Michael Gove’s promise of a new English Baccalaureate has galvanised the education debate in Britain. Of course, it is still early days. Key details, such as how teachers will be retrained, and how much that will cost, have yet to be worked out. Nevertheless, the potential for seismic societal change may be profounder and more far-reaching than we think.
This may be brought into relief by considering the education system in the United States. Notwithstanding all its shortcomings, a radical – and radically positive – development has been taking place over the last 20 years. The distinguished economist Professor James Heckman, who won a Nobel Prize in 2000, has been at the forefront of this movement for change.
Back in the early 1990s, Heckman started to turn his economist’s eye on the American education system. He was particularly interested in analysing an examination called the General Educational Development (GED), which can be taken by adults who failed to gain a High School Diploma. It is equivalent to graduating from High School and can offer people who drop out a “second chance”.
Professor Heckman was struck by the fact that whereas regular High School students typically undergo years of study in order to graduate, the average study time required by adults taking the GED is just 32 hours. Was it possible, he wondered, for High School teaching to be made more efficient? The implications were tantalising: vast amounts of time and money could be saved if High School children could be brought to Diploma standard in something approaching 32 hours, rather than a full 4000 hours over a period of four years.
As Heckman continued his research, however, he came to believe that the examination results themselves were something of a paper tiger. People who attained a GED, although ostensibly equally qualified to those with High School Diplomas, did not turn out to be anywhere near as successful in later life. This was measured not just in academic terms, but also in their level of economic achievement and personal fulfilment. Examinations alone, Heckman concluded, were insufficient measurements of a person’s capacities. Continue reading on the Telegraph website