Brian Deer reports from New York on a scheme that has extended choice and reduced failure
It is a sunny Friday morning, and outside New York's Central Park East school, a water main has burst. For the school's children and staff it is a minor inconvenience. This is East Harlem, where public service failures are an accepted part of life. More than a third of residents receive welfare payments, 25% of building lots are derelict or vacant, and a quarter of local housing is classified as tenements.
Despite its legendary violence and drug problems, it is the sort of minorities-dominated community that parts of Britain are getting to know. African-and Hispanic-Americans make up 85% of the 113,000 population. More than half of all households are headed by single women.
Given its position, Central Park East school was almost predetermined to fail. Forced to confront the social ills of its neighbourhood, the problems of teaching students in English who often speak another language at home, and the depressing effect of the "white flight" retreat of Anglo-Americans to private schools, it is not the sort of place you would expect to find academic success.
But over the past 10 years, this and other East Harlem schools have been transformed. In 1974, East Harlem ranked worst in reading and maths scores of all New York's 32 school districts, and only a quarter of children could read above the level for their grade. Today, it ranks middle for the city, and two thirds of the pupils are better than average readers.
Some schools have shown even more dramatic results - including one where graduation rates have risen by 900%. Almost twice as many of the district's pupils now go on to attend one of New York's most coveted "centre of excellence" high schools than do children from the city as a whole.
These startling gains have made East Harlem - Manhattan's school district four - something of a tourist attraction. Among its visitors has been Professor Brian Griffiths, one of Margaret Thatcher's most influential advisers. How the schools and their children broke the cycle of failure that afflicts places such as Harlem is one of the most important stories in American education. And because it is here that many of Britain's school reforms find their inspiration, it is here that you can see the future and decide if it works or not.
In Central Park East's pre-kindergarten class, 20 four-year-olds are settling in a square for their daily decisions meeting. It takes a few minutes for Yvonne Smith, the teacher, to round everybody up.
"Okay, let me say 'choices' now," says Smith, in a slow, clear voice, when she has everyone's attention. "Blockroom, making silhouettes, collage, writing, cooking, painting..." After listing a dozen choices, she asks what each pupil would like to do. They are planning the first hour of their day, and they take it seriously.
For the next period, the class fans out across the room. Two boys cook walnut-sized peanut-butter-and-honey cakes, which everyone later eats. Others build street plans and 5ft towers of blocks. Everywhere there is activity, until Smith flicks the light switch to tell the children that time is up.
But they are not just having fun, and the period does not end there. After everything is packed away, the class again settles in the square to review what is has done. By the time Smith leads the children out into the playground, they have planned, executed and evaluated their hour in an enjoyable, but businesslike, way.
That even four-year-olds can take decisions is at the root of the district's thinking. The philosophy extends up through the school - which spans the age range of Britain's primary and secondary education - to the point where, in the senior classes, students have an important say in course content and teaching methods.
Although Central Park East follows the outline of New York's curriculum, there is great flexibility over what goes on in class. Individual projects and cross-subject themes are more strongly emphasised than in British schools. And the absorption of an agreed body of facts is given a lower priority than developing judgement skills.
This is not the only approach in east Harlem's schools. Just as progressive ideas have lost ground in Britain in recent years, many parents want something more formal in their children's education. Some think that discipline, moral standards and an agreed body of fact are higher priorities. At the heart of the district's plan is that parents can also choose these.
Central Park East is only one of 52 schools in the district, and many have more structured curricula and different teaching strategies. Just as the four-year-olds in Yvonne Smith's class make choices about their day, parents have near-complete choice about where and how their children are taught.
The strategy assumes that by allowing parents and children to act freely as consumers, schools are obliged to make themselves attractive and efficient. Because teachers and principals have the power to shape their institutions, the public is able to shop around.
Fears that choice allows "good" schools to select the brightest pupils have not proved justified. Apart from quotas to maintain a good racial mix, schools are barred from picking their students on the basis of ability. Moreover, units are small - Central Park East has only 200 pupils - so that popular demand can close "dustbin" institutions.
