When I reported my observations about King Solomon Academy, a number of commentators pointed out the similarities to some of the Charter Schools in the US. Any similarity is the Charter model, particularly the KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Programme) share many of the same aims, values and structures as KSA. Although I’ve never visited one of these schools I was aware of the influence they’ve had on a number of English Free Schools and Academies.

How synchronous then Doug Lemov, managing director of the Uncommon Schools network in New York state and author of the highly influential, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College was also at KSA to deliver the inaugural Policy Exchange education lecture. Loved and reviled in roughly equal parts, Doug has done his level best to find a way to replicate what the very best teachers seem to do. Whatever your ideological bent and however misguided an attempt you might believe this to be, there’s little doubt that he’s an impassioned advocate for teachers and is tireless in his belief we can all be a little bit better.

The audience was packed with Twitter cognoscenti all eager to hear Doug’s words of wisdom, but before that we heard from Brett Wigdortz, CEO of Teach First. He told an interesting story of his time at management consultants McKinsey some years ago – for reasons about which I’m unclear they decided to involve themselves in education in the UK and Brett apparently asked a flunky to find him an example of a school in London with a socially disadvantaged intake whose results were comparable to a school with a privileged intake. They were unable to find one. The prevailing attitude at the time was that one couldn’t expect academic success from “kids like these” and that the best that could be hoped for was to keep them off the streets and out of prison! He pointed out that we don’t know what’s possible until we do it. This anchoring belief that poor, working class children are incapable of success still exists but is fast becoming an antiquated and shameful relic of our misbegotten past.

Where are all the superheroes?

This neatly segued into Doug’s presentation. He told the story of Zenaida Tan, a remarkable teacher in Los Angeles who, when the LA Times decided to print a league table of individual teacher’s test scores came top. And apparently had been consistently top for many years. But despite her remarkable success, she had never been recognised or rewarded in any way. Her principal’s main concern was that she’d been late taking her class register twice that year. A system that fails to recognise the achievements of its top performing teachers, only a single class of pupils can benefit. The tendency to view our classrooms as a mysterious black box into which it’s impossible to peer is a system failure. But in a system which seeks out and attempts to replicate great practice thousands more pupils might be able to benefit.

Some problems teachers have to face are exotic – they’re so rare as to be valueless in terms of sharing experiences – it’s no one’s fault that I was never trained how to deal a pupil who believed (seriously) he possessed a tail and need therefore to sit on a special cushion. But most problems teachers face are endemic and totally predictable. We know every teacher will be confronted by pupils deciding to be disrespectful or refusing to participate, but do we adequately prepare teachers for these eventualities? And, in light of Doug’s difficulties in getting video clips to play, the absolute certainty anything technological that can go wrong, will go wrong – especially when you’re being observed!

The state of teacher education in the US (and very probably the UK as well) emphasises theoretical solutions to practical problems; schools of education won’t “stoop” to teach teachers how to instil routines. Telling teachers to be nicer or plan their lessons better as a behaviour management strategy is just pernicious nonsense. As a result Doug reckons great teaching is, by and large, accidental – it’s largely a matter of the right person being in the right place at the right time, and as such is pretty much left to chance. But if the system is to improve we cannot afford this to continue. Everyone needs to be a little bit better at everything because, “the inverse correlation between wealth and attainment is immoral.”

So Doug’s solution was to look for the schools that defied that correlation, to actively search for the Zenaida Tan’s and learn from them. He suggested that there is no ‘gap’ in attainment that some teacher somewhere hasn’t closed and we need to be figuring out how they do it because replication is the key to system improvement. We should be much more concerned about the fates of our best teachers instead of constantly wringing our hands about the worst. Borrowing from the Heath brothers, he spoke about the need to grow bright spots and ask what happens to our most successful teachers? Because if we just leave them in their classrooms we only benefit 30 rather than a potential 30,000 children.

Some of the questions asked shed light on what I’d seen earlier at KSA. One of the most pressing had been rattling around in my brain: What about the accusation that these types of school turn out robots who only know how to follow routines? Doug suggested that just because we can get children to comply, doesn’t mean we must; the fact that clear routines are established means that no one has to think about how to answer questions, where to sit or how to hand out books. Independence relies on routines and structure breeds freedom. This sounds about right to me. The institutional philosophy at KSA is clear: we instil routines in Years 7-9, start to relax them in Year 10-11 and systematical dismantle in 6th Form so that as undergraduates (or whatever else pupils go on to do) there are effective habits of mind built up but an understanding and experience of how to cope without direction.

For me, one of the most interesting things Doug said about his work is that the only thing he knows  for sure about what he’s written is that at least some of it is wrong. This is exactly the sort of humility we should all seek to emulate, but the most interesting consideration is, if we know we’re almost certainly wrong about something, what is our error checking system?

Anyway – what KSA and many of the US Charter schools do is great. The most pressing question for policy makers and school leaders is about whether we could or should try to scale what they’re doing. We all want KSA’s results but are we a bit squeamish about their methods? How far are we prepared to let prejudice, bias and ideology get in the way of children’s life chances?