Excellence and Equity in a Global Age

A student in front of their school.

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.

High Schools for the Global Age

The “old” problem of poor academic achievement and the new demands of globalization require high quality, relevant and engaging schools for all students. Since 2003, with initial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Asia Society has worked in partnership with school districts and charter authorities to create the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN), a national network of design-driven schools that are achieving success in attaining their core mission: to develop college ready, globally competent high school graduates. The network is currently comprised of 13 schools in urban and rural communities across the nation: 11 new schools and 2 schools that opened in the early 1990s and joined the ISSN as “anchor schools” providing lessons for newer network schools. Network-wide, ISSN schools serve students in grades 6-12 or 9-12, 85 percent of whom are students of color and 74 percent of whom are students from low-income families.

The ISSN school design begins with a definition of the knowledge and skills that define college readiness and global competency in the form of a Graduate Profile. The Profile describes a young person who has mastered the content and abilities needed for college, including the experience of developing expertise about a world culture or critical world issue. It calls for a student that is a proficient thinker and problem solver, who is steeped in content knowledge that thoughtfully integrates international perspectives. It emphasizes understanding the interdependence and interconnections between global systems. The profile describes someone that is proficient in a world language other than English, able to use technology effectively, and to be a critical consumer of information from around the world. And someone who is adept at crossing cultural boundaries, welcomes collaboration and teamwork, and is able to view issues and events from the perspective of others from backgrounds different than their own.

The ISSN school design is articulated in the ISSN Matrix, a detailed developmental sequence for implementing effective practices and structures within the core dimensions of the school. These dimensions include:

  • rigorous curriculum, assessment and instruction that integrates international content throughout all subject areas
  • world languages including at least one Asian language
  • globally focused, inclusive school culture and organization
  • teachers’ professional development including international content knowledge and travel
  • family and community involvement to mine the cultural assets within diverse local environments and opportunities for internationally related experiential learning

From beginning to advanced levels of proficiency, the Matrix guides the implementation of practices needed to achieve the tenets of the Graduate Profile. It provides a common blueprint of best practice for ISSN schools, with much room for local adaptation, to chart their progress and prioritize areas for growth.

Integrating International Knowledge and Skills

At the heart of the ISSN school design is the reframing of traditional courses and the development of new ones that systematically integrate knowledge about the world and skills to understand how it works. While not forcing global connections mindlessly, it is by no means simply adding an international frosting on top of existing practice. Nor is there a one-size-fits-all international studies curriculum implemented in each ISSN school. Rather, we provide detailed course frameworks, exemplary curriculum units and intensive professional development in a curriculum planning process. The goal is to build ISSN teachers’ capacity for thoughtfully infusing international content and perspectives within rigorous, engaging coursework that address state content and performance standards.

In science courses, for example, applying scientific study to world problems helps students understand the need for science, contextualize scientific knowledge, and see how “everything is interconnected” through various systems in the world. And when students learn science by doing science, it contributes to global competence by developing analytic and synthetic reasoning skills and the ability to frame and solve complex problems. For example, in Christopher Chieh's Biochemistry classroom at the College of Staten Island High School for International Studies, students examine issues of hunger and food scarcity in the world through labs that explore the energy value of various foods. In Greg Kuhr’s Field Biology class at the Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield, CT, one of the ISSN anchor schools, fish tanks simulate lake ecosystems where student-designed experiments with tropical fish show how changes in ecosystems can affect wild populations worldwide.

Science courses also offer the opportunity for students to engage in study with peers in other countries just as working scientists do. Several ISSN schools involve students in international scientific projects focusing on climate change, water conservation, species extinction and other global issues through the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN), a worldwide network that enables students and teachers to use the Internet and other technologies to collaborate on projects.

Social studies courses are fertile ground for developing deep global content knowledge and strong reasoning skills. American and world history courses provide opportunities to look at the lessons of history over time and in multiple contexts as a way for students to apply it to world challenges today. By connecting the local to global and the past to the future, issues in school become as real, complicated and connected as they are in the world out of school. For example, schools study the civil rights movement as part of U.S. History then compare it to the Truth and Reconciliation processes of South Africa and Chile to examine the theme of “conflict and healing” in order to understand those nations’ responses to civil rights as well as to more deeply understand our own nation’s response and the historical trajectory that it spurred. Simulations that engage students in a debate about when a country should go to war as part of a WWII unit allow students to take on the perspective of the Japanese in the months leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and then provide an immediate link to the current challenges in Iraq and the U.S.’s decision to use pre-emptive strikes. Use of the Advanced Placement curriculum in Comparative Government broadens the traditional Civics course while still immersing students in the principles of democracy and democratic principles. A world economics course also broadens the traditional focus on free enterprise to help students unlock their understanding of global economic policy and the interdependence of world financial markets in this globalized world.

