International Education Inching Forward in U.S. Classrooms

By Sean Cavanagh — November 23, 2004 5 min read
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“A lot of things are happening, but we all know there is so much more to be done. We want to find out how to take these efforts to a broader scale.”

Having heard plenty of well-meaning but uninspiring proposals from all kinds of interest groups over the years, one longtime elected official last week offered fellow supporters of international education advice on how to make a successful pitch: Be able to explain why it’s necessary.

James B. Hunt Jr.

“Not ‘nice.’ But necessary,” former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina emphasized here before an audience of business, education, and nonprofit leaders who gathered to promote international education in U.S. schools.

They believe recognition is growing among public officials of the urgency of their mission from both an economic and a national-security standpoint. Yet several of those proponents, who met for the third annual States Institute on International Education in the Schools, acknowledge that so far, progress has been modest at best.

Since the institute staged it first conference, eight states have formed task forces to address ways to improve the teaching of international education, Mr. Hunt told attendees at the Nov. 13-14 conference. And at least eight states have staged statewide summits aimed at building support for such studies, he said.

Seven states have launched professional-development ventures to help teachers become more familiar with international issues and curricula, and at least four have set up Web sites to help students and school officials become more aware of other nations, cultures, and languages.

“A lot of things are happening, but we all know there is so much more to be done,” Mr. Hunt said. “We want to find out how to take these efforts to a broader scale.”

Along with the projects listed by Mr. Hunt, other scattered efforts to promote international studies are being tried around the country, according to Michael Levine, the executive director of education for the Asia Society, the New York City-based education and cultural organization that helped organize the event.

“They’re notable early wins, but there’s a great distance to go,” Mr. Levine said.

Impetus for Learning

The institute was first convened in 2002, when members of several nonprofit groups and government-leadership organizations attempted to assess the status of international education around the country. Today, the institute has support from numerous research and policy organizations, including the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Education Commission of the States, and the National Governors Association.

By most accounts, the overall demand for improved international education is rising, according to those gathered at the conference, who included state and local superintendents, curriculum experts, and federal officials. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and the U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped convince Washington officials of the need to increase American students’ understanding of foreign cultures. Those events have highlighted as well a need to foster young people’s fluency in languages rarely taught in schools, such as Arabic, Hindi, and Farsi.

Improving students’ understanding of other countries is a matter of economic and national security alike because of increased competition abroad for jobs and industry, several state officials said.

Idaho schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard noted her state’s boom in international trade in recent years. Andrew Tompkins, the education commissioner in Kansas, said that even in his largely rural state, world markets have the power to affect vital areas of business, such as livestock sales. Too many students know little about the forces at work on the economic health of their communities, those officials said.

“We haven’t figured out what foreign countries need that we can manufacture for them,” said Jane Oates, a senior education adviser to U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. “It’s lack of understanding of the marketplace.”

In Need of a Champion

But state and local officials here also spoke of common barriers in trying to secure a place for international education in their schools—either as individual courses or sub-topics within various classes. State and district leaders, they pointed out, face what they view as more urgent concerns, namely the pressure to devote time and money to helping students achieve proficiency in core subjects such as mathematics and reading to satisfy the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“It’s been very hard for them to think outside the clear boxes in front of them and think about international education,” said Julie Bell, the education program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a research and policy organization in Denver.

Partly because of those demands, supporters of international education need to build alliances with state legislators and federal officials who could give international education the political and financial backing it needs, Mr. Hunt and other conference-goers said.

“You will go nowhere without a champion,” said Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the schools chiefs’ council, which is based here. “Somebody has to be really passionately behind this. . . . Without that champion, it [is] very hard to get the enthusiasm and momentum that it takes.”

A major goal among the backers of international education is the incorporation of such education into state academic standards and school curricula. Some states have already moved in that direction. Delaware is considering including the understanding of foreign cultures as an overall principle across all content areas as it revises its curriculum.

But while many states have included the general objective of improving understanding of foreign nations and cultures in their standards, Mr. Levine of the Asia Society said the goal was to make those standards more precise so they address specific knowledge and skills on which students might be tested.

“A lot of those standards are so broad,” he said, “you could drive a truck through them.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as International Education Inching Forward in U.S. Classrooms


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