A World Class Education System: What's Missing in this Picture?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the release of $4.35 billion in new grant opportunities for states and school districts across the country as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama Administration's $100 billion bet that American education can be fundamentally transformed to prepare students for the rigors of a global economy.

In his call for a world-class educational system, President Obama said, "In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there's an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know -- education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it's a prerequisite for success." Stimulated by the unprecedented investment of federal funds, states and school districts are hard at work right now crafting strategies to address the administration's goals for creating higher standards that are assessed in more creative ways, preparing more effective teachers, and providing effective intervention in failing schools. The administration rightly calls for students' progress in U.S. schools to be bench marked against students' achievement internationally.

These are all important strategies, yet what is missing in this view of world class education is a call for schools to produce students who actually know something about the world -- its cultures, languages and how its economic, environmental and social systems work. Higher standards and better outcomes in reading, mathematics and science are essential to our nation's future. But these alone will not make us more globally competitive if our students cannot also communicate with producers, buyers and sellers in a world marketplace, or collaborate with people from cultures very different than their own to solve the world's economic, social and environmental problems. At this defining moment in American education, we sell ourselves short if we don't strive for schools that graduate students college ready and globally competent -- students who are fully prepared for work and citizenship in the 21st-century global era.

World-class standards for the quality of student work are essential. The standards our schools need must define what students need to know and be able to do to succeed in college or other post secondary education, as well as the deep content knowledge, thinking skills and behavioral savvy they need to succeed in intercultural environments in Queensland, Australia or Queens, New York.

In chemistry courses for example, they need to know how to conduct a rigorous scientific experiment to determine the caloric value of various foods, but their knowledge is incomplete if they cannot also apply their findings to understand patterns of world hunger and propose potential remedies. The bar in American history should require students to know the critical issues and seminal events of the civil rights movement and to deepen their understanding by comparing it to the struggle for freedom and equality in India, South Africa and elsewhere in the world. We need standards, too, that require students to skillfully use digital media to gather and evaluate information from international sources, including through exchange with experts and peers from throughout the world who are accessible today through the click of a mouse.

To promote college ready, globally competent high school graduates, we must increase existing and prospective elementary and secondary teachers' capacity to teach the international dimensions of their subjects. Institutions of higher education must transform or develop new teacher development programs that instill deep global knowledge and skills in teachers' practice, including through pre-service education and teaching abroad. School leaders must also acquire the knowledge and skills needed to create globally competitive schools through continued professional development as well as through international exchange programs that allow them to learn from other leaders around the world.

The results we need from a world class education system must simultaneously address the persistent problems of underachievement and high drop out rates, especially among low income and minority youth, while developing the global competencies required for global competitiveness. There are schools that are succeeding on both these fronts. The hallmark of schools in the International Studies Schools Network, a group of 12 secondary schools in primarily urban undeserved communities across the country, is the integration of international knowledge and skills within a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. When compared to schools with demographically similar populations in the same school district, schools in the network scored higher on 2008 state achievement tests over 85 percent of the time, and high school graduation rates are significantly higher. These schools provide evidence that putting the world into world class education doesn't just make sense, it can make a difference in bridging the cap between low performing schools today and globally competitive schools in the future.