Foreign Exchange

School leaders find tangible benefits in their overseas educational study missions by Carol Brzozowski

During a visit to China in 2000, Virginia Collier, a clinical associate professor at Texas A&M University, popped in on a primary school music class. She played the “Barney” song on the organ, but the children did not react.

The classroom teacher leaned over and whispered some advice in Collier’s ear. The former superintendent responded by performing “Happy Birthday” to a room full of smiling Chinese children.

Collier’s lesson in universal educational experiences versus culture-specific ones, such as singing purple dinosaurs, illustrates the eye-opening experience of a few dozen U.S. school leaders who each year travel abroad on organized educational study missions. They are doing so in an effort to build bridges, share the perspective of the United States’ educational system, learn about global education and bring back ideas that might benefit their own schools’ academic and co-curricular programs.

For the most part, the traveling educational leaders are participants in one of two long running programs: the Fulbright Teacher and Administrator Exchange managed by the U.S. Department of State and the annual International Seminar for Schooling, co-sponsored by AASA and the University of Texas.

“Unless we understand the people, cultures and histories of the world, we will not understand the students in our own schools. That’s one reason why exchange programs are very important,” says Gary Marx, president of the Center for Public Outreach in Vienna, Va., and formerly AASA’s director of communications.

Because the United States has friendly neighbors bordering it, Marx adds, “some people don’t feel a need to get connected with other parts of the world, but the fact is we do. Myopia simply doesn’t work anymore.”

Sundry Benefits

School administrators who take educational journeys overseas often return inspired to create new programs, spark a re-examination of long-held practices, or share some of the vast resources of the United States with developing nations. Consider the following:

  • Joe McGeehan, superintendent of Highline School District 401 in Burien, Wash., studied partnerships between Germany’s private sector and schools on a Fulbright trip in 2000. Influenced by those partnerships, McGeehan subsequently acquired funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a four-year aviation and aerospace high school, built on collaboration with Boeing and other private-sector organizations.

  • Joseph Cirasuolo, who headed the Wallingford, Conn., school system for 12 years before retiring a year ago, inspired a group of his district’s high school students upon returning from a trip to South Africa to collect school supplies for needy children in Kenya, another place he has visited. After one trip, Cirasuolo approached superintendent colleagues nationwide about sending surplus school supplies to developing nations.

  • Frank Barham, a former superintendent who now directs the Virginia School Boards Association, has lobbied Virginia’s General Assembly to create a “career and technological education” program that could remove for some students the stigma of failing to attend college right away. His actions were influenced by ISS foreign study trips to China, Singapore and Eastern Europe.

  • James Egan, superintendent of the Southwestern Wisconsin School District in Hazel Green, Wis., returned from his Fulbright trips to Argentina and Japan with a greater awareness that second-language study must assume a greater role in the curriculum at earlier grades.

    “ We have to make it more a part of our curriculum,” Egan says, adding he’d like to see it begin in 1st or 2nd grade. “About half of our population in larger cities is Latino. We need to have our students be able to communicate. A big initiative for me is to really push the extra time for languages here.”

Comparative Thinking

While not every administrator’s foreign travels to schools and cultural sites results in policy change or a new initiative back home, the experiences do influence most participants’ thinking about their own brand of leadership and the distinguishing qualities of America’s public schools.

“I firmly believe we have the most unique education system within the entire world and we should be proud of that,” says Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, based on his study missions in France, England and Italy over the past decade. “Too many people want to take the American education system and turn it into some mythical system they believe exists in some foreign country.”

Paul Houston traveled widely as a superintendent even before becoming AASA’s executive director in the mid-1990s. He has participated in educational trips to 20 countries on six continents.

“It broadens your world view and opens your eyes to the fact that [foreign education] is much more complex than we seem to view it from our somewhat limited perspective,” Houston says of the benefits.

Houston’s travels also provide him with an ongoing supply of colorful metaphors for the educational issues about which he writes for this magazine and others. Watching lions roam the northern end of the Serengeti in Kenya fueled one such point.

“It connected for me to the way we limit children in our classrooms and the need for freedom as an underlying requirement for learning,” he says

On a trip in fall 2002 to Vietnam, where he was faced with having to cross a chaotic and threatening street, Houston says he realized “the only way I could get to the other side of the street was by stepping into it.

I think for leaders, particularly in today’s climate where things are extremely chaotic and often look very dangerous, there’s a tendency to want to stand on the curb and watch. You’re never going to get to the other side of the street until you step into it.”

Cultural Contrasts

When U.S. school administrators step off an airplane into a foreign land, it becomes the ultimate social studies lesson. On one of her trips, Collier met a university-educated Chinese teacher who aspired to teach elementary school. However, in China, a university-educated teacher may teach only at the secondary level. When the woman refused the high school job assigned by the state, she lost her benefits.

