain AYP status and avoid severe repercussions.[xv] By 2011 a record 48 percent of America’s public schools did not achieve AYP.[xvi] In South Carolina, this number increased to 76 percent.[xvii]

In the summer of 2011, due to Congressional inaction and growing complaints from educators and state authorities, the Obama Administration exercised executive authority by unilaterally reforming NCLB. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that new waivers would be granted to individual states.[xviii] The waivers eliminated the most strenuous provisions of NCLB—obtaining AYP status and complete proficiency in reading and math by 2014—and instead required states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards” and redistribute effective teachers “equitably among schools.”[xix]States also must agree to host “education reforms the White House favors—from tougher evaluation systems for teachers… to programs tackling the achievement gap.”[xx] In February 2012, the South Carolina Department of Education submitted a waiver request.[xxi]The request was approved within five months and allows the state to use an older, pre-NCLB evaluation system that holds schools accountable for student test performance.[xxii] As of December 2011, 39 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had each submitted either a waiver request or plans for developing one.[xxiii] By the summer of 2012, waivers were granted to 33 states while NCLB mandates were separately lifted on several others.

In lieu of developing required “college- and career-ready standards,” 45 states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core Standards (CCS). The document was originally developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and was published on June 2, 2010.[xxiv] States that adopted the CCS within two months of release were awarded additional points for competing in the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top (RttT) grant program.[xxv] Although the ED was not directly involved in the creation of the standards, it awarded more than $330 million in RttT funding to two consortia to develop standardized tests based on the CCS.[xxvi] The standards include readings and indicate which skills pupils are expected to master in each grade level.[xxvii] While the CCS do not instruct teachers anent how to teach, private companies have begun marketing lesson plans purposefully designed to meet the demands of the new standards.[xxviii]

In light of economic recession, budget constraints encouraged state agencies to compete for RttT grants and quickly adopt the CCS: thereby avoiding the unnecessary costs of attempting to develop “college- and career-ready standards” that may not have been otherwise authorized by the ED.[xxix] The White House threatened to withdraw Title I funding if such standards were not adopted.[xxx]Amidst a divided State Board of Education and Education Oversight Committee (EOC), South Carolina adopted the CCS in July 2010 and is currently preparing for implementation.[xxxi] This involves recalibrating slightly the state’s 31 teacher training programs at colleges and universities, including one at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.[xxxii]

The advent of national learning standards ends an era of fifty different sets of classroom benchmarks and curricula. The somewhat tedious adoption of the CCS indicates how individual states were inclined to invent their own education accountability systems. Two years prior to the passage of NCLB, 39 states held their schools accountable for student performance.[xxxiii] With passage of the federal law came conflicting signals from both state departments and federal authorities.[xxxiv] In Kentucky, for example, a sizable number of schools often achieved AYP status but failed to achieve state quality objectives.[xxxv] While applying for a waiver from federal mandates, South Carolina requested to revert back to its pre-NCLB accountability system measuring student performance.[xxxvi] With adoption of the CCS South Carolina’s elected lawmakers no longer have the ability to easily amend what students are taught. Adoption of the CCS substantially diminishes the authority of the state EOC, which is composed partly of such lawmakers.[xxxvii] While the exact impact of adoption varies from state to state, Virginia, Texas, and several others have opted to keep their own benchmarks.[xxxviii]

In the case of Great Britain, such concerns over the constitutional sovereignty of regional governments are ultimately void. Although the Parliament of Westminster Palace has devolved greater authority to assemblies in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, such devolution is legally subject to reversal.[xxxix] The Northern Ireland Assembly has a particular history of being suspended and reconvened repeatedly by the Westminster Parliament. This pattern was due in large part to complications nationalist “troubles.”[xl] While there is indeed currently a great degree of autonomy within the UK’s regional assemblies (with the Scottish Parliament being the strongest of the three), ultimate authority rests in London. The authority of regional assemblies to levy and collect taxes, for example, is severely limited.[xli] As a consequence, the unitary Parliament of the United Kingdom collects a greater share (over 90 percent) of all tax collected throughout the country than that of the American federal Congress (about 65 percent).[xlii] For education policy, however, the regional assemblies have been granted a large degree of autonomy. Many of the provisions of the Academies Act of 2010 do not apply to Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland and indeed no “free schools” can be found in those regions.

