Email This Post Email This Post
Home » Blogs

Can you be globally competitive by closing your doors and raising test scores?

13 May 2011 65,512 8 Comments

Can you be globally competitive by closing your doors and raising test scores?

“Can America be globally competitive by closing its doors and raising test scores in math and reading?” asked an educator from the Netherlands at an international education conference recently. The question was directed at a speaker from the U.S. who had been telling the familiar story of how miserable American education is compared to other countries such as China, India, and Finland.

The question was meant to be rhetorical because the answer should obviously be “no,” at least to me and others who consider global competence a necessity for anyone who wishes to live successfully in the age of globalization for reasons that are well articulated in a recently published book by the Asia Society and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).The Dutch educator, like many globally-minded educators, was perhaps dismayed by the virtually exclusive focus on testing scores in a few subjects in the dominant discourse of current education reform efforts in the United States.

American education does not have much in terms of opportunities for students to develop global competence to begin with. Only 18.5% of all K-12 public school students were enrolled in foreign language courses in the 2007-08 school year, according to a recent survey. For over a decade, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has forced many schools to focus on the tested subjects—reading and math and leave out others such as foreign languages, social studies, arts and music. A study by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) found “[T]he percentage of elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased significantly from 1997 to 2008: from 31% to 25% of all elementary schools and from 75% to 58% of all middle schools.” More recently, tightening budgets have begun to further force schools to cut foreign languages and other non-core subjects.

Federal support for foreign languages and international studies are next to nothing, especially compared to funding for reading and STEM. The occasional mentioning of foreign languages by top education leaders in the U.S. is no more than lip service, rarely translated into action in terms of funding or policy. For example, on March 28, 2011, President Obama said to an audience of students at a Washington, DC school:

I also want to make a confession, and that is that although I took Spanish in high school, I’m receiving translation through this earpiece. But for all the young people here, I want you guys to be studying hard because it is critical for all American students to have language skills. And I want everybody here to be working hard to make sure that you don’t just speak one language, you speak a bunch of languages. That’s a priority.

But he was at Bell Multicultural High School, which requires every student to take either Spanish or French, and he was attending a town hall meeting moderated by Jorge Ramos, a news anchor of Univision, a Spanish-language TV network. So his comments about foreign languages were simply a nice thing to do, a smart way to connect with the audience. Two weeks later, the federal budget sent to Congress reduced funding for foreign language and international studies programs of the US Department of Education by 40%. The allocation was very small to begin with, just slightly over $120 million. With $50 million taken out, $76 million is left for FY2011. By the way, the total federal budget for FY2011 is $3.82 trillion.The proposed blueprint for the reauthorization of NCLB (or ESEA) mentions foreign languages in passing but its strong emphasis on the Common Core standards (math and English) will likely have the same narrowing effect as its predecessor NCLB on school curriculum.

While the lack of federal support for foreign languages and international studies is disheartening, what is really troubling is that federal policies (NCLB and the proposed ESEA in its current form) actively incentivizes schools not to offer foreign language programs or engage in international studies by holding them accountable for raising test scores in math and English (through punishing the poor performers with NCLB or rewards for the high achievers with the proposed ESEA). As a result, even schools that wish to provide their students a globally-oriented education struggle to do so in order to concentrate all their resources on raising student test scores. For example, the CAL study reveals that private schools in the U.S., which are not subject to NCLB, have maintained their offering of foreign languages while public elementary schools saw a decline.

While the Obama administration’s proposed reform efforts continue the obsession with test scores and the folly of trying to be globally competitive without being globally competent, students in other countries are hard at work to ensure that they become globally competent. America is “woefully behind almost all other countries of the world, particularly industrialized countries” in terms of foreign language studies, as Marty Abbott, the education director at ACTFL, told Education Week’s Erik Robelen. I have been aware of and worried about this well-known fact, but what I saw and heard over the last few weeks gave me more reason to worry.

In the last few weeks, I visited Brazil, New Zealand, China, and Korea. These visits, in different ways, gave me an opportunity to see the growing enthusiasm in expanding experiences to develop global competence in other countries.

Brazil and the Growing Interest in International Schools

I was invited to present a keynote address and a number of workshops on globalization and education by the Association of American Schools in South America (AASSA) at its conference in Campinas, Brazil in April. Held on the beautiful campus of American School in Campinas or Escola Americana de Campinas (EAC), the conference attracted over 800 educators from international schools in South America. Through conversations with school leaders and teachers from Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and a number of other countries, particularly with Paul Moore, executive director of AASSA and EAC Superintendent Stephen Herrera, I learned that international schools are booming all over South America.

Originally set up to serve the expatriate community, international schools (American School, British School, Australian School, etc.) have in recent years also become a place for the local population to receive a Western style education and develop fluency in English. International schools have been much sought after by local parents, who spend a fortune to send their children there. 73% of EAC’s students are Brazilian nationals, although the school has students from over 30 countries. There is a long waiting list for the school, I was told by the superintendent.