Commented Collier, who at the time of her trip was transitioning from a superintendency to a position teaching school law, program evaluation and facilities administration at Texas A&M: “If you do what the government tells you to do, then you have the benefits of living in a Communist society. If you don’t, it’s as if you don’t exist.”

One common observation of those who’ve traveled abroad: U.S. schools are more technologically advanced than anyplace else, including Europe. In Italy, some of the facilities now used as schools were built as palaces, estates and government buildings.

“As we’re sitting in a beautiful school in Rome, admiring the two-century-old frescos on the ceiling, our guides tell us because it is an historic building, they cannot drill through the walls to wire them for computers,” says Turner, head of the Wisconsin superintendents group.

In China, few classrooms had computers. The overhead projector was the highest form of technology.

Also noticeably missing in many foreign schools, according to U.S. educators, are programs and services considered basic to the operation of American schools.

During his visit to Romania last spring, Danny Young, superintendent in White Hall, Ark., says he learned the host country’s schools have no lunch program and students who want to participate in athletics, chorus or instrumental music must enroll in special schools found primarily in larger cities.

Parallel Roles

American school leaders have discovered the job demands and public expectations of their foreign counterparts match their own country’s in many respects.

“When you start stripping away the language barriers, we find administrative jobs around the world are extremely complex,” Houston says. “The demands have gotten tougher on them, so the expectations are higher. In some cases, I felt good about our people because we still have more latitude than a lot of administrators in much of the world, where it’s very much top-down. But ironically, we’re moving away from that to become more top-down also. The latitude for making decisions and being creative is starting to be diminished.”

Adds Turner: “When you talk with them, it’s as if you’re talking with an American administrator. They are struggling with unions, finances, parents, high expectations and student discipline.”

Marx, of the Center for Public Outreach, points out that one of the universal concerns among school administrators is the lack of time to handle mounting responsibilities.

“I will never forget in Beijing where some of our national Superintendents of the Year were sitting down with superintendents from the greater Beijing area and one of the first questions that one of the Beijing area superintendents asked was, ‘How do you find time in the day to do all of the work that needs to be done?’ That could have easily been a question from someone in any part of North America,” Marx says.

School leaders who feel as if they spend their lives on their jobs might consider Egan’s counterpart in Argentina, who literally sleeps at the school that he oversees.

While given the title of building principal, Felix Correa, the Argentine administrator, functions as both a principal and teacher in a remote country school, where he lives in a room throughout the school week, returning home on weekends.

The Argentine principal does not have a significant role in budgeting, curriculum or teacher hiring as all are dictated by the state, Egan says.

“They were having a bingo party to raise money to buy paper,” Egan, a Wisconsin superintendent, says. “It blew my mind. We go through more paper daily than they probably go through in a year.”

Reciprocal Visits

Educators from other countries can visit the United States as part of most Fulbright exchange programs.


According to Roberta Croll, outreach specialist for the Fulbright Teacher and Administrator Exchange, some 200 international educators travel to the United States every year, though less than two dozen typically are school administrators.

What the foreign educators find most remarkable are the available resources.

During a visit to Whitehall, Ark., Florin Serbu, a school leader from Romania, told his host, Superintendent Danny Young, that he was highly impressed by the guidance local schools receive from their state education agencies for program development, something he does not get back home.

Correa, of Argentina, visited Egan’s school district in November 2002. Egan traveled there the following summer.

“I think it was somewhat of a culture shock,” Egan says of his counterpart’s visit to rural southwestern Wisconsin. “The area he comes from is relatively poor. He was really in awe of the many material things we have.”

Correa’s visit fit nicely in with the rural Wisconsin district’s goal to move toward more global awareness among its students. “We’ve led a pretty sheltered life in our area and we really are in a global economy,” says Egan, adding he did not realize until he visited Argentina that some farmers in Wisconsin ship cattle there.

“Felix brought a whole other culture with him,” Egan says. “He gave presentations to different classrooms. He was like a local celebrity in our town.” During his departure ceremony, some students cried to see him go.

“To make that connection with somebody from another land has encouraged me to pursue additional visits through Fulbright,” says Egan.

Hosting foreign school leaders can help to break down stereotypes.

John Morton, superintendent in Newton, Kan., hosted female educators from Oman in 2002 and earlier handled arrangements for two groups of British educators. Morton himself gained some cultural understanding.

The women from Oman never had spent a night away from their husbands, so the superintendent did some on-the-spot juggling to place the visitors together in the home of a female administrator in Newton to accommodate their wishes. “They were a little nervous, being so far from home,” Morton says. “As the week went on, they became more comfortable.”

