Education Commentary

Educational Diplomacy

By Terry K. Peterson, Alan L. Ginsburg, Lenore Y. Garcia & Mariann Lemke — November 22, 2000 10 min read
In an increasingly borderless world, we can all benefit by viewing our educational challenges through the eyes of others.

Recently, for the first time in 35 years, the president of the United States emphasized the importance of international education and directed the federal government to strengthen its role in the field. Foreign leaders, in countries from the United Kingdom to Japan to Brazil, have also committed their nations to expanding international educational exchange and comparison as a component of both foreign policy and their broader education reform agendas.

These expressions of renewed commitment to international education come in a broader context of unprecedented international attention to education. In 1998, the first topic on the agenda of the 34 leaders of the Americas at their second summit meeting was education; this year, the World Forum on Education for All met in Dakar, Senegal, to renew the commitment of 181 countries to providing basic education to all their citizens. And last spring, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley attended back-to-back meetings of education ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized nations and the 21 economies of the Organization for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

Why this worldwide interest in education? One reason is the common challenge all countries face in preparing students for the new knowledge economy emerging in the 21st century. Second, several decades of development research show that countries that have invested strategically in education—particularly in “basic” or K-12 education— have experienced higher rates of growth. Third, a surge in democratic aspirations and democratically elected governments in the past decade has resulted in a concomitant imperative for making education available for all members of society. And finally, while an increasing number of countries have come close to realizing the goal of education for all in the sense that most children are now in school, very few have reached their goals with respect to quality and equity.

The challenge now is how to translate this unprecedented interest in education and international education into concrete results that can benefit citizens in both the United States and other countries. There are two major, related areas in which we might begin: what we might call learning from one another (benchmarking and best practices), and learning with one another (collaborative research, analysis, and exchange).

Learning From One Another: Benchmarking and Best Practices. It is clear that there are some areas of education in which the United States might do well to learn from other countries. They include the following:

  • Providing high-quality early childhood education. Some countries, such as Italy and France, achieve exposure of virtually all their young children to a sound and well-rounded early-childhood program deliivered through well-trained teachers.
  • Focusing curriculum to provide greater depth and improving course sequencing. Singapore, the highest-scoring country in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, uses math textbooks that are much thinner than those used in the United States, teaching fewer topics but in greater depth. The textbooks contain more problems, which are carefully sequenced to guide students from memorization to solving open-ended problems. Curricula in math and other subjects from Singapore and other countries may be instructive for states in considering their content standards.
  • Changing vocational education and reinventing high schools. Technology colleges in Denmark, for example, offer an interesting type of combined high school and post-high school technology and technical education—a 10th-, 11th-, 12th-, and 13th-year experience. These institutions provide the equivalent of a combined junior and senior year of high school plus one to two years of community college, offering serious preparation for careers or a four- year university education.
  • Promoting proficiency in a second language. In a number of countries, particularly in Europe, there is a long and successful history of teaching children to become biliterate and even triliterate; there is no reason why more Americans cannot do the same. Secretary Riley has challenged educators and community leaders to raise the number of dual-language-immersion schools in the United States from 261 to 1,000 over the next few years, and the U.S. Department of Education is requesting additional funds from Congress to expand K-12 foreign-language instruction as well postsecondary language programs.
  • Multiple accountability strategies. Integrated school management systems are under development in economies such as the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. These systems use multiple accountability approaches to achieving continuous improvement, including self-assessments by schools, value-added assessments (attempting to identify the contribution of the school itself to student achievement), and external peer-review appraisals through inspectorate systems.

At the same time that we are learning from educational policies and practices in other countries, many other nations are eager to learn more about the American educational experience, particularly in the areas of fostering students’ creativity and capacity to innovate; providing educational opportunities for a diverse student population; meeting the educational needs of students with disabilities; the community college; family and community involvement in education; and strategies to ensure that schools are safe and drug-free.

