The issue of how to promote educational excellence in urban areas with large concentrations of low-income pupils is a vexing one that has proved to be a challenge in all developed countries. And yet, boroughs in Inner London, the part of the city that features the greatest concentrations of low-income and ethnic minority students, have achieved rapid gains in students’ academic success in recent years. The phenomenon has a name: “The London Effect.” In this paper, Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske examine how London school districts have enabled disadvantaged students to exceed national averages and offer recommendations as to how the U.S. can learn from London’s success and replicate the London Effect in its own schools.
To find out what’s behind The London Effect, Ladd and Fiske spent a month in London gathering data, reading reports, interviewing policymakers and educators, and visiting schools. The authors identified the keys of success for two Inner London boroughs, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and conclude that there are several lessons U.S. policymakers and educators can learn from that success:
- The power of district-wide reforms
Most school turnaround activity in the U.S. is centered on reforming low-performing schools rather than districts. Efforts in London, on the other hand, often involve area-wide school collaborations. According to Ladd and Fiske’s findings, these types of wide-spread approaches are more likely to ensure continued success and garner community support.
- The benefits of broader accountability systems
London’s experience suggests that it would behoove states to use the additional flexibility afforded under ESSA to explore new forms of accountability. For schools, that would mean going beyond the use of student test scores (still required under federal law) or other easily measured outcomes to incorporate input from trained professional inspectors. Such inspectors would visit schools on a periodic basis and then publicly report on the quality of their internal policies and practices that contribute not only to student achievement but also to the quality of the child’s experience in school. A broader accountability system of this type would explicitly recognize that high quality schools are essential for the success of all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In addition, the London experience suggests that states should consider expanding their accountability programs to cover the performance of whole school districts.
- The need for support within school systems for disadvantaged students
The major U.S. federal education initiatives of the last 15 years—No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants—have made strong declarations about the importance of high expectations for all children. However, little attention has been given to the supports needed to meet those expectations. According to the authors, funds should be used to address the external circumstances of disadvantaged families, thereby giving them the support necessary to meet high expectations. States, school districts, and individual schools can make sure that schools have the capacity they need to help disadvantaged students be successful. As Ladd and Fiske note, doing so may well require that state school aid be disproportionately directed to districts with high proportions of needy students and that districts provide more support to schools serving such students.
Although districts and schools lack the capability to eliminate poverty in general, they do have the ability to mitigate many of the ways in which poverty has a negative impact on student learning, argue Ladd and Fiske. London is one of the relatively few urban areas in any developed country to have found a way to generate educational excellence while serving large concentrations of low-income pupils. The London Effect is real, though the lessons learned from Hackney and Tower Hamlets aren’t revolutionary. Rather than trying to improve schools through governance, structural, or other changes that have little direct impact on what happens in classrooms, these areas focused their attention on time-honored fundamentals of good education, and found success in improving outcomes for even the most at-risk students.