As some of you know, over the past five years Asia Society has worked with school districts and charter authorities to open a network of small, internationally focused schools in low income urban communities. The network is called the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN) and it consists of 12 schools, some serving grades 6-12 and some 9-12, and, again, the vast majority of students are from low income minority families.
At the opening of one of our schools, there was a ground breaking ceremony for a brand new building that would house the school. After the speakers and ribbon cutting, a reporter pulled me aside and said. “I totally get why they’re adding a high school to continue helping these students develop their math, and science and English skills. But why do these kids need to know about the world?”
The meaning of the reporter’s question was clear. Given where they come from, isn’t it 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?
The reporter was expressing what I think is a prevalent view of what “those kids” need, that is now even codified in law. If you look at the language of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), for example, the language has actually been changed in the legislation so that now, the goal for federal efforts to help poor kids is to reduce the achievement gap between disadvantaged kids and their more advantaged peers. The goal used to be creating equal opportunity for all students.
At Asia Society, our guiding belief is simply that closing the achievement gap is a necessary but insufficient goal. If we really want to provide equal opportunity in 21st century, education must also include a response to globalization, and that response must include a focus on low income and minority kids. Having the knowledge and skills to be successful in the 21st century is the new definition equal opportunity. "All well and good," says the teacher faced with daily pressures of getting everything done, "but NCLB and all the other accountability standards we are faced with is what I have to deal with. I know I need to focus on getting my kids ready for a global age but I can’t do that if it takes me away from getting achievement scores up."
NCLB attempts to meet both the execellence and equity mandates of our education system. In the book I co-authored with Gayle Andrews, Turning Points 2000, I hope you'll see the foundation for taking middle schools into the global era. We said that purpose of middle grades schooling is, indeed, the intellectual development of young adolescents, first and foremost. And what’s critically important from a developmental perspective, middle grade students are ripe for learning about the world and how it works because they are so rapidly developing the brain capacity to understand complexity. We know from brain research that the development of the brain in adolescence is more rapid and more robust than at any other stage of development except early infancy. At this age, they are more able to be out in the world, and to participate in a wider universe of activities. As they move through adolescence, it goes from “its all about me and my community right now” to “its still all about me but in relation to what my future might be outside of my immediate community” and now, that broader community can include the world itself.” While intellectual development is the ultimate goal, you can’t get there from here unless the relationships within the school aren’t close and supportive. Relationships are the means by which learning happens. Indeed, Turning Points was and remains an excellence and equity agenda. What Gayle and I wrote about nearly a decade ago was in many ways the foundation of the kind of globally focused middle grades education.
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