International Studies a Hard Sell in U.S.

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 19, 2005 8 min read
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North Carolina boasts a growing network of global-studies magnet schools, a prominent university center that sponsors training on international issues and study trips abroad for thousands of teachers, an innovative recruitment program to attract teachers from around the globe, and a popular former governor who has championed the cause of bringing a world focus to the school curriculum.

Despite those resources, and a chorus of business leaders, educators, and policymakers urging a stronger focus on global knowledge and skills, the theme is still a hard sell in the Tar Heel State.

“Whenever we say anything about going global or teaching international understanding, there’s a potential for a backlash,” said Millie Ravenel, the executive director of the Center for International Understanding at the University of North Carolina, who chairs a task force on international education. “So we’ve been trying to build awareness quietly.”

Even with a wave of agreement about the importance of such subject matter, experts say the movement to infuse international education into the curriculum is hitting resistance at the state, district, and school levels.

Wary of touching a nerve in a state still smarting from the transfer of thousands of its jobs overseas, or of being rebuffed by teachers struggling to cover required—and tested— content, a task force on international education took a decidedly subtle tack in releasing its recommendations last week for preparing North Carolina’s 1.3 million students “to be citizens, workers, and leaders in the global age of the 21st century.”

The task force, a group of 100 prominent educators, business leaders, and lawmakers, unveiled its action plan to an audience of some 150 on April 11, hoping to minimize criticism. What’s more, it chose to build a narrow case for internationalizing the curriculum, centered around workforce development in a global economy and serving the needs of the 1,100 international firms operating in the state.

Keeping a Low Profile

Proponents of international studies elsewhere in the United States have also broached the subject delicately, choosing to build grassroots support before pushing state-level initiatives. As in North Carolina, activists in other states have taken care to frame their arguments in ways that will attract the most support. Beyond the expanded economy, advocates argue that building students’ world knowledge would enrich the curriculum, engage students, improve school performance, and help children deal with the increasingly diverse communities in which they live.

Students’ “success requires an understanding of how culture, religion, politics, and history influence the world’s social and economic well-being,” the task force’s report, “North Carolina in the World: Increasing Student Knowledge and Skills About the World,” says. “Improving international education is about providing students the best opportunity for success in the emerging workforce.”

In Kansas, where the teaching of evolution and a growing immigrant population have dominated education policy debates, a group of scholars has taken a similar low profile in promoting international studies as a way to help students understand how their community and state interact with the world.

That effort seems to have community support. In a survey of more than 3,000 Kansas residents, nearly all said they backed the infusion of international topics into the curriculum.

“Kansas is not considered the most cosmopolitan state,” said Bill Tsutsui, a University of Kansas professor and a founder of the Kansas Committee for International Education in the Schools. “But there’s a sense of belief that if kids know more about international topics, it’s for the good of the community, the good of the students, and the good of the state.

In Delaware, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, educators have also tried to make the case that students in all areas of the country, from urban to remote, are connected to the world in various ways—through the news media, the products they use, or their contact with immigrants—and need to be able to navigate global issues they encounter. Nearly 20 states have joined a national initiative sponsored by the Asia Society to lobby for state policies that encourage the broader curriculum.

Colorado last week passed a bill directing the state board of education to appoint an advisory council on international education to give the subject a boost in public schools.

Proponents of international studies had taken the proposal to the legislature when they could not drum up support in the governor’s office or education commissioner’s office, said Mark Montgomery, an associate dean at the University of Denver’s Center for Teaching International Relations. “It’s a small step, but it’s a very important one,” he said.

Grassroots Support

Despite those attempts, and other signs that awareness of the need for international studies in schools is growing, progress has been slow, experts say.

“It’s certainly a rising issue in terms of how the business world thinks about this, in the debate in Washington over the state of our intelligence and our defense policy, … around humanitarian issues, and in how [the international community] contributes to our sustenance and growth,” said Michael Levine, the executive director of the National Campaign for International Education in the Schools at the Asia Society. The New York City-based organization has provided instructional materials and training to help schools incorporate more content on Asia into school lessons.

To better prepare students for success in the global world, Mr. Levine said, “there’s a powerful movement at the grassroots level, but it’s not yet incorporated into public policy to the extent that it might be.”

Some states, for example, have ordered studies of the issue and little else, Mr. Levine said. While the appointment of study groups led to a flurry of activity in Michigan, New Jersey, and West Virginia within the past several years, the momentum slowed when the governors who had propelled the initiatives left office.

“There’s been a mixed track record,” Mr. Levine said.

The Asia Society has led the campaign along with the Silver Spring, Md.-based Longview Foundation, the Denver-based International Studies Schools Association, and other organizations. They have sponsored conferences for state policymakers, education officials, and teachers, and given grants for model programs that go beyond the superficial lessons on flags, festivals, and fashions of the world that dominate international coverage in most schools.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, of Seattle, has more recently joined the cause by targeting $7.5 million to set up international studies high schools in urban districts.

Such privately financed programs have provided a needed boost for small, locally generated efforts. But some observers say more policy-centered initiatives will be required to address a growing urgency about helping schools adapt more quickly to changing educational needs.

Americans’ lack of world knowledge is nothing short of a “crisis,” according to Barbara Chow, the vice president of the National Geographic Society’s Education Foundation. The Washington-based foundation has been trying to persuade policymakers to address the need for geography education.

“Without a solid knowledge of the world, how can young people hope to compete in the increasingly interconnected global economy, navigate complex issues, wisely share the world’s resources, and connect with and appreciate their peers around the world?” Ms. Chow said in an e-mail message.

Curriculum Pressures

Statistics on what students and adults know, or don’t know, about the world are generally alarming, Ms. Chow said. A Roper poll the foundation sponsored in 2002, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for example, found most Americans ages 18 to 24 lacking in their knowledge of vital facts about the world.

In the nationally representative survey of young adults in nine countries, respondents from the United States ranked second to last—ahead of Mexico—in the number of correct answers given to 56 questions. Americans on average answered 23 of the questions, or 41 percent, correctly.

More than 80 percent of the American respondents, for example, could not locate Afghanistan or Iraq on a map of the Middle East and Asia. A third of those young adults, however, knew where the Marquesas Islands are. The South Pacific location hosted that season’s “Survivor” reality-television show.

Some of the consequences of such ignorance have been costly. A time-zone map featured in Microsoft’s Windows95 software program, for example, excluded Kashmir, the disputed region in India, according to Ms. Chow. Government officials there subsequently banned the sale of the product in India until an updated version was released several years later.

Expanding the curriculum to tackle such deficiencies is no easy task, many educators say.

With pressure on the school day mounting because of the increased attention to reading and mathematics instruction—in part as a result of state testing demands and the accountability measures under the federal No Child Left Behind Act—officials are reluctant to mandate any additional academic content.

Moreover, many teachers say they have simply run out of time to attend to all the material inherent in a well-rounded academic program. Those concerns have prompted advocates of global studies to take an integrated approach in crafting their recommendations.

The North Carolina advisory board has called for “infusing international content into existing programs, rather than introducing a new subject to compete with existing priorities.” Efforts in other states have also called for substantive changes throughout the curriculum.

North Carolina’s panel has included teacher training as one of its 13 goals, in addition to expanding foreign-language study, establishing partnerships between schools and universities, and helping schools make connections—via technology and exchange programs—with students around the world.

“An awful lot of this can be done if we’re creative within the current time frame,” said former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, who has promoted an international emphasis in his state and nationally.

“Other countries have learned to deal with [a range of international content], and they’re doing it very effectively. We need to figure out a way to do it also.”


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