Global Learning: From Community Innovation to National Policy

Students today should have the opportunities to learn with, not just about, their global peers. (iStockPhoto)

Students today should have the opportunities to learn with, not just about, their global peers. (iStockPhoto)

November 2004

There is an inverse relationship between the rapidly increasing importance of other world regions and cultures to the economic prosperity and national security of the United States and how much most high school graduates know about the 90 percent of the world outside our borders. We are at the brink of a new epoch: just as schools had to adapt from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age, so too do schools now need to adapt to the Global Age. In this article, we provide an overview of approaches to international education that some schools and states are taking and explore what state and national policies are needed to build capacity.

The International Knowledge Gap
Recent surveys suggest the extent of the knowledge gap in the U.S. regarding international issues. In June 2001, the National Commission on Asia in the Schools issued its report, which concluded that “young Americans are dangerously uninformed about international matters, especially Asia, home to more than 60 percent of the world’s population.” Research conducted for the report found that:

  • Levels of student knowledge of the rest of the world are less than rudimentary. For example, 25 percent of college-bound high school students did not know the name of the ocean that separates the United States from Asia. Eighty percent did not know that India is the world’s largest democracy.
  • Most teachers are not being prepared to help students close the international knowledge gap. For example, of the top 50 U.S. colleges and universities that train teachers, only a handful require any coursework in non-Western history for their students preparing to teach history.
  • Language instruction does not reflect today’s realities. For example, while one million students in U.S. schools study French, a language spoken by 80 million people worldwide, fewer than 40,000 students study Chinese, a language spoken by almost 1.3 billion people. [1]

One year later, in 2002, a National Geographic/ Roper survey of young adults in nine countries found that U.S. students lagged behind their peers in other countries in their knowledge of geography and current affairs. The great majority—83 percent—could not find Afghanistan or Israel on a world map but knew that the island featured in the last season’s TV show “Survivor” was in the South Pacific. [2] These statistics, obviously simple indicators, show that we have a great deal of work to do. How are we to address our need for international knowledge and skills?

Addressing the Need for Global Knowledge
There has been some progress in recent years toward increasing international content in our schools. Many states are beginning to include knowledge of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and global issues in their social studies standards. Geography and economics have been incorporated into the standards of some states. Guidelines on how to teach about religion in constitutionally permissible ways have made it easier for schools to include world religions in their curricula. The new Ad vanced Placement course in world history is popular, and the decision by the College Board to add the first new AP language courses in 40 years—in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Italian—will give an important boost to our need for capacity in world languages. [3] But as a nation, we have not yet made developing international knowledge and skills a significant policy priority, nor have we built the capacity needed to get high-quality international teaching and learning into our nation’s classrooms.

Goals for International Education
If we are to prepare our students with the skills needed to lead and succeed in the 21st century, we will have to continue to improve performance in reading, math, and science, as well as give students a solid grounding in American history and democratic institutions. But in today’s world, for the reasons cited by Hunt and Engler, international knowledge and skills are also crucial. Policies on international education should address four broad goals:

  1. To develop a citizenry and work force knowledgeable about world regions, cultures, and international issues;
  2. To prepare experts and leaders in business, politics, and all major professional fields who are capable of addressing international opportunities and challenges;
  3. To increase our ability to communicate in languages other than English; and
  4. To connect young people in the U.S. directly with young people in other countries so that they can learn to build their common future.

To accomplish these ambitious goals, we will need action at every level — local, state, and national. There are already promising developments on which to build.

Local Communities Lead the Way
In classrooms around the country, individual teachers, many of whom have had some international experience or professional development, are integrating international content into their teaching, exposing their students to some of the world’s vast heritage of knowledge and giving their students historical context for understanding world events that affect them. Typically, these teachers are doing this without active support from principals or superintendents.

