Players on a global stage

By Kathreen Harrison | Aug 29, 2014

The lead-up to a new school year is a busy time for those who work in schools. Custodians are feverishly working to get floors waxed, repairs finished, and furniture back in place before the first day of school. Bus drivers are trying out their routes. Teachers and administrators are busy preparing curriculum, trying to get accustomed to new technology, organizing physical space and supplies, and dealing with the innumerable nuts and bolts that come with the functioning of schools. In some schools new leaders are settling in. Those leaders will play a key role in the education our children receive this coming year.

Education in this country is an enormous and complex industry. Schools actively involve one quarter of all citizens in the nation in one way or another, either as employees or as clients. In fact schools touch us all, for we are lucky to live in a nation where for generations now just about everyone has gone to school.

This evening while cutting vegetables for dinner I watched a video clip in French from French television that starred a Moroccan schoolgirl talking about education for girls in her village. She was the only girl in her village ever to have been allowed to attend a school beyond fourth grade. The clip focused on her mother at one point as she talked about her high hopes for her daughter’s future.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, Americans are not feeling optimistic these days about prospects for the future of their children. For the first time very few Americans expect their children to have a better life (financially speaking) than they have been able to enjoy.

Prospects for the future in this country rest to a large extent on the kind of education we give our children. Our children will inherit a world where the United States is no longer the dominant power internationally. India and China will have caught up economically during the adulthood of the children we now have in middle school. These up and coming nations are focusing enormous resources on the education of future generations.

The United States is a great nation with unbelievably rich resources. The girl in the video clip about Morocco showed off her home and her town. The land was dry and unyielding and one reason girls in villages were denied an education was so they could fetch water for the family from distant sources. Yet in recent years Morocco has piled resources into the schools, even mandating that every classroom be provided with one computer per 20 students. The Moroccan government is grappling with the imperative of providing a top education for its students for the good of the nation’s future.

Here in Maine our girls go to school, play on sports teams, and even lead academically in many cases. We have one-to-one technology in our schools, a much more generous situation than in Morocco. However we can’t count on our historic global predominance educationally; other nations are striving to give their students what ours have — and in fact many of them are now giving their students more.

Countries around the world have made systemic school improvement a national priority. They are looking outward to learn methods of boosting the achievement of their students. Many governments and states regularly send educators abroad to research best practices. Administrators and teachers work from international data to determine what factors lead to increased student achievement. Collaborative work groups of teachers and administrators look for ways to improve student outcomes in their schools.

The United States stands virtually alone among industrialized nations in its dogged insistence on doing things its own way, without reference to what is working so well in so many other countries in terms of education. Finland, for example, gives children lots of time outside; little homework; almost no standardized testing; plenty of art and music; multiple foreign languages; project-based learning — and Finland performs at the top levels on internationally benchmarked tests.

Why, in the face of Finland’s success, do we then do just about the opposite with our students? We reduce or eliminate recess; overburden many of our students with homework; test relentlessly; strip the curriculum of the arts; require one year of one world language at best; organize most classrooms exactly as they were organized 50 years ago.

In a world where it is possible to click on a few laptop keys and hear a Moroccan child talking about her life while I am working in my kitchen in Maine, we need to develop the practice of looking outside our own narrow experience to learn from others. We need to transform schools and those in them into players on the global stage. Students need to come to terms with other cultures and languages so they are ready to work with internationals as adults. School systems need to look outward at what school systems in other parts of the world are doing so we can remain competitive and relevant.

Losing dominance as the world’s greatest superpower does not have to mean that our children suffer economically. However if we want them to be able to participate in the world economy as strong players, they do need to know about the world and acquire necessary skills. Preparation for this new school year should include the teaching of what it means to be a global citizen — it is up to our schools’ leaders to see that this happens.

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