Education Opinion

International Knowledge: Let’s Close the Gap

By Ted Sanders & Vivien Stewart — May 28, 2003 12 min read
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Over recent weeks, educators across the nation have struggled to develop balanced information and effective teaching strategies to help students understand the historical, religious, and cultural context of the war in Iraq. After Sept. 11, 2001, schools urgently sought materials about Central Asia and Islam. And earlier, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, classrooms everywhere intensified their focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

But such attention to other parts of the world is usually short-lived in America’s classrooms. Once the crisis is over, schools revert to business as usual. But the plain fact is: our high school graduates know far too little about the 90 percent of the world outside our borders. If we continue to neglect this international-knowledge gap, a whole generation of children will be ill-prepared to work and act as informed citizens in the 21st century.

In 2001, the National Commission on Asia in the Schools, chaired by former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, former Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien of the University of California, Berkeley, and Charlotte Mason, a Newton, Mass., teacher, released the report “Asia in the Schools: Preparing Young Americans for Today’s Interconnected World.” It concluded that “young Americans are dangerously uninformed about international matters, especially Asia, home to more than 60 percent of the world’s population.” Research conducted for the report found that:

  • Levels of student knowledge were rudimentary. For example, 25 percent of college-bound high school students did not know the name of the ocean that separates the United States from Asia. Eighty percent did not know that India is the world’s largest democracy.
  • Most teachers were not prepared to teach about Asia. For example, of the top 50 U.S. colleges and universities that train teachers, only a handful required any coursework on Asian history for their students preparing to teach history.
  • Language instruction did not reflect today’s realities. For example, while more than a million students in U.S. schools studied French, a language spoken by 80 million people worldwide, fewer than 40,000 studied Chinese, a language spoken by almost 1.3 billion people.

One year later, in 2002, the National Geographic/Roper survey of knowledge of geography and current affairs among young adults in nine countries showed that U.S. students lagged behind their peers in other countries. The great majority—83 percent— could not find Afghanistan or Israel on a world map, but knew that the island featured in last season’s “Survivor” TV show was in the South Pacific. Compared with young adults from other nations, American youths hold a greatly inflated view of America: Nearly one-third estimated the U.S. population at a billion or more.

There is no shortage of evidence about the paucity of young Americans’ knowledge of the world. But schools already have daunting responsibilities and cannot teach everything. Why are international knowledge and skills so critical?

We believe that both our future economic prosperity and our national security depend on closing the international-knowledge gap.

In the past, complex international transactions were the domain of diplomats and international-policy and -business experts, but today a converging set of powerful economic, technological, demographic, and national-security developments will require a citizenry that is far more internationally literate. Consider the following:

  • Globalization is driving demand for an internationally competent workforce. Already, one in six U.S. jobs is tied to international trade. Our trade with Asia now equals over $800 billion a year, more than our trade with Europe. The majority of future growth for industries of all sizes is in overseas markets. Future careers in business, government, health care, law enforcement, architecture, and a wide variety of other jobs will all require greater international knowledge and skills.
  • As the world’s only superpower, the United States is deeply involved in economic, political, and social developments around the globe. Our national security depends on our ability to act intelligently on the world stage, whether that means establishing new partnerships, containing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, providing assistance to others, or defending the nation. The U.S. departments of State and Defense have issued urgent calls to improve our national capacity in world languages in order to meet our national-security needs.
  • New human-security and humanitarian challenges—from solving global environmental degradation, to averting the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, to reducing the poverty and hopelessness that underlie much conflict—all require a citizenry with increased knowledge of other regions and cultures.
  • The increasing diversity in our nation’s classrooms, workplaces, and communities, with rapidly increasing populations from many different parts of Asia and Latin America, requires greater understanding of the myriad cultures and histories students bring to the classroom.
What is being done to prepare all of our students to face the opportunities and challenges of this new globally connected world?

With advancements in technology, our children can have unprecedented access to almost every place on the planet. Communication—whether good or ill—no longer stops at national borders. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a tragic reminder that hatred can travel thousands of miles and hurt us here. Our children and grandchildren will be continually working with countries and cultures very different from our own, with potential for both fruitful interaction and destructive misunderstanding. Educational systems around the world need to ensure that the next generation worldwide has the knowledge and understanding to solve global problems and build a shared future.

What is being done and what actions need to be taken to prepare all of our students to face the opportunities and challenges of this new globally connected world?

To be sure, there has been some progress in recent years. 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 academic standards of some states. A new Advanced Placement examination in world history is quickly growing in popularity. Guidelines on how to teach about religion in a constitutionally permissible way have made it easier for schools to do so. But we have not yet made the acquisition of international knowledge and skills a significant policy priority, nor have we prepared educators to get high-quality international content into our classrooms.

Currently, there are islands of excellence in classrooms across the country where teachers impart sophisticated content about Asia and other world regions and make this material come alive for their students. But the more typical picture 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, cultures, and international affairs available to all students, not just the most privileged, we need to address five key issues:

(1.) Policymakers at all levels must make education about other world regions, cultures, and international issues a significant priority.

