Bringing the world to American classrooms


  • Education
  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2003

By JOHAN FERNANDEZ

AMERICANS’ dismal knowledge of the world is well-known and often laughed at. Despite the United States’ attack on Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban and battle Al-Qaeda, 83% of young Americans could not find that country on a world atlas. Even now, when the US is preparing to invade Iraq, most Americans don’t know where the country is. 

But, when it comes to identifying the locations of popular TV shows, like Survivor, they have no problem. 

The Americans’ knowledge of the world, or rather the lack of it, is well documented and is surprising, given that the US is considered the “melting pot” of the world’s peoples. Talk show hosts make fun of it, but if you’re a foreigner in the United States their ignorance just shocks you.  

Much of this can be traced to the education system which even today remains very inward-looking, focusing on developments within the nation and perhaps something of Europe and very little else of the outside world. 

Sept 11, 2001 is changing all that and serious attempts are being made to educate its young, to let them know there is a world outside the United States and that it is time they learned more about it. 

LOOKING OUTWARDS: Efforts are underway to teach American schoolchildren about Asia and other parts of the world.

The Asia Society spearheaded a move that year that led the National Commission on Asia in the Schools to present a report, entitled Asia in the Schools: Preparing Young Americans for Today’s Interconnected World. It presented the most thorough analysis ever of the status of teaching and learning about Asia in school. 

The most significant finding was the huge gap between the strategic importance of Asia – the largest, most populous and fastest-growing area of the world and the United States’ biggest trading partner – and Americans’ lack of knowledge about the region. 

Four-point plan 

Last November, the States Institute on International Education in the Schools held a conference in Washington DC to further discuss the topic, but instead of just Asia it included the rest of the world. 

Speaking at the conference, US Secretary of Education Rod Paige said the US could no longer afford to focus only on domestic issues. 

“Our view must turn more outward toward the world, nurturing relationships with other countries and improving international studies in our schools,” he said. 

To underscore his statement, Paige announced a four-point plan, which among other things directed the Department of Education to: 

·BROADEN its focus and become more engaged in building international relationships through education; 

·EXPAND efforts to learn from other countries techniques and practices that would help improve its system of education; 

·PROVIDE leadership on education issues in appropriate international forums and settings, and work with other countries on initiatives of common benefit; and 

·DO a better job of exposing students to other languages, cultures and challenges outside the borders of the United States. 

While Paige’s directives were very general in nature, they did set the tone of the direction educators should take. 

Under the US Constitution, states are responsible for education. They provide half the funding, determine what should be in the school curriculum and what should be in teacher education.  

So for any plan to be successfully implemented, the political will of the state administration is vital. 

Governors' great interest 

Asia Society’s vice-president for Education Vivien Stewart, who played a major role in preparing the report, said she saw great interest among governors who were trying to find out how their states should function in an interconnected world. 

“They understood that in the world of the future, students, workers and citizens need more international knowledge, but at the same time they knew there was nothing there to crystallise their interest or ways of sharing information in what they were doing.” 

Last August, she said, the commission sent letters to governors of every state inviting them to send two senior representatives to a meeting during International Education Week in Washington in November, something that was started during the Clinton administration. 

ER, WHERE? Despite the United States' attack on Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban and Battle Al-Qaeda, 83% of young Americans could not find that country on an atlas.

“We wanted them to send senior-level people from the political side, like the governor’s office or legislature, and somebody from the department of education, or state board of education. 

“We were expecting 10 states but we had 30 applying to come. We eventually invited 22 because that was how much we could handle. This showed the level of interest in the subject of Americans learning about the world.” 

Dealing with challenges 

A whole range of discussions took place on why this was important in an already overcrowded curriculum, where schools were not successful in teaching Mathematics and Science to everybody. 

They talked about globalisation of the economy; immigration of people; Americans and people in other parts of the world in the cultural context; and the national security rationale, mostly. 

Workshops and discussion groups, involving national experts, talked about how to integrate the international context across the entire curriculum, how to incorporate learning other cultures in teacher education, the use of technology to create linkages between schools in the US and other parts of the world, and how to expand world languages programmes which was a big, complicated and expensive issue. 

Said Stewart: “It is for most schools a relatively new area. Schools have lots of demands on them already to do a better job of teaching Math and Science. They don’t have prepared teachers and there is the funding problem. 

“We talked of all the challenges and how we could draw from other funding streams to begin a module programme and how to link the business, education and political leadership to make this a priority.” 

Learning about Asia 

Stewart said the commission suggested that states do a version of what Michigan had done. 

Michigan was the first state in the US to prepare an elaborate report detailing the need for the teaching of Asia in schools and how to go about it. 

Governor John Engler, who established the Michigan Commission on Asia in the Schools on March 14 last year, gave the commission 120 days to assess teaching and learning about Asia in Michigan schools, identifying exemplary programmes and resources and providing recommendations to stimulate more Asian studies in schools in the state. 

The commission first met on June 17 last year and was established within the Department of History, Arts and Libraries. 

It prepared a report that among other things confirmed that little was taught in Michigan schools about Asia. 

SHALLOW KNOWLEDGE: Even as the US gears up for war with Iraq, most Americans are ignorant of world affairs.

Michigan’s interest in Asia is understandable as the state does US$4bil (RM15.2 bil) worth of business with the region.  

The chair of the commission, Tina S. Van Dam, said the report recognised the imperative – rigorous standards on what students should know about Asia-related subjects. 

“Michigan teachers told us that quality tools should be made available to help them infuse more Asian-related instruction into their classrooms. 

“There is work to be done now in international studies to help address the many competitive challenges facing our state and nation,” she said. 

The Michigan report 

The report outlined steps for state and local educational policymakers, educators and community leaders to encourage more teaching and learning about Asia by: 

·Expanding educational quality; 

·Enhancing teachers’ preparation, professional development, and resources; and  

·Enlisting state leadership and community support. 

Stewart said states were told to look at the Michigan report but not just confine their reports to Asia. 

“We wanted them to look at the world economically, culturally, demographically and see what students currently learn about these areas, what they should learn, given the changes, and what resources exist in the states in higher education, business and cultural institutions that they can draw from.”  

She said Alabama appointed a business education commission to examine what existed in the state and make recommendations to the state education board. 

Delaware launched an information campaign to convey a sense of urgency, as well as put up a website looking at teacher curriculum. 

Illinois has something called the international high school initiative in which it gives funds to high schools to develop international aspects of their programmes. 

“But all of them were fairly similar, like bringing together leadership, looking at what exists and trying to build a persuasive case that this should be a priority in schools.” 

New national policy 

Stewart said she had been invited by the Department of Education to brief senior officials on this. She would also talk on planning, teacher education and how to link existing resources in institutions of learning that have international studies that aren’t necessarily connected to schools, and how to create partnerships between these institutes and schools to ensure teachers get access to this information. 

She said they want to create networks among the states so they can communicate with each other what they are doing, and to encourage them to continue what they are doing. 

Stewart added that she is currently fine-tuning a draft policy based on inputs from the conference, as well as follow-up action plans by the states. 

A lot of work remains but this draft could set a nationwide policy for bringing the world to American classrooms. 


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