The growing trend in international schools is seen not only in Brazil or South America, but also else where such as Asia. The number of international schools was under 1,000 in 2007 and today the number is well above 3,000, according to ISC Research, a firm established in 2004 to track the development of international schools. ISC Research also shows that today nearly 6,000 international schools exist in over 200 countries with a total student population of 2.7 million. The reason behind this growth: “the consequence of a global phenomenon: the huge and rapidly rising demand for international education,” as a New York Times article points out.

New Zealand and Asia Literacy

I went straight to New Zealand after Brazil and spent five days there. My host, the Asia New Zealand Foundation (Asia:NZ), arranged an extremely productive program for me. I keynoted at a conference of the Secondary Principals Association of New Zealand, the annual conference of the New Zealand Principals Federation, and Educating for Asia Education Summit organized by Asia NZ. I also had the opportunity to host a round-table discussion with the international education staff at the Ministry of Education and presented to a group of school leaders invited by the Confucius Institute at Auckland University.

What impressed me most is the urgency expressed by New Zealand education leaders to ensure that future New Zealanders are “Asia literate.” “The vision is to educate and prepare young New Zealanders for New Zealand’s inevitable and increasing dependence on Asia,” says a press release by the Asia:NZ for a forum jointly sponsored by New Zealand Ministry of Education and Asia:NZ for school principals. Vanessa Lee, Asia:NZ education director and also my host, expresses the importance of “Asia Literacy” for New Zealand: “This will mean that students leave school equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to be global citizens, especially with our Asian neighbours.”

Asia:NZ is a non-partisan and non-profit organization established in 1994 with the mission to build New Zealanders’ knowledge and understanding of Asia. The organization leads many initiatives and programs to help schools provide learning experiences for students to develop “Asia literacy.” So far, it has achieved tremendous results in terms of the number of schools offering such experiences, including Asian languages. I had the opportunity to visit a primary school that teaches Chinese in Wellington. I was quite impressed with the program.

Furthermore, New Zealand has been the destination for many international students. With a population of about 4 million, New Zealand has about 90,000 international students from different countries. Contributing about NZ$2.3 billion to New Zealand’s economy, international students (or export of education) is the country’s fifth largest export earner.

New Zealand’s neighbor, Australia, has also been pursuing Asia Literacy rigorously. Australia’s Asia Education Foundation has been the leading agency for these efforts. By the way, international students make up Australia’s third largest export earner for 2007-2008, behind coal and iron ore.

These traditionally English-speaking nations, with its international student population and efforts to encourage native students to learn other languages and cultures, are growing tremendous assets in their ability to interact competently globally in business, education, politics, and other domains.

China and the Think Global School

After coming to back to the US for a week, I took a trip with my Dean at University of Oregon to China. We met with education officials in Beijing, Chongqing, and Shenyang to discuss collaborative efforts to prepare globally competent education leaders and teachers. There again is strong and urgent interest in having Chinese educators gain more global experiences. Every city has programs and funding to send their school leaders and teachers overseas to study for a period of time. Even some schools have set aside funding to organize study-abroad programs for their teachers.

On this trip I also had a series of encounters with international schools. First I attended the signing ceremony of a joint international school between Dongbei Yucai School Group and Oxford Community Schools—a public school district located in Michigan. This is among the first public schools in the US to have branch in China. Then I had the opportunity to interact with a group of students at Beijing BISS International School at the invitation Julie Lindsay of BISS and also a leader of the FlatClassroom project. A highlight of this trip is my interactions with students of one of the most innovative schools in the world: the Think Global School (TGS).

TGS is a mobile school. The school moves to a different country every trimester. Started in Stockholm, Sweden last year, the school has already been to Sydney, and just arrived in Beijing. Their future stops include Cuenca (Ecuador), Chiang Mai, Berlin, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Bangalore, Singapore, Vancouver, and Washington DC. The school is very new—its first cohort of 15 students are from 11 different countries representing all four hemispheres and all walks of life and its faculty and staff of eight are from seven different countries. Wherever the school goes, it tries to bring benefits to the local community and takes full advantage of the local setting to enrich its students’ educational experiences. Its mission:

TGS is an agile, mobile school with an expansive world view. It gives its students a profound understanding of the complexity of global issues and the ways they intersect with our everyday lives. TGS nurtures a strong sense of scholarship, leadership, global citizenship, social justice, a sense of wonder and a spirit of creativity and innovation.

