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% of the world’s population.” Research conducted for the report found that:
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%— 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.  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?
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 Pl a c e m e n t 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.  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.
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:
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.
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.”  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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”  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.