The students in Newton were fascinated with the Oman educators, who were proficient in English. “It broke down a lot of stereotypes,” Morton says. “People are people, schools are schools and kids are kids. Some of the same issues they face in their schools are the kind we face as well.”

Unvarnished Insights

Administrators who have traveled abroad on the ISS and Fulbright trips say they appreciate the tours are not “sugar-coated.”

On a trip to France, Miles Turner says his tour guide raised questions about the quality of his own country’s schools and mentioned that dissatisfied parents often pull their children out of public school and place them in a private one.

“He did not feel (France’s) public schools were of a significant high quality,” Turner says. “I don’t think he was patronizing us, but he was pointing out that they had a lot of problems with the number of hours teachers and administrators worked and the amount of pay they received. It is not a highly respected or paid profession.

“I thought the parallel was interesting with American schools where school districts that are underfunded frequently face a challenge for the more wealthy students who exercise choice and go to private school.”

Egan heard frank talk on his Fulbright trip to Japan about the disturbingly high rates of suicide among students and bullying.

“That was part of the reason they were going to go from a six-day (a week) educational program to five days and they were going to eliminate some of these testing standards because they felt the pressure they were putting on the kids was causing a lot of the bullying, social problems and discipline problems in the schools,” says Egan.

Stronger Appreciation

School administrators often return from foreign study trips with an appreciation for the democratic decision making of public education in this country.

The educational systems of the United States, Canada and England are unique, says Barham of the Virginia School Boards Association, in that policies are decided by lay elected board members compared to top-down, national government dictates in other countries.

Based on her trip to China, Collier, a former district superintendent in Texas, notes: “I felt like everything was coordinated at the central level, but it seemed to be very driven by who you knew. I didn’t have the feeling that your own individual hard work and initiative was going to pay off in quite the same way.”

AASA’s Houston points out that Americans “only hear criticism of how bad we are and how we score lower in the world on tests without understanding the contextual differences.” Singapore may excel in math and science, but does not have the ethnic diversity of the United States, he says, adding Finnish students score higher than U.S. students on reading tests, but the country doesn’t have issues of poverty and second languages to address.

The universal access that has defined public education for the past century gains a new appreciation when American educators visit schools abroad. In some countries, fewer than 10 percent of the children who start in the equivalent of kindergarten make it to what Virginia’s Barham calls an “academic 12th grade,” compared to 72 percent in the United States. Comprehensive testing in the 8th grade often determines whether the student will head down an academic or vocational track.

The traveling educators contend the comparisons between the U.S. public schools and foreign education systems--which often are used to point to the failures of American schools--are largely invalid.

“I tell my students when you talk about how a foreign country educates people, it becomes very difficult to leave your paradigm, because we’re not even starting in the same places as to what our objectives are,” Collier says.

Houston concurs. “Someone may say, `Why don’t we do schools more like the Japanese?’ Well, it’s because we’re not Japanese; we don’t have their culture. To do it like they do it would mean you’d have to adopt their cultural values, and we as Americans are not about to do that.

“On the other hand you say, ‘What can we glean?’” Houston adds, “and then you bring that back and talk about it or write about it.”

Shared Skepticism

During some recent travels abroad, U.S. administrators have noted with some amusement that No Child Left Behind now is being translated into other languages.

For example, in England, a national directive was being developed in 1999 to create a larger separation between academic instruction and vocational training, mirroring other countries’ practices.

“They did this without consulting much the people who run the schools,” says Cirasuolo. “It struck a responsive chord. In this nation, public policy is being made without much consideration given to the perspectives of the superintendents of schools.”

Cirasuolo recalls one instance in which the education minister told England’s school administrators he didn’t consult them because he didn’t believe they were doing a good job. Cirasuolo says the administrators listened passively. Later, a British colleague told him: “They can issue all of the white papers they want. Let’s see how they can carry them out without our help.”

“It was a classic case of passive resistance, which I think is happening to a certain extent with No Child Left Behind. Resistance isn’t the right word, but there’s a lot of skepticism,” says Cirasuolo, who has visited three African countries on International Seminar for Schooling trips and England as part of an annual exchange involving the leadership of AASA and its British equivalent.

In Italy, Miles Turner drew some parallels to home as he observed a national debate of the country’s most comprehensive school reforms since the 1920s.

“They were saying ‘greater parental choice, more flexibility, portfolios, greater testing.’ We were saying, ‘Hmm, no bambino left behind,’” says Turner. “It seems like in some respects, we were similar and in others, we are a world apart.”

Carol Brzozowski is a free-lance education writer based in Coral Springs, Fla. E-mail: brzozowski@aol.com