Going Global: As the 21st-Century World Gets Flatter, Districts across the United States Are Building More Internationally Oriented Curricula and Programs

By Schachter, Ron | District Administration, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Going Global: As the 21st-Century World Gets Flatter, Districts across the United States Are Building More Internationally Oriented Curricula and Programs


Schachter, Ron, District Administration


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LAST YEAR, FIFTH-graders at the Herricks Union Free School District in New Hyde Park, N.Y., studied the U.S. presidential primaries while following elections in Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Kenya. At South Brunswick High School in Southport, N.C., history students discuss battles of the Civil War via live teleconferences with counterparts in Denmark. Meanwhile the Mathis (Texas) Independent School District, a rural district of nearly 1,800 students, just hired a Chinese language teacher for the first time.

These recent developments, just samples of the more expansive international programs at the respective schools offering them, belong to a movement in a growing number of districts--spurred by national, state and grassroots initiatives--to include the larger world in American education. And the times and constituencies they serve are demanding it, some educators say.

"Who knew that mortgage foreclosures in New Jersey were going to affect the economy in Australia? We've seen a much greater recognition of the fact that we need to be a more global society," says Anthony Jackson, vice president for education of the Asia Society, a New York-based organization that over the past decade has helped create the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN), which spans six states and encompasses more than a dozen secondary schools-within-schools and magnet schools charged with making K12 students college-ready and competent on the world stage.

Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of the Herricks Union Free School District, adds that parents won't settle for anything less. "We have an extraordinarily diverse student body," he explains, noting that 69 different languages are spoken in the homes of the 1,400 students in the district's high school. "We've got kids from Romania, Poland, Egypt and Kazakhstan, and their parents want their kids to be as aware of the world as they are, and more so, whether in understanding different cultures and histories or in learning to use knowledge in a global context."

In Lee's Summit (Mo.) R-7 School District, just outside of Kansas City, about as far as an American district can be from any foreign country, a homegrown 21st-century learning initiative which ranges from expanded foreign language offerings to an international studies academy--is just what the community wanted, says Superintendent David McGehee. "There's a large segment of our demographic who consider themselves global already. It's an expectation here," McGehee explains, recalling that when he toured the local chamber of commerce and Rotary and Optimist clubs with the district's new Chinese teachers, the response was, "Why didn't you do it sooner?"

An International Lens

The education leaders in such districts agree that there's no single roadmap to get there. In fact, many emerging international education programs are an amalgam of well-established approaches, such as teacher and student exchanges or language immersion programs, and a newer emphasis on seeing subject matter through an international lens and leveraging new technology to expand international contact.

There's also been a growing emphasis on China in response to its newfound economic prowess as well as the cultural opportunities it offers. "Asia has become more and more our economic competitor, but it's become a source of cooperation as well," says Jackson. "Our mantra has been that we need to be able to cooperate, communicate and compete."

Promoting the Chinese language in school more widely has become a major starting point, and the Asia Society and its ISSN have been in the vanguard. Last May, the organization, together with the College Board, hosted the second annual Chinese Language Conference in Chicago. "There are 300 million Chinese learning English, whereas we have hundreds of thousands of Americans learning Chinese, and those who do usually take two to three years at most," Jackson points out. …

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