But not all teachers are acting in isolation. More and more groups of teachers or whole schools are making an effort to infuse international content across different curriculum areas. For example, the John Stanford International School in Seattle and other language- and culture-immersion schools are showing how to develop youngsters who are confident and proficient language learners. Evanston Township High School in suburban Chicago introduced an international studies requirement for graduation 10 years ago. The school’s teachers subsequently designed courses in Asian, African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern history to help students meet the requirement. This school has demonstrated that the study of other cultures and global challenges can teach perspective-taking and other higher-order thinking skills and improve achievement more generally.

Through its 20-year-long partnership with the Jingshan School in Beijing, China, the schools in Newton, Massachusetts, have extended students’ learning far beyond textbooks and built lasting relationships. Newton is now helping other schools to follow suit. The International School of the Americas in San Antonio and the Snowden International High School in Boston are small learning communities that give their low-income students opportunities for internships with internationally oriented corporations and nonprofit organizations. Glastonbury, Connecticut, has shown how to get 95% of students to take a foreign language and how this focus attracts new parents to the district.

Some schools are broadening their definition of civic education to include service with internationally oriented humanitarian and cultural organizations. And many others are using widely available programs—such as the International Baccalaureate curriculum, Model United Nations, Capitol Choices, and Worldquest—or international school-to-school linkages, such as those organized through iEARN (International Education and Resource Network), to begin to integrate serious international content into their curricula.

These schools and their approaches to international education were unknown to most educators until recently, when the Goldman Sachs Foundation Prizes for Excellence in International Education were created to recognize and document pioneering schools. In the first 18 months of the program, nearly 400 schools and organizations applied for recognition. The schools are of a wide variety—rural and urban; public, private, parochial, and charter; neighborhood and magnet—and represent some 44 states. Driven by new demographic diversity in their communities, by September 11 and its aftermath, by the desire to help their students succeed in the new global economy, or by the recognition that, as citizens, their students will be voting and acting on issues that can no longer be neatly divided along domestic and international lines, these schools are demonstrating ways in which schools can use “teaching the world” to engage students, improve achievement, and meet state standards. Often starting their international focus on a small scale and expanding it over time, these schools are the leading edge of a grassroots movement for change. We need to find ways to share with other schools their creative and practical approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and professional development.

However, these pioneering schools are, in the words of Gerald Tirozzi, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, only small “victory gardens” when we need “amber waves of grain.” [4] The more typical picture in U.S. schools is one of instructional insularity from the world or an unchallenging emphasis on “fun, food, and festivals.” If we are to make knowledge of other world regions, other cultures, and international affairs available on a wider scale and to all our students, we will need state and national policies to support the effort.

States Must Prepare for Globalization
States are in the forefront both of education reform and of managing the challenges of globalization. States need to develop an internationally competent work force and citizenry that can understand and respond to global events. While every state will have a distinct process for advancing international education in the schools, the following steps may provide some useful guidance:

  1. Mobilize leaders. A task force of business, political, community, and education leaders should be formed to assess the state’s trade, economic, and cultural relationships with other parts of the world and to report to the governor, legislature, and the general public on needed economic and educational policy responses.
  2. Assess and strengthen standards. Every major subject area should be examined and strengthened to include clear and specific standards for international knowledge, coupled with aligned curriculum materials and specific assessments.
  3. Review high school graduation requirements. Students should be required to take courses in international studies and to achieve proficiency in a world language other than English.
  4. Enhance preservice teacher education requirements. All prospective teachers should be required to take a course on another world region or culture or to become knowledgeable about the international dimension of their subject.
  5. Provide opportunities and incentives for teachers. States or districts should enter into partnerships with the international resources of the region (universities, cultural institutions, and corporations) to offer teachers professional development programs dealing with international affairs.
  6. Create a state plan to develop an effective K-16 pipeline in major world languages. Such a plan might include state high school graduation or college-entrance language requirements, incentives to introduce foreign language instruction before age 9, and the use of technology and distance education.
  7. Create school-to-school partnerships, both real and “virtual.” Schools in the state or district can partner with schools around the world to pursue joint projects and set up exchanges so that students can learn “with” and not just “about” one another.
  8. Incorporate international knowledge into other major school improvement initiatives. High school reform, technology or distance-learning initiatives, literacy or afterschool programs can all include an international dimension.