Britain’s turbulent history of education reform reflects the efficiency with which a parliamentary government can enact change. Because executive and legislative functions are both confined to one body within such a constitutional framework, changing the status quo is more easily accomplished by a majority in power. As opposed to Madisonian checks and balances, power in England is concentrated more within the party that can form a winning coalition within Parliament. For example, in light of there being no clear majority amongst the three major political parties after the May 2010 elections, two parties formed a majority coalition that incorporates the policy reforms of both. Upon winning control of Parliament, the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats went about reforming various aspects of Britain’s welfare state. When the Labour Party controlled a parliamentary majority in prior years, alternative reforms were favored. Indeed since the Second World War, various measures have been implemented by newly-formed governments seeking to rectify the errors of their opponents. British education policy has accordingly experienced pendular swings.[xliii] The Academies Act succeeds a series of measures implemented throughout the twentieth century that include the 1944 Education Act establishing England’s tripartite school system, and the transition into comprehensive schooling that began in the 1960s and 1970s. Today there exists upwards of eight types of state-funded schools in Great Britain with each being established under policy initiatives of various former cabinets.[xliv] The Academies Act is evidence of an “accelerating erosion” of common (non-selective) schooling in Britain that began 25 years ago.[xlv] It mirrors other European reform measures (particularly those in Sweden) that emphasize parental choice.[xlvi]

Under the current coalition formed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, reforms from both parties were included in the Academies Act. While Conservative Secretary of Education Michael Gove has appeared to be amenable to the idea of free schools extracting profits (thereby supposedly encouraging the increased establishment and improvement of such schools), Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has prevented profiteering by threatening to withdraw continued Liberal Democratic support for the Act. Moreover, Clegg has forced the coalition to limit free schools to areas where there is increased demand for pupil places and local choices are limited. Although it is the official party policy of the Liberal Democrats to oppose free schools, being “junior partners” in a coalition is contingent upon them acquiescing in some regards. Compromise is often necessary for forming viable coalition agreements.[xlvii]

In the case of new free schools established by the Academies Act, school funding is no longer channeled through local authorities. This is very different from how most state schools have operated in England: with local officials having received funds directly from Westminster and then distributing them to neighboring schools. Local authorities may provide supplementary services but were genuinely expected to pass most funding directly on to schools. Free schools are very different in that they enter into funding contracts with the office of the Secretary in the UK Department of Education. Such agreements weaken the authority of local officials by placing such schools under the direct tutelage of Westminster.[xlviii]

While federal Title I funding in the United States has been tied to increasing preconditions, such direct funding in England for free schools is largely unregulated. Unlike adopting “college- and career-ready standards,” free schools are allowed to deviate away from the UK national curriculum. In the case of West London Free School, for example, local parents chose to form a school based on the classical liberal arts curriculum (something not found in local comprehensive schools). This involves mandatory Latin until the age of 14 and reading classical, typically Western texts.[xlix] For Canary Wharf College in east London, such flexibility equates to a more Christian-based education in which individual character and virtue are emphasized.[l] Most free schools, however, are mainstream schools that offer curricula comparable to that of local comprehensive schools. In many cases, because such free schools retain pupils until the age of twelve, they adhere to the national curriculum so as to reduce issues of assimilation for students entering higher-level state schools. Despite receiving money directly from Parliament, the schools are still “free” from various state regulations—including those related to hiring practices. Funding contracts with the Education Secretary’s office are renewed every seven years, pending continued political support from Parliament.