Despite East Harlem's success, which has caused many parents from other parts of the city to choose its schools, the great majority of America's children are denied any meaningful choice. Similar systems are being set up in 12 states, but progress is painfully slow.
Some British educationists are also edging in this direction. Choice is a key element in the rhetoric surrounding the 1988 Education Reform Act. From September, schools will be encouraged to compete for students - without geographical bars - and will be able to take as many pupils as their buildings can physically hold.
These plans, however, are a long way from the accomplishments of schools such as Central Park East. And whether the education establishment in local government is capable of delivering effective choice in either America or Britain is now an international debate.
Even as East Harlem chalked up its victories, the rest of the United States has been gripped by an education alarm. Like Britain, America has found that schools are not turning out enough young people with the skills to satisfy the growing needs of technology and business. National verbal and maths measurements show that America is on the slide.
The definitive voice of concern was sounded way back in 1983 by a national commission of education, appointed by Ronald Reagan. "Our nation is at risk," it warned. "The educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity."
With its eyes on Japan and Germany, the commission said urgent action was needed for long term prosperity. "Our once unchallenged re-eminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world."
The most concentrated period of education reform has followed. Spending has jumped 20% in real terms per pupil. Higher standards have been laid down for student achievement, along with more exams. Teachers' pay and training have improved. Some states have launched plans to devolve more management responsibility to local school staff. George Bush has declared himself "the education president".
But still the fundamental problems remain unresolved. Scholastic aptitude tests - a national system of measuring written and maths skills - are revealing a fall in abilities. A recent national survey found that young people know less about current affairs than any generation in half a century.
Seven years after America launched its reform programme, New York City's school board revealed the extent of the learning crisis. Last month, it announced that because pupils were finding it hard to get through their grades on time, it might have to reduce the number of courses taught.
While children are failing to learn, the administration of teaching is a shambles. In May, a 16-month investigation ordered by New York's mayor revealed mismanagement and waste on a vast scale. It said only 12 of the city's 65,000 teachers were fired last year, and alleged "serious corruption or impropriety" almost everywhere it looked.
From East Harlem, the crisis in the system appears even worse. Despite their remarkable service to the urban poor, schools such as Central park East have encountered what one educationist calls "at best indifference and at worst hostility" among the city administration.
Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota, is one of many who say that nagging bureaucratic obstruction from New York's central school board, which employs 7,000 officials, is proof that administrators will never through their weight behind pupil and parent choice.
A new 10-year research report published last month by the influential Brookings Institution in Washington takes this argument an extra step. Praising district four as the best example of parental choice in America, it concludes that the only way the public can have its say is if official controls are scrapped.
Under the Brookings plan, all young people going into education would have "scholarships" attached to them, which could be taken to any school chosen, state or independent. It would be like a voucher system, although the authors avoid this controversial term.
The failure of administrators to back parental choice has prompted free-market ideas that may be the only route to beat the bureaucrats and improve teaching standards. If they are right, it is a potent warning for Britain's education authorities. The 1988 reform act only sketched out choice as an aspiration. If progress does not come quickly - as it has not in America - a future Conservative government might feel it has no choice but to press forward voucher ideas that are perennially up for debate.
Yet educationists believe there are other lessons to be learnt from schools such as Central Park East. East Harlem's philosophy rests crucially on its schools being able to exercise their own choices and vary the content and emphases in the courses they offer.
Britain's new act could make this kind of variety more difficult than before. Despite new city technology colleges and magnet schools, the national curriculum combined with more standardised tests may mean ordinary schools will offer essentially the same courses, taught in near-identical ways.
Although American educationists want curricula to be more defined than now, most believe Britain has gone too far. "If you have a national curriculum that is very rigid and doesn't allow innovation at the local level, it runs counter to choice," says Raymond Domanico, who directs education research at the Manhattan Institute.
Without variety in the curriculum, moreover, schools may merely compete on exam results, opening the way to pupils being picked by staff on past academic attainment. This could produce the kind of selectivity that leaves some children dumped in "bad" schools, undermining the economic and social goals of raising the learning level of all.
Seen from East Harlem - America's undisputed success story - that would be the worst of all worlds.