Guest Column

A Superintendent’s View From Abroad


When my education career started as a teacher of English and social studies at the Maximum Security School for Boys in Sheridan, Ill., I worked with the school’s warden to see that the inmates were offered an education. Now, it’s come full circle. Some 30 years later, as the superintendent of the American School of Kuwait, I am the warden.

In an overseas school, the warden serves as the institution’s representative to the U.S. embassy. It’s a place I periodically visit to meet with the U.S. ambassador to ensure, among other things, safety for our school community.

Three years at an international school in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula does not make me an expert on international education. However, the experience has given this former stateside superintendent an opportunity to reflect on some differences between an American school overseas and public education at home.

Revealing Differences
While one could cite any number of comparisons, I believe some of the more revealing differences show up in the areas of mission, finance, multiculturalism, student dress and what I call the "Friday Night Lights," which comes from the title of a book about the preoccupation of high school football in American towns.

  • Differing missions. Most international schools have a narrow mission to serve the needs of children who aspire to American higher education. This provides the school with clear-cut direction.

    In the United States, schools must address broader purposes than college preparation, offering programs for students with exceptional needs and those who will not matriculate beyond high school. The general, vocational and special education curricula back home are foreign concepts at most international schools.

  • Available funding. International schools have easier access to money. The American School of Kuwait, which is typical of most overseas schools, uses zero-based budgeting meaning that as a non-profit school we can expend our revenue.

    By charging the customer a generous tuition fee, money is available to provide additional staffing, supplies and materials that educators in the states find unfamiliar. In many stateside school districts, spending limitations imposed by state legislatures have severely restricted spending for staff and equipment.

    A major factor contributing to the ability of overseas schools to generously fund their regular education program relates to their narrow mission. They do not offer courses in business education, home economics or industrial arts. Neither do these schools provide psychologists, social workers or the many specialists with classifications in special education.

    The breadth of academic and extracurricular offerings in the States is a major strength in providing for an educated populace. Yet the comprehensive nature of public education in the Unites States has tended to have a diluting effect on program funding.

  • Multiculturalism. We usually think of the United States as "the great melting pot," but schools overseas also have a distinct international flavor. At the American School of Kuwait, we have students who hold passports from 39 different countries. These students experience a global education that requires them to understand the values and priorities of multiple cultures with a focus on understanding how they are interconnected and how they change.

  • Dress codes. Most international schools have adopted standards for student dress. The dress code provides staff with easy identification of members of the student body. It also inhibits competition among the students as students from all socioeconomic classes come to school in similar attire.

  • Sports competition. During my years as a school administrator in the states, debate often arose about the extent of travel for high schools competing in interscholastic athletics. Consider then the prospects of your school playing in an athletic conference whose members are located in Cairo, Alexandria, Amman, Athens and Damascus.

    Welcome to the Eastern Mediterranean Activities Conference, where there are no traditional "Friday Night Lights." In this league schools do not participate in weekend competition, but they culminate each season with a conference tournament in athletics and fine arts. The host school has the responsibility to arrange for housing in local homes for the visiting athletes and their coaches from six nations. This experience provides students with a birds-eye view of many cultures.

  • Worthy of Adoption
    While I have chosen to focus on these distinct differences between the overseas schools and those in the states, the objective of both systems is the same--to provide students with an American education. Interestingly, foreigners do find much to emulate about American schools.

    In the states, American educators are constantly on the defensive, but abroad, increased public and government interest in educating students with an American-style education is widely apparent. For example, the Kuwaiti government is considering a change from the European-style two-session system to the credit system in use back home.

    Piloting of the credit system has gained popularity among the students and professionals in Kuwait because it grants students freedom to choose their courses, and observers here have noticed that when given choices, students tend to demonstrate greater motivation to succeed.

    Global Partners
    As we move closer and closer today to a global economy and global culture, educational leaders have an excellent opportunity to use global education as a tool to help students better understand and appreciate the world’s cultures. With the increasing use of technology, opportunities now exist for overseas and American schools to develop partnerships to address multicultural understanding, cultural diversity and conflict resolution.

    At the moment, the member schools of the Near East/South Asia Council of Overseas Schools are seeking to form partnerships with schools in the United States to address these issues. I invite my colleagues in the United States to join us in this exciting and worthwhile effort.

    William Decker is superintendent of the American School of Kuwait, P.O. Box 6735, Hawalli 32042 Kuwait. E-mail: Previously, he spent 10 years as superintendent in Menasha, Wis.