Can you be globally competitive by closing your doors and raising test scores?
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:
- American education is becoming even more isolated while others are becoming more open and global.
- 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.
- 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%).”