One important goal in such courses is to examine the broad range of national and international determinants and consequences of events, to understand that people and nations may legitimately hold different perspectives on world issues. At the International School of the Americas in San Antonio, TX, another of the ISSN’s anchor schools, all sophomore students participate in a Model United Nations experience that requires them to thoroughly research and represent in debate a country’s position on a critical world issue. ISA student Elizabeth McLeod describes her experience: “One year I represented Iran, and Iran’s official position on women at the time was not my official position on women, I can tell you. So, by using Model United Nations as a tool, you can teach students to take the position of a country whose views may not necessarily be their own.”

Internationalizing English language arts courses includes expanding the traditional canon of literature to include works written from around the world, and teaching students methods of literary analysis that illuminate commonalities and differences across cultures as well as common themes woven throughout world literature. The ISSN has created a 9th grade world literature course focused upon identity and how identity is created and manifested within different cultural contexts. Literature from Asia, Africa, Latin America, as well as the U.S. provide hundreds of “coming of age” stories and fables as well as poignant works of non-fiction, creating a cultural comparative study melded with a topic of high relevance to fourteen-year-olds. The course is specifically designed to incorporate within this rich global context intensive literacy development skills to support the many students that enter ISSN schools, as in many urban and rural secondary schools, who are well below grade level expectations in reading and writing.

At the College of Staten Island High School for International Studies, students’ writing takes on an authentic international dimension through the award winning International Insider, the student-run newspaper created in collaboration with student reporters around the globe using Internet, blog and e-mail correspondence. Providing student perspectives on tough issues from genocide in Darfur to war in Iraq, CSI senior editor Anan Baig says the paper “is a chance to explore the world one teenager at a time.”

Connecting ELA studies to science, social studies or other subject areas provides an engaging interdisciplinary approach for deepening students’ development of global knowledge and perspectives. At the International School of the Americas, a Global Environmental Problems unit connects students’ study of environmental issues in biology and sustainable development in World Geography, and pairs it with the reading of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, which posits a world where man co-exists peacefully with nature rather than dominating it. The culminating assessment requires student teams to propose a research-based potential solution to a critical environmental challenge that is presented to a simulated congressional hearing.

Authentic Language Learning

A requirement across all ISSN schools is that students have the opportunity to study a language other than English throughout their school career, and that each school offer at least one Asian language. The goal in language classes is to use the language out loud, that is, to engage students continuously in speaking and writing in the target language to share information, ideas, opinions and emotions on engaging topics. Language learning also provides a unique vehicle for traveling “inside” other cultures to help students focus on how people live and think and to interpret cultural meanings in the behaviors, norms and traditions of everyday life. At the Denver Center for International Studies, for example, which offers Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and French to students in grades six to twelve, language instruction is virtually all in the target language itself. Frequent “world language days” allow students to hone language skills though purposeful conversations with native language speakers in local Chinese markets, Spanish language media outlets, local Hispanic cultural organizations, Asian fairs and in other community settings. Student-planned World Cafes engage families and community members in the cultures of the languages taught, with students taking on the role of teacher. The school’s world language lab also provides cutting edge technology to immerse students in the world’s voices and cultures, and the means to connect directly with individuals in other countries to practice communication and to better understand cultural similarities and differences.

To sharpen language skills and cultural understanding, and to truly empower students to act with confidence on the world stage, each ISSN school aims to provide every student the opportunity for international travel. Experiencing life in other regions is especially important for disadvantaged students to envision their own global future. That’s why even in its first year the Houston Academy for International Studies helped eight students travel in the summer following their freshman year toItaly, Spain, Costa Rica and Thailand through a study abroad scholarship programfor students of color. Another student traveled with peers from other ISSN schools on a three-week study tour of China.Other students throughout the network furthered their language scholarship through summer residential immersion classes at the Concordia Language Villages in Moorhead, MN.

Small Schools, Engaged Communities

Preparing students for global futures extends to the culture and organization of ISSN schools and to their local communities. Even before students first enter the Mathis High School for International Studies in Mathis, TX, they know it is a very different kind of school. In the summer before school opened, Mathis school leader Elizabeth Ozuna organized a city-wide book study of Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks about the unifying effect of a handful of beans in the lives of a diverse group of people to “seed the garden” of ideas within the Mathis community. Throughout the summer, students and adults discussed the “big ideas” in the text as a foundation for creating the school’s vision and mission statement. Just before school opened, Ozuna took her entering freshman to the Texas Museum for Asian Cultures in Corpus Christi, Texas, giving them their first school-sponsored experience with another culture.

All ISSN schools are small, roughly 120 students per grade level. Positive relationships with trusted adults motivate students to learn (Jackson & Davis, 2000) so each ISSN school works to develop a nurturing, relationship-driven environment where every student is known well. Each of the schools has an advisory component, which Natasha Thompson, principal of the International Studies School at Garinger, in Charlotte, NC describes as a “safe space for students to develop their personal voice through a variety of reflective journal topics, and their community and global voice by studying global environmental issues as well as participating in “family” meetings.”