Achieving these changes to ensure that our students graduate with the international knowledge they need is a long-term effort, but states around the country are beginning to act. Some states are creating gubernatorial or legislative task forces, others are bringing together a diverse cross section of leadership in statewide “summits” on international education, and many are beginning to put in place new policies and programs, albeit mostly on a small scale so far.

A Federal Leadership Role
State action is essential to take international education to scale, and states are beginning to assess what policy and program changes they will need to make. But the scale and speed of change in the world require a national leadership role as well. For 50 years, the federal government has played a critical role in fostering foreign language and area studies expertise at the higher education level through Title VI of the Higher Education Act. But given the rapid changes in the world today, international knowledge and skills are no longer just for experts. A similar federal commitment now needs to be extended to K-12 education as an urgent priority.

There are a number of ways in which federal leadership could aid in the expansion of international education.

  • Enhancing teacher capacity and quality. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. In the Sputnik era, our nation made a substantial commitment to science and math education via the National Science Foundation. A similar national commitment to prepare teachers to promote international knowledge and language skills is now needed. The Higher Education Act, due to be reauthorized next year, provides an important vehicle for modernizing teacher preparation and building teachers’ international knowledge and skills. Title II funds could be used to create K-16 partnerships to foster teaching excellence in international education. Those funds could also support world-class professional development opportunities, including study abroad and online courses, for teachers and school leaders.
  • Stimulating a K-16 pipeline in major world lan - guages. In the longer term, our education policies should encourage all students to learn a second language, as students in other industrial countries do. In the shorter term, our diplomatic and defense communities urgently need a K-16 pipeline to produce proficient speakers of critical languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Farsi, and Russian. To increase our capacity to communicate in languages other than English, there should be serious federal incentives to introduce foreign languages earlier (elementary school), to promote the innovative use of technology, to identify and develop more intensive and effective approaches to language learning, to build on the language resources in our heritage communities, and to recruit and train teachers in less commonly taught languages.
  • Incorporating an international focus into existing federal programs.Making the development of international knowledge and skills a priority for a range of domestic and international federal programs (e.g., vocational education/high school reform, after-school programs, leadership development, research) would provide needed resources for local innovation and for research, data collection, and assessment of knowledge and progress. Using innovation funds to stimulate partnerships between academic experts, virtual high schools, and public television stations could create “international learning channels” to reach out to students.
  • Offering governors incentive grants to assess their states’ international readiness. Federal planning grants would encourage states to identify their existing human and material resources for teaching and learning about the world and to create five-year plans to ensure that international education is available to children in all jurisdictions.

As former Gov. James Hunt said, “Our children are growing up in a whole new world, and . . . we have a responsibility to see that they understand that world.” [5] Individual teachers, groups of teachers, schools, districts, and states are beginning to make international education a priority. It will take leadership at every level to ensure that our high school graduates have acquired the competencies they need for global citizenship in the 21st century.

This article was originally published in Phi Delta Kappan (November 2004). Reprinted with permission.

Authors: Ted Sanders is the president of the Education Commission of the States, Denver, CO. Vivien Stewart is the vice president for education, Asia Society, New York, NY.

1 Asia in the Schools: Preparing Young Americans for Today’s Interconnected World (New York: Asia Society, 2001).

2 National Geographic--Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey, November 2002.

3 “Chinese Officials and College Board Announce Advanced Placement Course in Chinese Language and Culture,” press release, College Board, 5 December 2003.

4 Rima Shore, “National Coalition on Asia and International Studies in the Schools: Meeting Report, 29 May 2002” (Asia Society, August 2002), 13.

5 Ibid., 4.