Learning With One Another: Collaborative Projects, Analysis, and Exchange. In addition to taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from one another, now more than ever we have unparalleled opportunities to work with educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from around the world in truly collaborative ways. There are a number of educational areas in which countries are struggling with common challenges or desires and in which working together may result in benefits for all involved:

  • Information technology and distance education. Almost every country is investing heavily in information technology to improve teaching and learning. They are also facing difficult questions about how to produce quality educational software, how to ensure that teachers have the necessary training and opportunity to make use of technology in the classroom, how to protect students from potentially harmful content or effects of the Internet, and how to assure an equitable provision of technology (avoiding the “digital divide”) both within and among countries. With respect to distance education, a number of issues, including quality assurance, credit recognition, and financial aid, can only be worked through in collaboration with other nations.
  • Teacher preparation and quality. Finding better methods to recruit, prepare, and keep teachers up to date is a priority of nearly every nation. Undersanding and addressing issues of teacher supply and demand could be undertaken cooperatively. So could expanding opportunities for teachers to participate in exchanges and other international experiences, such as using examples of student work judged exceptional, acceptable, and unaccepatable in classrooms around the world as a tool to reflect on their own instructional practices.
  • Fostering exchanges. The G-8 countries have adopted a goal of doubling exchanges over the next 10 years. The European Union is aggressively encouraging and facilitating credit transfer, joint programs, simplified financial aid, and housing arrangements to increase exchanges among students in member and future- member countries. At present, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. undergraduates have studied abroad for credit; a much smaller number spend a semester or more abroad, and most of them go to a limited number of destinations, mainly in Western Europe. We should work together with international colleagues to examine promising new models to increase and diversify study-abroad opportunities and exchanges.

No educational system has a monopoly on good practice. Other countries actively seek to learn from U.S. experience. Our teachers and students are at a disadvantage if they do not have access to the best learning from abroad. In the United States, the following three strategies can promote the transfer of learning across national boundaries in the field of education:

  • Helping researchers and practitioners link up with their counterparts abroad and conduct their work by:

Sponsoring international conferences, meetings, and comparative studies;

Promoting ongoing technology-based links among schools and other educational institutions in this country and those abroad and by providing guidance for their effective use; and

Providing grants to educational institutions and individuals to support international programs and research.

  • Helping identify priority policy areas for study and countries against whose practices to benchmark by:

Identifying gaps in knowledge in areas of education policy that are of key importance to the United States;

Distilling information gathered from international meetings and contacts to pinpoint countries on the “cutting edge” of particular issues; and

Giving priority in appropriate grant competitions and other funding decisions to innovative projects that include an international dimension.

  • Helping educators learn about and make use of the results of international studies by:

Providing guidance to schools and districts on how to develop and get the most out of international learning opportunities;

Developing World Wide Web portals that provide access to key research articles and resources for learning;

Developing policy summaries and issue briefs with information from abroad; and

Using the national stage to stress the importance of international experience to U.S. education.

The federal government has a role to play in each of these strategies, but its impact alone will be modest at best—particularly given the limited resources available. Out of the approximately $39 billion that Congress allocated to federal education programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education in fiscal year 2000, for example, far less than 1 percent was allocated to international programs and activities.

To tap the opportunities for international collaboration in the field of education, educators and groups interested in international education need to build partnerships with a much broader public, just as partnerships have been built around issues like standards-based education reform and family involvement in schools. These partnerships need to include schools and colleges, educational associations, foundations, the private sector, and our colleagues abroad. Ultimately, the goal would be to create international communities of education practitioners who can tackle common problems and share successes collaboratively— practitioners for whom international communication and outreach strategies are embedded into everyday work.

One of these partnerships’ key objectives would be to make sure the public understands the benefits of international education. This fall, in conjunction with the just- concluded International Education Week (Nov. 13-17), the departments of Education and State and their partners have stressed the advantages of knowing more than one language, studying abroad, “linking up” via technology, and benchmarking against the educational practices of others. We will need partners to reinforce this message. Employers can make it known, for instance, that they place a premium on employees who speak more than one language and who can navigate a variety of cultural environments. Higher education institutions can support and stress the value of international experience for many more of their students, not just a privileged few.

We are convinced that a modest investment of additional resources to support more systematic learning from and with educators abroad would pay off in better understanding of our own educational challenges and their possible solutions. In an increasingly borderless world, we can all benefit by viewing our educational challenges through the eyes of others. “Education diplomacy,” as Secretary Riley calls it, is a kind of engagement from which all participants stand to gain.

Terry K. Peterson is the counselor to the secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. Alan L. Ginsburg is the director of the planning and evaluation service in the department’s office of the undersecretary, and Lenore Y. Garcia is that office’s director of international affairs. Mariann Lemke is a policy analyst. The opinions expressed are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Department of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Educational Diplomacy