Whereas in the US, policy changes require approval of typically two or more branches of government, similar changes in the UK are more easily accomplished via one branch of government. While nearly all of the original functions and duties of Congress’ upper house (the Senate) have remained over the years, the UK has gradually diminished the authority of its own upper chamber (the House of Lords). This was accomplished through a series of acts in the twentieth century that further concentrated power within the House of Commons.[li] This concentration of power has ultimately allowed different cabinets to enact drastic policy changes (such as the Academies Act) in short periods of time. It may be reasoned that despite the unilateral actions of the Obama Administration, national policy change in America remains less easily accomplished than in the UK. Such differences in the constitutions of the two nations have been prominently highlighted by Walter Bagehot, Woodrow Wilson, and Robert Dahl.[*]

Ultimately, it is the electoral institutions that have allowed for radically divergent education policies in the US and UK. Under a federal system of institutional checks, policymakers were forced to work within existing legal frameworks to change the status quo. Inversely, British policymakers were able to disregard former laws and instead pursue policies that were radically different. While parties in both nations were beholden to political interests within their respective assemblies, the electoral institutions of the English parliamentary system allowed for greater flexibility. Under the Academies Act of 2010, new school curricula are likely to emerge within a few years. While both the CCS and Act were intended to reduce educational achievement disparities among racial minorities, the two sets of reforms emerged from vastly different institutional structures and take radically different steps towards that goal. The empirical results of either set remains to be seen.


 [*] Please see Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867); Wilson, Congressional Government (1885); Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956) among others.



About the Authors


James SticklandJames Strickland

My name is James Strickland and I graduated from the University of South Carolina, with honors from the South Carolina Honors College, in May 2012 with majors in history and political science. The research presented in this article was made possible by both the university Student Government and Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR). Research on US-based reforms was originally part of a report presented before members of the South Carolina Congressional Delegation on the Common Core Standards initiative, as part of an annual team of students who visit Washington and discuss public policy with elected leaders. Research on UK-based reforms was originally part of a Magellan research grant (from the OUR) that allowed me to travel to London and conduct eleven interviews and inspections in new “free schools.” Both projects were conducted in March 2012. As a future graduate student of comparative politics who wishes to examine the causes of various policy outcomes in different nations, both projects greatly enhanced my capacity for primary-source research and contextual analysis. This research was presented at the University’s annual Discovery Day in April 2012 and may be adapted for subsequent publications.


Christofer JohnsonChristofer Johnson

Christofer Johnson studied History at the University of South Carolina and the University of Dundee, graduating with Honors from the South Carolina Honors College in May 2012. His research interests include the folk music revival of the 1960s-1970s in the United Kingdom, the political agency of folklore and folksong in the Anglophone world, the cultural dimensions of power in the contemporary period, and the way that cultural artifacts impact and shape the development of national identity. He currently resides in Columbia, South Carolina with his wife, Miranda Johnson.



[i] Lindsey Burke, “Senate No Child Left Behind Proposal: More Big Government for Schools,” The Foundry, October 17, 2011,; “Needed Fixes for No Child Left Behind,” The New York Times, February 15, 2007.

[ii] Sam Dillon, “School Law Spurs Efforts to End Minority Gap,” The New York Times, May 27, 2005.

[iii] Tamar Lewin, “Many States Adopt National Standards for Their Schools,”, July 21, 2010, (accessed December 18, 2011); Common Core State Standards Initiative, “States That Have Formally Adopted the Common Core States Standards,”

[iv] Matthew Hanney (special assistant to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg), interview by the author, August 9, 2011.

[v] The United Kingdom Department for Education, “Free Schools,”

[vi] Department for Education.

[vii] Jane Gordon, “Towns Are Rejecting No Child Left Behind,” The New York Times, December 21, 2003; Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob, “The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Student Achievement,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 15531, 2009, (accessed November 17, 2011).

[viii] Diane Ravitch, “Get Congress Out of the Classroom,” The New York Times, October 3, 2007.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Dee and Jacob; Gordon.

[xi] Robert Linn, “Conflicting Demands of No Child Left Behind and State Systems: Mixed Messages about School Performance,” Education Policy Analysis Archives 13, no. 33 (2005): 2.

[xii] Kristin Hussey, “More Schools Miss the Mark, Raising Pressure,” The New York Times, October 12, 2008.

