International Education: From Community Innovation to National Policy

By Sanders, Ted; Stewart, Vivien | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2004 | Go to article overview

International Education: From Community Innovation to National Policy


Sanders, Ted, Stewart, Vivien, Phi Delta Kappan


U.S. schools today must adapt to life in the global age. Ted Sanders and Vivien Stewart offer an overview of actions that some schools and states have already taken, along with their suggestions for federal action.

AS the article in this special section by former governors James Hunt, Jr., and John Engler suggests, there is an inverse relationship between the rapidly increasing importance of other world regions and cultures to the economic prosperity and national security of the United States and how much most high school graduates know about the 90% of the world outside our borders. We are at the brink of a new epoch: just as schools had to adapt from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age, so too do schools now need to adapt to what future generations will no doubt refer to as the "Global Age." In this article, we provide an overview of approaches to international education that some schools and states are taking and explore what state and national policies are needed to build capacity.

The International Knowledge Gap

Recent surveys suggest the extent of the knowledge gap in the U.S. regarding international issues. In June 2001, the National Commission on Asia in the Schools issued its report, which concluded that "young Americans are dangerously uninformed about international matters, especially Asia, home to more than 60% of the world's population." Research conducted for the report found that:

* Levels of student knowledge of the rest of the world are less than rudimentary. For example, 25% of college-bound high school students did not know the name of the ocean that separates the United States from Asia. Eighty percent did not know that India is the world's largest democracy.

* Most teachers are not being prepared to help students close the international knowledge gap. For example, of the top 50 U.S. colleges and universities that train teachers, only a handful require any coursework in non-Western history for their students preparing to teach history.

* Language instruction does not reflect today's realities. For example, while one million students in U.S. schools study French, a language spoken by 80 million people worldwide, fewer than 40,000 students study Chinese, a language spoken by almost 1.3 billion people.1

One year later, in 2002, a National Geographic/

Roper survey of young adults in nine countries found that U.S. students lagged behind their peers in other countries in their knowledge of geography and current affairs. The great majority -- 83% -- could not find Afghanistan or Israel on a world map but knew that the island featured in last season's TV show "Survivor" was in the South Pacific.2 These statistics, obviously simple indicators, show that we have a great deal of work to do. How are we to address our need for international knowledge and skills?

Addressing the Need for Global Knowledge

There has been some progress in recent years toward increasing international content in our schools. Many states are beginning to include knowledge of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and global issues in their social studies standards. Geography and economics have been incorporated into the standards of some states. Guidelines on how to teach about religion in constitutionally permissible ways have made it easier for schools to include world religions in their curricula. The new Advanced Placement course in world history is popular, and the decision by the College Board to add the first new AP language courses in 40 years -- in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Italian -- will give an important boost to our need for capacity in world languages.3 But as a nation, we have not yet made developing international knowledge and skills a significant policy priority, nor have we built the capacity needed to get high-quality international teaching and learning into our nation's classrooms. …

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