As we in the United States work to revise No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we should remember to have our new educational framework reflect one of the Obama administration's key education goals: "to ensure that American children again lead the world in achievement, creativity and success." As it stands, NCLB does not encourage American youth to learn about or interact with the world they are supposed to lead. Unlike in most classrooms worldwide, the teaching of world languages, cross-cultural studies, and global current events in the typical American classroom is a low priority. This lack of interest has consequences for our country's future security and prosperity.
Today, only a very small percentage of young Americans are learning the 21st century skills needed to lead climate change negotiations, a pandemic rapid-response team, a joint mission to Mars, or a global financial restructuring. Our schools' lack of engagement also impedes our effort to repair our image abroad. Dozens of congressional reports and think-tank studies concur that we can help revitalize U.S. public diplomacy and improve our image around the world by increasing funding and participation in various types of international interaction among young people. Bipartisan political support, a national grassroots constituency, and evaluation data from the U.S. Departments of State and Education convincingly demonstrate the positive impact of online and physical international interaction. Clearly, there is a serious disconnect between our national educational priorities and how these priorities are conveyed to state and local educational agencies.
If our image, future security, and prosperity depend on the international savvy of the next generations of leaders, then the next national education plan needs to include clear and practical strategies and incentives for K–12 educators and youth to build collaborative partnerships with their peers worldwide. Since September 11, initial steps have been taken toward building programs, like the National Security Language Initiative, that support and expand language programs and exchange opportunities. Model programs exist, such as Chicago Public Schools' Literature and Writing Magnet Cluster, where students improve their writing and reading skills by sharing folk tales and other creative writings with students in Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, and other countries. But these innovative and effective programs engage only a very small percentage of total U.S. classrooms.
Toward this end, we must embark on a bold new public–private initiative to encourage and enable every
school in the United States to link with at least one school in another country over the next eight years. Millions of classrooms worldwide are ready for U.S. partners. With minimal short-term investment, U.S. students will reap significant and innumerable long-term benefits.
To accomplish this goal, the key investment should be not just in new classroom technologies but in creating and maintaining school cultures that value international interaction and collaboration. Administrators and educators must not feel that international education is extracurricular, irrelevant to state standards, or not valued by the school district. Professional development programs must be cost-effective, adapt to teachers' classroom materials, and engage global issues and interaction.
Linking with other schools using online tools must be done in a way that is not onerous, intimidating, or threatening to students' safety. A recent Macarthur Foundation study about digital media and learning,
Living and Learning with New Media, found that youth seek to interact with their peers abroad (via tools like Facebook) but are heading home to make these connections instead of doing so at school. Schools should have options to use high (digital video sharing), low (e-mail), or no technology (post office). We can leverage existing programs (Fulbright, Peace Corps), organizations (National Geographic, Teach for America), established networks (Sister Cities, Rotary), and corporate initiatives (Adobe, Intel). The tools exist; educators should take advantage of them.
The next generation of American leaders will not magically learn to work well with their peers in other countries. U.S. classrooms need to help youth build these skills to ensure future cooperation on critical security issues such as the environment, combating terrorism, public health, and economic and trade relationships. The research, tools, knowledge, partners, and enthusiasm from young people are all there. Now is the time for the new education administration to explicitly encourage and support schools to try a new approach to international education to help the next generations learn to be global leaders for the future security and prosperity of our nation.
Edwin H. Gragert is the executive director of the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN-USA).
Click on keywords to see similar products: