Does your school have stronger ties to Mumbai or Marrakesh than to other schools in your district? It might be time to leverage district resources. Image: filo and mstay/iStockPhoto.com.
One doesn’t have to look hard, in this country, to find terrific
examples of international education in practice. Hundreds of schools
make it a priority to interest their students in global affairs, teach
them foreign languages, and introduce them to people and places outside
It’s not so easy to find whole districts that give
priority to international studies, though. For the most part,
individual schools have had to go it alone, building their programs
without much help from their district offices or input from neighboring
schools. Ironically, many have cultivated better relationships with
their partners in Mumbai or Marrakesh than they have with educators on
the other side of town.
But there are distinct advantages to a district-wide approach, especially when it comes to the sharing of scarce resources.
example, consider the teaching of Chinese and Arabic, which are
becoming increasingly critical to American business, culture, and
politics. Given how hard it can be to find people qualified to teach
such courses, and given how hard it is to predict student interest in
them, most schools are reluctant even to try adding them to the
However, by taking advantage of its economy of scale, the Chicago
Public Schools (CPS) has managed to create thriving programs in Chinese
and Arabic over the past decade. This year alone, 12,000 of the
district’s students are enrolled in Chinese, making it far and away the
largest such program in the country.
Additionally, CPS has launched new heritage language programs for
students from Spanish-speaking families, it offers extensive
professional development programs for its language teachers, sponsors a
city-wide Model United Nations program, and last year held its first
International Education Conference. Such efforts would be extremely
difficult for individual schools to pull off on their own.
“It all starts with the Mayor,” explains Robert Davis, Jr., manager
of CPS’s World Languages and International Studies program (one of the
few district offices of its kind anywhere in the country). “From day
one, he’s been focused on making Chicago a truly international city,
and he’s been willing to make the necessary investments.”
School districts have a lot more than money and human resources to
contribute to international education, though. Even in much smaller
school systems, district administrators are well-placed to get such
efforts started, keep momentum going, rally public support, ensure the
quality and consistency of programs, and cultivate relationships with
local businesses, universities, and anybody else who might have
relevant expertise to share with the schools.
In Long Island’s Herricks school district, for example, it was the
superintendent, Jack Bierwirth, who urged teachers to integrate global
issues into their classes. A relatively affluent district just east of
New York City, Herricks was regarded as high-performing when Bierwirth
arrived, in 2001, and it already had in place a full complement of
advanced placement courses and extra-curricular programs. Parents and
staff agreed, though, that global studies would add an important
dimension to the curriculum.
Since then, the district has provided coordination and support for
what has become largely a teacher-driven effort to bring international
issues into the classroom whenever possible, whether by assigning
students to read Russian novels in English, to study Mexican-American
relations in U.S. History, or to experiment with Japanese printmaking
in art class. His job is now to “stoke the fire,” says Bierwirth, by
finding additional resources and opportunities for students and
teachers. For example, he cultivated a relationship with the non-profit
Foreign Policy Association, which now provides frequent speakers for
school events and invites students and teachers into Manhattan for
lectures by foreign dignitaries and policy experts.
Schools shouldn’t have to figure out for themselves how to bring
the world into the classroom, Bierwirth adds. “There’s strength in
numbers. And that means getting the whole district involved.”
Author: Rafael Heller
What's the role that the district can play in increasing global
learning? How can state departments of education support districts in
What’s an appropriate reply to a district-level official who argues
that global studies simply aren’t a high priority, given urgent demands
for better math, science, and reading instruction, professional
development, afterschool programs, and so on?