I was asked to make a public presentation by TGS and its hosting schools in China and interact with its students after the presentation. The students have been reading my book Catching Up or Leading the Way. This is the first group of 15 year olds reading my book as far as I know. I must admit they indeed read it and thought about it. They asked very profound questions and carried on very engaging and meaningful discussions. It was like a discussion I would hold with graduate students. This is just the first year! These students are undoubtedly receiving the ideal education in my mind.

Korea and GELP

I was back to Seoul, Korea early May, after coming back from China, to participate in the Global Education Leaders Program (GELP). The program aims to work with education leaders in different countries to “develop in-depth, sustainable transformation practices beyond the simple exchange of ideas.” Participating jurisdictions include Australia, Victoria (Australia), Ontario (Canada), Chaoyang District (Beijing, China), England, Finland, South Korea, New Zealand, New York City (USA). While Education 3.0 is the starting point of the program, each jurisdiction identifies an area of transformation for their own system. China’s Chaoyang District located in Beijing chose globalization and internationalization of education as the area of transformation, aiming at further expanding its efforts to help students become globally competent.


After these visits, I became more concerned about the directions American education is moving towards for the following reasons:

  1. American education is becoming even more isolated while others are becoming more open and global.
  2. American style education is still liked by many except American policy makers, who are proposing policies and strategies to further weaken its traditional strengths without solving the problems.
  3. The current reform efforts to close the achievement gap by virtually exclusively focusing on test scores in a narrow set of subjects are depriving children, especially those in economically disadvantaged communities, of opportunities to develop the ability to live in the age of globalization. Children in affluent communities and families with the resources can and do have the opportunity to study foreign languages and take international trips, while those in rural areas and inner cities are stuck with test preparation. The CAL study found that: “Schools in rural areas and schools whose students were of lower socioeconomic status (SES) were less likely to offer foreign language classes. In addition, the percentage of private elementary schools offering foreign language instruction (51%) was more than three times that of public elementary schools (15%).”
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)


  • Dennis Shirley said:

    Thank you for this very exciting and provocative blog posting! There is a wonderful German word, “Weltoffenheit,” which means an attitude of “openness to the world.” You convey such a sense of enthusiasm for the dynamic new era we are entering into and present such a refreshing change of direction for American educational leaders. It sounds like reformers in New Zealand and Australia are grasping shifting global realities and are making the curricular changes to accommodate the role of emerging economies. I will be on a speaking tour with Australian Council for Educational Leaders and am looking forward to learning more about how they are adapting their educational system. Andy Hargreaves and I wrote a (perhaps optimistic) article in Educational Leadership a couple of years ago called “The Coming of Post-Standardization” and I do think we are entering this new age–right now we are in the final stages of top-down prescription and curriculum narrowing. We need to prepare for the next wave of change and your voice, and those of others on this blog, will surely help us to move in the right direction.

  • Pak Tee Ng said:

    Dear Yong Zhao,

    Thank you for your interesting and thought-provoking blog. Dennis Shirley referred me to your blog.

    I agree with your observations and the points you have made in the summary. There are some exciting things happening in the education systems in the Asia Pacific. But, as you have indicated in your paper (Increasing Math and Science Achievement: The Best and Worst of the East and West; Phi Delta Kappan, 2005), economies such as Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Singapore seem eager to abandon what the United States would love to have, which is a rigorous, coherent, systematic math and science curriculum instead of inquiry-based, constructivism-driven, child-centred, progressive math and science education, which the US now seem similarly eager to discard. These economies are looking for ways to address their own problems, such as their students’ lack of creativity, focus on memorization over application, a disconnection between school learning and real-life situations, and stressed students. So, essentially, what the East Asian reformers want for their future is America’s past and present. What the US wants now is the East Asian past and present.

    The Romance of the Three Kingdoms starts with “?????????” (loosely translated: after a period of differentiation, there will be integration. After a period of integration, there will be differentiation). If we simplify and over-simplify the discussion to a dichotomy between rigour and creativity (this dichotomy is probably not valid in the first place), after reaping the benefits at one end, systems are shifting because of the ill effects of not having the other end. Even if the pendulum could swing to the other end, it will swing back again for the same reason. A concern is that many systems are shifting not because of pull factors but because of push factors. Reforms are taking place because “the students are not achieving results” or “the students are not creative enough”. As you have rightly pointed out, current strengths are weakened without solving problems.

    A big question in many education reforms is whether there is a good balance point somewhere. I wrote this about the “teach less learn more” reform in the Singapore education system (Educational reform in Singapore: from quantity to quality; Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 2008): “On the one hand, the current content is crammed with facts, definitions, formulae and other ‘embellishments’. On the other hand, trimming content does not mean that textbooks, notes or other sources of information in the classroom should be just nothing more than skimpy outlines. On the one hand, the current system drills the student and ‘repetitive practice’ stifles creativity. On the other hand, learning also requires frequent practice—try getting a driving license and not driving for the next 10 years. So, drills are not necessarily bad things. So where-in lies the balance?”