As is true everywhere, the quality of teaching and leadership in ISSN schools determine their efficacy. Our cardinal rule in assisting districts in hiring teachers and leaders is that they are equally passionate about academic rigor and bringing the world inside their classrooms. They must be committed to fostering close, empowering relationships with students. And they must be willing to continually improve their own knowledge of the world and their ability to teach from an international perspective. Much of Asia Society’s ongoing work is to support teachers’ and leaders’ professional development through a variety of means that include on-site coaching, leadership training, curriculum and instruction seminars, an annual Summer Institute, regional and national networking, international study tours, a library of digital resources, and formative evaluation studies to support the school’s own data-driven professional development planning.

Close connection to families and linkages to organizations outside the school are seminal to the ISSN school design. The diversity of students’ family backgrounds provides a major asset to support schools’ inclusive international culture. At the International Studies Learning Center in South Gate, CA, near south central Los Angeles, many of the students are of Mexican heritage, which prompted Principal Guillermina Jauregui to have students, staff and parents read Burro Genius by Victor Villasenor. The book provided the foundation for school wide discourse, which included the book’s author himself, to examine the influence of culture and the diversity of students’ needs.

Universities and community colleges support ISSN schools’ global mission by offering college courses that tap substantial international expertise and by providing invaluable professional development opportunities for teachers, especially through Area Studies Centers whose mission is in part to support K-12 classroom teachers. Like several other ISSN schools, the International Studies Learning Center is partnering with a local institution, Los Angeles Southwest Community College, to offer greater choices in world languages and other college-level coursework. Over 80% of juniors and seniors are currently taking one or more college level courses.

Business, cultural and non-profit organizations are especially important to ISSN schools’ mission by providing educational resources and critical opportunities for internships and community service. Through a partnership with the World Affairs Council of Houston, for example, students in their first month at the Houston Academy for International Studies had a dinner discussion with former Secretary of State Colin Powell on contemporary world challenges and solutions. As a requirement for graduation, every student at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio interns at a globally focused organization, from Doctors Without Borders to the Mexican Consulate in San Antonio to the Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Pueblo, Mexico.

Promising Results

How well are ISSN schools achieving their mission of producing college ready, globally competent students? Albeit limited in their focus on relatively low-level skills, state tests are nevertheless a useful baseline assessment of students’ progress. The Consortium for Policy Research in Education has analyzed data on ISSN schools from 2004-2007, comparing results from these schools to schools with similar demographic profiles within the same school district. Across grade levels and core subject areas (English, math, science, social studies/ economics), ISSN schools achieved at higher levels in the vast majority of such comparisons. For example, the Academy of International Studies in Charlotte, NC, which opened in 2004, has outpaced the district average and comparison school scores on virtually every End of Course exam given over the past three years. After four years, 100% of the senior class is on track to graduate on time in 2008. Ninth and tenth grade students at the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS), which opened in 2006, scored at least 58% higher than the district average on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) reading, writing and math tests and DCIS’s 10th grade CSAP science scores were double the district average. And Figure 1 shows impressive results by the two ISSN schools in Los Angeles on the California high school exit examination.

While there is certainly room for improvement – and each school in on a journey -- ISSN schools are achieving encouraging results on the assessments that matter in the era of No Child Left Behind. We will continue to track progress on these “coin-of-the-realm” assessments, but we are also working in partnership with Stanford University and Envisions Schools to develop a digitally based portfolio assessment system that will provide a better gauge of whether students’ work is truly up to college standards and meets the guidelines of the ISSN graduate profile. Our hope is to develop an authentic assessment system that, as it should, drives the nature and quality of instruction by asking students to show what they know through real-world applications of knowledge.

Our intent in the coming years is to expand the International Studies Schools Network of new, small schools and small learning communities in the regions where we are working now and new ones. Our goal, as well, is to use lessons learned from the ISSN and other internationally focused schools to provide opportunities for existing schools to transform practice.

The term globalization has taken on many meanings, but the fact that we now live in an interconnected and interdependent world is indisputable. Our mission must be that every young person is fully prepared for the challenges and opportunities within the new global village. The International Studies Schools Network is designed to do just that.


Committee for Economic Development. (2006). Education for Global Leadership: The Importance of International Studies and Foreign Language Education for U.S. Economic and National Security. Washington, DC: Author. Available: http://www.ced.org/docs/report/report_foreignlanguages.pdf

Conley, David T. (2005). College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready. Jossey-Bass.

Crawford, James (2007). A Diminished Vision of Civil Rights. Education Week, June 6, 2007

Darling-Hammond, Linda (2007). No Child Left Behind: Changing the Way We Think About Learning. The Forum for Education and Democracy. Available: http://www.forumforeducation.org/blog/index.php?post=66

Friedman, Thomas L. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Thorndike Press.

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Stewart, Vivien. (2007). Becoming Citizens of the World. Educational Leadership, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Suárez-Orozco, Marcelo M. & Sattin, Carolyn (2007). Learning in the Global Era: International Perspectives on Globalization and Education. University of California Press.

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U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2007 Reading Assessment. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education

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