Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

"International Education" What's in a Name? International Education Signals Very Different Ideas to Different People. When It Comes to Your School, What Will You Have It Mean?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

"International Education" What's in a Name? International Education Signals Very Different Ideas to Different People. When It Comes to Your School, What Will You Have It Mean?

Article excerpt

Not far from my home is a public elementary school that closed for a thorough remodeling and then re-opened amid fanfare with "international" in its new name and dual language immersion as its focus.

Several years later, the middle school nearby added "international" to its name, too, with "global perspective" as its focus.

Across town, a blighted city high school was divided into small schools, and one of them became a "global studies academy." Two other city high schools have added the International Baccalaureate.

These are not unusual events. A new "international education" movement--actually a new wave of an old movement--is under way in schools across the country. This movement consists of newly internationalized public schools along with state coalitions for international education, an annual International Education Week co-sponsored by the U.S. Departments of State and Education, an array of language initiatives, the Goldman Sachs Foundation's awards for exemplary "international" schools, and more. Phrases like "the global economy," "our increasingly interconnected world," and "global citizens" are rolling off many tongues. Audiences hear these words and nod their heads knowingly. "International education" appears to be the new common sense.

But what does it mean? What forms is it taking, and what work is it doing? I have peered into the current wave from three angles: observing a handful of public schools that have transformed themselves into "international" schools, interviewing movement activists who are helping to shape them, and examining government and foundation initiatives.


National security is the justification for the new international education movement. To those who assumed that world mindedness, global citizenship, intercultural understanding, or something of that sort was defining and directing the movement, this may come as a surprise. Today's wave is dominated by nationalism.

International education as a national security initiative has two key dimensions: economic and military. The economic way to secure the nation is to improve the nation's economic competitiveness with other nations--maintaining it or regaining it if it already has been lost. The military way is to strengthen the nation's armed forces, including its intelligence communities.


U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings makes the economic argument for international education. "Through the No Child Left Behind Act, we are committed to having every child in the United States learn and succeed in our global economy." (1) She links school reform directly to success in today's world and defines that success in economic terms; school reform is a technology for accomplishing that goal.

The link is also expressed in a burgeoning number of state reports. For example, according to North Carolina in the World: Increasing Student Knowledge and Skills About the World, "Improving international education is about providing students the best opportunity for success in the emerging workforce." (2) Similarly, the Asia Society's annual conference "brings together high-level delegates from two dozen states ... to address a significant problem in American education: the wide gap between the growing economic and strategic importance of Asia and other world regions to the United States, and U.S. students' limited knowledge about the world outside our borders." (3)

In each of these, international education is intended to address the key problem posed by globalization: the defense of the nation's competitive edge in the new worldwide economy. (4) Schools are the solution. Only schools can produce the "enterprising individuals" who will be successful in this flat new world. (5) This is the calculus of neoliberalism (free-market fundamentalism), with its strategies of privatization, entrepreneurs, and free-trade agreements. …

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