    Perhaps a bigger question should be: can both rigour and creativity be pursued concurrently without a trade-off? Can one open one’s doors and raise test scores simultaneously? Can one support foreign language acquisition, while raising the standards of English, Math and Science all at the same time? Perhaps the idea of balance and trade-off is restricting the thinking in this matter. The more productive idea is synergy.

  • R.D. Nordgren said:

    Another excellent piece! I’ve been following your work for years. Pak brings up some interesting points. (Thank you, Dennis, for sending folks to Dr. Zhao’s blog. I’ve been sending my graduate students to the blog for the last year or so.) Maybe we should reconsider our obsession with rigor in education, instead of attempting to strike a balance with creativity. If rigor is what it is defined in the dictionary (synonyms: rigity, strictness, exactness), then I would think we wouldn’t want rigor as a focus of our schooling system–at least not in societies and economies that depend on knowledgework.. In military training, perhaps, but not in a system where we want to foster critical thinking and creativity. We’ve been hearing that “rigor = relevance and relationships.” I would suggest relevance (of curriculum) and relationships (knowing students’ needs) actually equals creativity and high-level cognitive growth…and high-level application of knowledge and skills…and the development of dispositions (soft skills?) that are crucial for societal and economic success. I’ve been conducting research with low-income minority high school students, measuring their levels of “non-cogntive” variables as pioneered by Bill Sedlacek at the University of Maryland. As Dr. Zhao has said in other publications, maybe we’re testing the wrong things…my initial findings do suggest that we are.

  • Carl N said:

    Very thought provoking article and comments. When considering educational policy I start with the question “does the policy help create a more passionate learner or less passionate learner?” Are students more passionate about becoming a life long learner if we focus on more testing and a more focused curriculum? Or would a broad curriculum that encouraged creativity more effectively light the fire of passionate learning? What I do know from my 30 years of business experience is that the people that I see are most happy and successful are the ones that never stopped learning; they are passionate, creative, innovative, excellent communicators and brimming with self confidence. You don’t learn to “think outside the box” by taking a test!

  • Reply to comment | 100wizard News Site said:

    […] But de-funding our public schools and narrowing education achievement to scores on standardized tests is taking us in a direction that will in fact leave our country out of the global economy. […]

  • Lee Anna Stirling said:

    Yong, You explain crucial points – for the U.S. to be globally competitive, our students need to develop global competence. Most obviously in developing global competence is study of international languages, cultures and events. As you mention arts and humanities have gotten short shrift in the last several years, in favor of tested subjects. To be globally competent, in addition to knowing more about various international cultures and languages, our students need to understand universal themes, which arts and humanities convey.

    Excellent point about the irony of international languages and humanities being most severely curtailed in schools with economically disadvantaged students – the very students who have less access to international travel, arts and other resources outside of school.

    Literacy and numeracy are essential for competence, globally or otherwise, yet literacy and numeracy instruction and humanities education do not have to be in competition with each other. There are teachers who teach reading, writing and math through their social studies, (and science) curricula. Literacy in English and math skills can also be incorporated into international language study. Arts of all forms can be infused into any curriculum – and also need special time and focus.

    Elementary teachers are more likely to use interdisciplinary approaches, than middle school and high school teachers. When middle school and high school teachers are given time and support for collaborations, more cross discipline curriculum is implemented. Some integrated curriculum and projects are offered, by some college instructors, as well. A combination of interdisciplinary learning, single subject learning, and availability of in-school tutoring is a way to provide education that forwards knowledge and skills for global competence.

    But global competence depends on attitudes as well as abilities. As your blog asserts and blogger Dennis Shirley quotes, “openness to the world” is basic to contributing and thriving in a global economy.

  • Amy Davala said:

    Dear Yong Zhao,

    Thank you for this very interesting post. It addressed an area that as an educator is often forgotten. We have been forced to focus so much on test score that i believe the bigger picture has been lost. I was shocked by the statistic that only 18.5% of k-12 students are introduced to foreign languages. Research has shown how students at the primary grade levels are sponges for foreign languages. It is a shame that we are not taking advantage of this in the “United States. To me foreign languages is the foundation of globalization. Instead of embracing this we are hindering our students. The other countries that you visited had a great sense of urgency for students to be literate in other languages. When will we find this urgency? Thank you for sharing the Concept of “global Schools.” This is an excellent idea that would benefit so many students. I work in an Urban school and although we might not be able to show them all of the world the thought of bringing parts of the world to them is very exciting.

  • Shayan said:

    i think you wouldnt even be locally competitive. there are so many things required to compete in global world… and one thing missing here is that knowing a number of different languages is a big edge for global competition

Feel free to comment:

The views expressed on this site are entirely my own. They do not represent my employer or any other organization/institution. All comments are subject to approval.

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.