Curriculum

States Making Gains in International Studies

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — December 13, 2005 3 min read
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With its relatively homogeneous population and conservative ideals, Olathe, Kan., is not the most likely place to embrace global studies as a critical part of the school curriculum. But the 25,000-student district southwest of Kansas City has been working to infuse international content throughout the curriculum, according to Jan Heinen, the director of middle-level education.

And a program that offers a special endorsement on diplomas in international education for graduates who take more classes in the subject has been so popular, she said, it’s been expanded to each of the district’s four high schools.

In fact, Kansas is one of a growing number of states that have embraced international studies over the past several years. With increasing attention to the global economy and interest in helping students compete internationally, a noticeable growth in education initiatives and policies to address the need has occurred, according to a report by the Asia Society and the Goldman Sachs Foundation, released here last week, in conjunction with the States Institute on International Education in the Schools. The growth, though, has been sporadic and piecemeal in many places.

The report, “States Prepare for the Global Age,” is posted by InternationalEd.org.

“What we really need is a critical mass of states doing it right and having it as a priority that students understand international issues,” said Edward B. Fiske, the author of “States Prepare for the Global Age,” the groups’ report.

“Whether we’ve reached that ‘Ah ha!’ point, probably not.”

Seventeen states are featured in the report, all of which have taken action over the past two or more years toward building interest in and initiatives for expanding the curriculum to include content about other countries and cultures. Eleven of the states, for example, have audited school curricula to gauge international content, six have issued task force reports, and 10 have introduced state legislation on the issue. (“International Studies a Hard Sell in U.S.,” April 20, 2005.)

Among the strategies used by states and districts are international-theme magnet schools, language-immersion programs, study exchanges, and travel and professional development for teachers.

Delaware, a state winner along with Kentucky of this year’s Goldman Sachs Foundation prize for excellence in international education, is organizing a statewide conference on the topic for next spring. Delaware school leaders are also incorporating such content into state standards. And a Wisconsin committee on the subject has issued 16 recommendations that are beginning to be put in place, including global curricula and increased language offerings.

‘Modernizing Education’

Expanding such initiatives, however, has proved challenging or met with resistance in schools and districts struggling to meet growing curricular and testing demands, said Michael Levine, the director of international education for the Asia Society, a New York City-based organization that advocates a deeper understanding of Asia and the world. A more aggressive agenda is needed to convince leaders, he said.

“The big issue is not only how to scale up [interest in and commitment to international studies], but how to take it to a whole other level,” Mr. Levine said. “This is a potentially transformative agenda. It’s about modernizing education in the United States.”

Policymakers and business leaders are already focusing on the need for preparing students for the global economy and society. The New York City-based Goldman Sachs Foundation, for example, issued its own report last week, “Educating Leaders for the Global Society,” on the business community’s interest in promoting international education in American schools.

Three other events took place in Washington last week addressing similar topics. (“Business and Academe Call for Encouraging Math, Science Interest,” this issue)

But the current wave of school improvement efforts has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, many of the presenters at the states-institute gathering said. As a result of state testing programs and the accountability measures under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, many presenters said, schools are reluctant to add curricular content beyond reading, mathematics, and science.

“In some important respects, NCLB works against international education because there’s been a narrowing of the curriculum,” said Mr. Fiske, a former education editor for The New York Times. “But international education has got to permeate the curriculum, and not as an add-on. It is not a luxury.”

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