Exposing U.S. students to the larger world around them and ensuring that they not only speak other languages, but also understand and appreciate other cultures, is essential to the nation’s success in an increasingly global economy, said members of the National Governors Association’s (NGA’s) Education, Early Childhood, and Workforce Committee during the NGA’s Winter Meeting 2006 this week in Washington, D.C.

“In our global economy, American students, workers, and businesses face new and fierce competition from around the world,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, chair of the committee, prior to the meeting. “I’m looking forward to having a conversation with my fellow governors about actions we can take to ensure our students are ready for the challenges of the future.”

Foreign-language skills in the U.S. are not where they should be, Pawlenty said, and the cultural awareness of U.S. students and citizens also should be increased.

“We live in a changing world, with changing technology, changing culture, and changing economies,” Pawlenty said. As a result, U.S. citizens need “to better understand language, culture, and foster relationships; and of course a big part of that is having an educational system that is aware of those trends. … We need to prepare our educational curriculum [accordingly].”

“I have traveled around the world and witnessed firsthand our competition, and it is very clear that we need to maintain high standards. We let our students down if we fail to prepare them to succeed in this global economy,” said Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, vice chair of the committee.

“Our future lies in our ability to compete, and that lies in our ability to have the best-trained workforce,” Gregoire said during the Feb. 27 meeting, held in the JW Marriott just steps from the White House.

Motivating students to take foreign-language classes and teaching them about other cultures can go a long way in fostering an interest in international issues, speakers at the meeting suggested.

“Unfortunately, today there is a huge gap between the increasing importance of global issues and our students’ basic knowledge of [these] issues,” said Vivien Stewart, vice president for education at the Asia Society. “Our language instruction doesn’t reflect today’s reality.”

Education officials need to find ways to attract all students to international education, not just the high-level students, Stewart said. The issue is not only about attracting students, but also about making the topic attractive to the teachers, she added.

Redesigning high schools to be relevant to today’s world is one step to giving students an international education, said Stewart.

She noted that 2,400 schools said they want to offer an Advanced Placement (AP) test in Mandarin Chinese when it is released next year, according to a recent survey–yet only 200 schools currently offer Chinese-language programs, she said.

“Technology is a huge asset in these areas,” she said, and governors could help their states “offer international courses through virtual high schools, or link to schools in other parts of the world.”

Many states have taken an interest in increasing students’ access to international education, and some have even created task forces and issued reports on the topic, Stewart said. “Many schools are beginning, on their own, to integrate international knowledge into the school day in exciting ways,” she added.

Stewart said schools like this must be the norm, rather than the exception, and she suggested convening a group of business, political, and educational leaders in each state to raise awareness of the issue. Incorporating international education into other school programs and reforms, such as adding a global literacy requirement, would help, as would identifying opportunities for learning world languages in the state, she said.

By exposing U.S. students to world cultures early on, students can more easily become culturally aware and will be able to fit more easily into a professional world that is quickly becoming internationally driven, said Stewart.

“The world today is radically different than 20 years ago,” she said. In a globalized economy, the international competitiveness of the United States will depend on how competent its citizens are in working in a global environment, she said, defining “international education” as the knowledge of other world regions, cultures, and global issues, being skilled in communicating in other languages, and working in a cross-cultural environment.

“How can governments help teachers to modernize their skills?” she asked. “We know teachers can’t teach what they themselves don’t know.”

An internationally competent workforce is essential, and people need to use modern technologies and work in a cross-cultural world, echoed Stephanie Bell-Rose, managing director of Goldman Sachs and Co. and founding president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation. Businesses should establish a demand for international education, she added.

“We believe that, in order for our students to be successful, and … for them to have great leadership, we need to focus on international education,” said Bell-Rose.

“Today’s students will be working in a global marketplace [and] living in a global society,” she said, adding that success for these students will be measured by their ability to comprehend how the U.S. interacts with other countries and cultures.

President Bush recently announced a national initiative, the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI), to help U.S. students master critically needed foreign language skills to help the nation remain competitive. NSLI is a partnership between ED, the U.S. Department of State, and the Department of Defense.

The initiative aims to expand the number of U.S. citizens beginning and mastering critical-needs languages at a younger age, increase the number of advanced-level foreign language speakers, and expand the number of critical-needs foreign language teachers.

NSLI, however, was not the focus of remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who also spoke during the meeting. Instead, Spellings addressed the department’s new emphasis on math and science education as a way to boost the international competitiveness of the nation’s students.

“[We’re] moving our emphasis into math and science, because it is the new currency of the job market,” said Spellings during the meeting. “We have a lot of work to do on raising the bar, raising the level of academic rigor, and making sure that the pipeline is strong.”

Spellings said it is imperative that children go through school well prepared and ready to enter the world when they graduate. She added that President Bush has asked her to form a National Math Panel to help bring about reform. This panel is part of Math Now, a program for elementary and middle school students that will help establish strong mathematics skills so that students can take more challenging courses in high school.

Links:

National Governors Association
http://www.nga.org

Asia Society
http://www.asiasociety.org

Goldman Sachs Foundation
http://www.gs.com/foundation

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Math Now
http://www.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/competitiveness/math-now.html