[xiii] “AYP and No Child Left Behind Goals Explained,”, February 10, 2011, (accessed November 16, 2011).

[xiv] Sam Dillon, “Under ‘No Child’ Law, Even Solid Schools Falter,” The New York Times, October 13, 2008.

[xv] Hussey.

[xvi] Alexandra Usher, “AYP Results for 2010-2011,” Center for Education Policy, December 15, 2011,, 2.

[xvii] Ibid, 6.

[xviii] Dorie Turner, “Duncan: States Will Get School Testing Waivers,”, August 8, 2011, (accessed November 19, 2011).

[xix] Burke.

[xx] Turner.

[xxi] Seanna Adcox, “S.C. Releases Draft of No Child Left Behind Waiver,”, December 16, 2011, (accessed December 17, 2011).

[xxii] “No Child Left Behind: Zais Will Ask Feds to Let SC Rely On Own System,”, September 26, 2011, (accessed December 17, 2011).

[xxiii] U.S. Department of Education, “ESEA Flexibility,”

[xxiv] Brookings Institute, “Race to the Top Assessments: Common Core Standards and Their Impact on Student Testing,” Events,

[xxv] Lewin; U.S. Department of Education, press release “President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan Announce National Competition to Advance School Reform,” July 24, 2009,

[xxvi] Andrew Porter et al, “Common Core Standards: The New U.S. Intended Curriculum,”

Educational Researcher 40, no. 3 (2011): 103.

[xxvii] Sam Dillon, “States Receive a Reading List: New Standards for Education,”, June 2, 2010, (accessed December 18, 2011).

[xxviii] McGraw-Hill was among the first companies to offer CCS lesson plans.

[xxix] Bill Costello, “The Federal Takeover of Education,” American,

September 22, 2010, December 26, 2011).

[xxx] Office of the Press Secretary, White House, “President Obama Calls for new Steps to

Prepare America’s Children for Success,” February 22, 2010, January 6, 2012).

[xxxi] South Carolina State Department of Education, “South Carolina Common Core Standards,”

[xxxii] South Carolina State Department of Education, “ESEA Flexibility Request,”

[xxxiii] Eric Hanushek and Margaret Raymond, “Does School Accountability Lead to

Improved Student Performance?” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 10591, 2004, (accessed January 4, 2012).

[xxxiv] Robert Linn, “Conflicting Demands of No Child Left Behind and State Systems:

Mixed Messages about School Performance,” Education Policy Analysis Archives 13, no. 33 (2005).

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] “No Child Left Behind: Zais Will Ask Feds to Let SC Rely On Own System.”

[xxxvii] Michael Fair (South Carolina state senator), interview by the author, February 1, 2012.

[xxxviii] Lewin; in the case of Virginia, state Standards of Learning were modified slightly to reflect the CCS. This may reflect state lawmakers’ reluctance to accept reforms originating outside of Virginia.

[xxxix] Geoffrey Bennett (Director, Notre Dame University London Law Programme), interview by the author, March 19, 2012.

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] William Clark, Matt Golder, Sona Golder, Principles of Comparative Politics (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009), 615.

[xliii] Matthew Hanney (special assistant to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg), interview by the author, March 22, 2012.

[xliv] Susanne Wiborg (professor at University of London Institute of Education), interview conducted by the author, March 20, 2012.

[xlv] Terry Haydn, “The Strange Death of the Comprehensive School in England and Wales, 1965-2002,” Research Papers in Education 19, (December 2004): 415-32.

[xlvi] Susanne Wiborg (professor at University of London Institute of Education), email correspondence with the author, July 25, 2011.

[xlvii] Hanney, March 22, 2012.

[xlviii] Fran Sims (of the Free Schools Group within the UK Department of Education), interview by the author, March 22, 2012.

[xlix] Thomas Packer (headmaster of West London Free School), interview by the author, March 20, 2012.

[l] Sarah Counter (headmaster of Canary Wharf College), interview by the author, March 23, 2012.

[li] Clark, Golder, Golder, 622.