Excellence and Equity in a Global Age

The 2006 ground breaking for the Vaughn International Studies Academy (VISA) in Pacoima, California represented the delivery on a promise by nationally known principal Dr. Yvonne Chan to create a pre-K-12 “educational corridor” in this poverty-blighted community. VISA is the 9-12 extension of Chan’s pre-K – 8th grade charter school, the Vaughn 21st Century Learning Center, that has achieved remarkable success in accelerating the achievement of its low income, Latino student population, many of whom come to school speaking virtually no English. VISA was to be the capstone of their journey, preparing them for college and developing in them the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed for success in the 21st century global environment. Amid the celebration of hope for Vaughn students’ continued success at VISA, a reporter asked the question, “But why do those kids need to know about the world?”

The meaning of the reporter’s question was clear. Given where they come from, it’s enough of a challenge to boost academic outcomes for these students so they even have a chance for college. Why bother to teach them, and why should they be expected to know about the world beyond our borders? VISA is one of a national network of international studies schools operating primarily in low income communities that are defining success precisely in terms of their students’ academic prowess and global competency, and are implementing a school model designed specifically to achieve these two critical goals.

Globalization and Its Implications for Educating All Students

Two intertwined imperatives face American education. The first is the problem of persistent underachievement by American students, especially low income and minority children, against U.S. standards and international benchmarks. On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, less than 33% of all eighth grade students nationally score at or above the proficient level in math (NCES, 2007a) and less than 32% score at or above theproficient level in reading (NCES, 2007b). Moreover, there is consistently a sizable difference between minority and non-minority students, and between poor and non-poor students on these indices. For example, 42% of white eighth graders are categorized as at or above proficient in mathematics and 40% in reading, whereas less than 12% of eighth grade African Americanstudents and nearly 16% of Hispanic students at grade 8 are at or above proficient in math, and less than 16% of students from both groups are at or above proficient in reading. Results from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show nearly 25 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds scored at the lowest level of proficiency or below in science. (OECD, 2007).

A second imperative is to prepare students for work and civic roles in a “globalized” environment where success increasingly requires the ability to compete, connect, and cooperate on an international scale. Globalization—the ongoing acceleration of economic, social and cultural exchanges across the planet (Suarez-Orozco & Sattin, 2007)—has forever changed the stage upon which today’s students will act out their lives. Over the past two decades, with the addition of millions of increasingly well educated Indians, Chinese, Russians and others into the worldwide labor force, the competition for living wage jobs is truly international (Friedman, 2005). One in five U.S. jobs is now tied to international trade (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004, p. 8) which means, according to the Committee on Economic Development (2006), that U.S. employers will “increasingly need employees with knowledge of foreign languages and cultures to market products to customers around the globe and to work effectively with foreign employees and partners in other countries.”

The nature of work, itself, is changing. The demand for complex cognitive and communication skills has risen sharply over the past four decades, with fewer jobs requiring simple analysis skills or manual labor (Levy and Murnane, 2007). As more routine jobs can be done by computer or outsourced to cheaper labor markets, the economic advantage will go to those students who can analyze and solve novel problems for which there are no known solutions, who can recognize patterns and similarities among myriad facts and figures, and who have the capacity for nuanced interaction with other people, especially those that do not share the same cultural context—skills that cannot be duplicated by technology or workers with limited education (Gardenfors, 2007; Levy and Murnane, 2007).

Globalization is about the increasing connections worldwide between people and events. Virtually every major issue people face—from global warming to terrorism—has an international dimension (Stewart, 2007). Information technologies enable cross cultural communication at the click of a mouse key. And with between 185 and 200 million migrants worldwide (Suarez-Orozco & Sattin, 2007), migration and immigration are creating enormously more culturally and linguistically diverse societies, including U.S. communities and schools. Deep content knowledge about other cultures, as well as the disposition to not just tolerate but to seek opportunities to positively interact with individuals from varied backgrounds, are needed foundations for work and citizenship in the 21st century.

Many U.S. students are at risk of being unprepared for the demands and opportunities of a global economy. Most vulnerable are disadvantaged youth for whom American schools have historically fallen short of providing the quality of education needed for truly equal opportunity for success. In fact, the very notion of education being the means for equal opportunity appears to have lost ground. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has effectively substituted the idea of “closing the achievement gap” between racial and socioeconomic groups on standardized tests for the more robust earlier goal of creating “equal educational opportunity” (Crawford, 2007). Of course it is important to close the achievement gap on basic skills. But standardized tests by and large do not measure the expert thinking and complex communication skills that spell success in college (Conley, 2005) or in the knowledge-driven global economy (Levy and Murnane, 2007, Darling-Hammond, 2007). For low income and minority students, closing the basic skills gap is an essential step toward real equality of opportunity in the global age, but no substitute – a necessary but insufficient goal. What all students need, including those students at VISA and millions like them, is rigorous, world-wise intellectual engagement toward the development of nimble thinking skills, that, unfortunately, instructional practice driven by today’s standardized tests is unlikely to provide.