(2.) Because teachers cannot teach what they do not know, opportunities must be provided for teachers to learn about the history, geography, and economics of different world regions and about international relations. This can be done through preservice preparation, professional development, and direct exposure to other cultures through travel, study, and exchange.

(3.) We need to develop an effective K-16 pipeline in major world languages through a mix of innovative approaches.

(4.) Partnerships and exchanges—both real and “virtual"—need to be established between schools, students, and educators in the this country and those in other parts of the world. Such steps will help not only to promote mutual understanding, but also will provide a means for learning about other educational methods. All schools and teacher-preparation programs should seek to have an active link with a counterpart in another part of the world.

(5.) High-quality textbooks, materials, and assessments need to be developed to make it practical and easier to integrate international content into different curriculum areas and assess the effectiveness of different approaches. And the more informal, but powerful, instruments of educational television and interactive media also need to be harnessed in this effort.

Change of this magnitude will not happen overnight. Nor can any single organization or level of education accomplish it alone. We need leaders to catalyze action at every level.

Local communities should lead innovation. In classrooms from Bangor, Maine, to Honolulu, outstanding teachers, many of whom have found opportunities to take a course on or travel to Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East, are integrating international content into their teaching. They are exposing their students to some of the world’s vast heritage of knowledge, giving their students the historical context to understand world events, and using the study of other cultures and global challenges as a way to teach perspective-taking and other higher-order-thinking skills.

Too often, these teachers operate without active support from principals or superintendents, but in some places, groups of teachers or whole schools are showing how international content can be integrated across different curriculum areas, improve achievement, and meet state standards. We need to identify and celebrate such creative and practical “best practices,” so others can replicate them.

As cities and towns create new initiatives to improve student achievement, there are wonderful opportunities to integrate knowledge about Asia and other world regions and languages into redesigned high schools, literacy initiatives, and after-school and technology programs.

States must prepare for globalization. States are in the forefront of managing the challenges of globalization. Governors work hard to help their states compete in the global economy, attracting investment and jobs. To be competitive, states need a workforce that is internationally literate. States must prepare for globalization. States are in the forefront of managing the challenges of globalization. Governors work hard to help their states compete in the global economy, attracting investment and jobs. To be competitive, states need a workforce that is internationally literate.

Last November, 22 states sent teams to the first States Institute on International Education in the Schools. Co-sponsored by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Education Commission of the States, and the National Coalition on Asia and International Studies in the Schools, and organized by the Asia Society, the institute gave states a chance to share experiences in preparing young people for the new global age.

Since then, more than a dozen states have established task forces and work groups designed to mobilize state leaders, assess and strengthen student standards and high school graduation requirements, enhance teacher education requirements and professional development, and create partnerships with schools in other parts of the world.

State action is essential to take international education to scale. In fact, all states should undertake an “audit,” similar to one commissioned by former Gov. John Engler of Michigan, of their “international preparedness.” In doing so, they will find willing partners in local corporations, in the international resources of their higher education institutions, and in their media, technology, and cultural institutions. And they will find public support. Seventy percent of parents believe that schools are not doing enough to teach about Asia, for example.

A federal leadership role is vital. Improving our nation’s international knowledge and skills is vital to our future economic prosperity and national security. For 50 years, the federal government has played a critical role in fostering foreign-language and area-studies expertise at the postsecondary level. This commitment now needs to be extended to K-12 education as an urgent priority. We welcome U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s policy statement from this past November: “In order to meet our goal to leave no child behind, we must ... introduce our students to international studies earlier in their education. It’s time to put the ‘world’ into world-class education.”

Federal leadership could play a critical role, through, for example:

  • Incentive grants to encourage all states to improve their international readiness. These grants would have high leverage in encouraging states to identify the human and material resources that exist to teach and learn about the world and would ensure that children in all jurisdictions have such opportunities.
  • Enhancing teacher capacity and quality. The federal Higher Education Act, due to be reauthorized next year, provides an important vehicle for K-16 partnerships for international teaching excellence, and for professional-development opportunities in “world-class learning” for teachers and school leaders.
‘The young people of the United States and Asia need to know and understand each other, because they will be building and sharing the same future.’

  • Stimulating a K-16 pipeline in major world languages. To increase our capacity to communicate in languages other than English, federal incentives should be offered to begin the study of languages in elementary school, promote innovative use of technology, and conduct research and development experiments with more-intensive approaches to language learning and the recruitment of foreign-language teachers.
  • Incorporate international knowledge and skills into existing federal programs. Infusing a concern for the development of international knowledge and skills into a range of domestic and international federal programs would provide needed resources for local innovation, and for research and assessment.

Schools now have a great deal on their plates. They must continue to work hard on the goals of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. We must continue to improve performance in reading, math, and science, as well as give students a solid grounding in American history and democratic institutions. But let us recognize that in the 21st century, knowledge of the world is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has said: “The young people of the United States and Asia need to know and understand each other, because they will be building and sharing the same future.”


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