Notes from Arizona

Notes from Arizona

Michael O'Sullivan, Chief Executive of Cambridge International Examinations, recalls encouraging student feedback in Arizona and looks ahead to our development across the USA.

This month I visited Phoenix Arizona in the far south-western USA – perhaps not a location people would immediately associate with Cambridge International Examinations. In fact the USA is a country where we are seeing substantial growth in the take-up of our programmes, not just Cambridge IGCSEs and Cambridge International A Levels at high school level, but also our primary and lower secondary curricula, which focus on core knowledge and skills in English, maths and science. We are now working with about 350 schools across the USA, including public, private and “charter” schools (similar to academies in England) and the number grows almost every week.

MoS on TV show - image
Watch Michael being interviewed on local TV show Arizona Horizon 

The main reason for this growing interest in working with Cambridge may itself be surprising to those unfamiliar with US education. In the USA, which leads the world in the quality of its elite universities, there are no agreed or mandated national curriculum standards for schools. Education is mainly within the jurisdiction of the 50 States, with substantial district-level responsibility. And nowhere, not at federal, nor state nor district level is there any American organisation offering a coherent curriculum-plus-assessment model covering the whole of compulsory education. That is what Cambridge International Examinations does, operating in 10,000 schools in 160 countries around the world.

The American situation makes for great diversity of educational provision and in many places creates an environment favourable to innovation, including working with new partners such as Cambridge. It also gives rise to many concerns, of which some of the most frequently voiced include: lack of “College-readiness” (the skills and knowledge students need when they start at university); wide disparity of attainment; and significant drop-out rates in many parts of the education system. Top-down initiatives to tackle these problems, from Washington DC or State capitals, have often given emphasis to increased “accountability testing” which at least in some cases provides superior measurement of the problem, but has also led to concerns about over-testing, loss of teaching time, and teaching to the test.

“Cambridge is a bigger challenge than other students of my age face”

In Arizona, with a high growth rate in urbanisation, an increasingly diverse demographic and high levels of mobility into and out of the State, shortfalls in the educational attainment and progression of students are seen as priority problems by government, business and more widely in society. The State’s high school graduation rate of 75.1% (2015) ranks 43rd of 50 States. The graduation rate for Arizona’s public universities is only 59.8%. Only 52.9% of Arizonans believe that their public schools do a good job of preparing young people for employment (the US national rate is 62%).

We are working with the Center for the Future of Arizona (an influential think tank that does much more than think) the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington DC and 31 public high schools across the State. The “Move On When Ready” programme focuses on giving students in grades 9-10 the benefits of Cambridge IGCSE courses in a number of subjects. These provide what is seen – a differentiating feature in an American context – as an “aligned instructional program”, in which there is clear specification of what needs to be learnt in each subject, exams which assess what has to be learnt, and approaches to teaching and teacher development which support the above.

MoS at Dysart Arizona - imageThe programme is not confined to grades 9-10, with some schools already adopting the Cambridge curriculum at lower grades, or adding Cambridge International AS and A level programmes pre-College entry. In Phoenix I visited Dysart High School (pictured right in an IGCSE Chemistry lesson) and Arizona State University Preparatory Academy, a charter school which took over a failing district school and has reinvented it as a Cambridge K12 (from kindergarten to high school graduation) school on two campuses in Phoenix. What the students told me boiled down to two main points: “Cambridge is a bigger challenge than other students of my age face”. And “I am learning more”. What teachers told me was: “This has made us professionals again”.

Madison avenue office - imageAt our celebration event for the fifth anniversary of ‘Move on When Ready’ at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, we were joined by the Governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey. Governor Ducey was just back from a visit to Yuma in the far south of Arizona, on the Mexican border. There he had met students studying on Cambridge programmes in local schools. It was clear from our conversation that he had received similar comments from students and teachers to those which encouraged me so much in Phoenix.

Arizona is just one of the States of the USA where we are developing such programmes with our American partners. We are now a fully-fledged American operation, headquartered on Madison Avenue, New York City, (pictured above) and adding staff in locations across the USA. We look forward to playing a growing and useful role in this country.

Michael O'Sullivan
Chief Executive, Cambridge International Examinations