Feature                                                   Pages 35-37


Globalization: Seven Questions About Leading Schools in an Interconnected World


“When treating a subject, it is not essential to exhaust it, just to cause people to think about it.” — Montesquieu, De l'esprit des lois

Leading global education efforts in the United States is an increasingly difficult challenge because of competing demands and state and federal mandates.

Multiple competing nonacademic demands constrain the time educators would need to spend on curriculum, instruction, alignment and professional development to support high-quality global education at scale. Academic leadership needs to respond to the growing instructional demands of state and federal government.

In other writings, I have made the case for global education, so here I will focus on the questions school district leaders must address to encourage quality global education at scale.

Reimers feature

Harvard educator Fernando Reimers (center) directs the Global Education Innovation Initiative, a cross-country study of 21st-century education.

Aggravated Risk

Even though the design of the curriculum traditionally has been a prerogative of teachers, often within frameworks defined by school departments and school districts, state standards since the 1990s and national standards within the past year have defined expected knowledge and content to be covered in all subjects and grades. Students are assessed periodically with tests aligned to those standards.

State and national standards ensure equivalency in minimum competencies represented by a high school diploma, equalize opportunity to learn, bring transparency to the operation of schools, allow the design of instructional materials or improvement strategies to benefit from the potential of scale, and facilitate the transfer of good practice across schools and contexts. These benefits of standards outweigh their downsides.

The challenge for education leadership is to overcome the risk that standards and assessments create such a narrow focus on the competencies measured by those standards, that they bring a compliance mindset, a zeroing in of the efforts of teachers and leaders on those competencies, neglecting other competencies not yet measured. This risk is aggravated for global competencies and other 21st-century skills, where the state of knowledge and practice is such that no consensus exists on what works best for what students.

Educators always have balanced teaching in domains where there is consensus, with teaching in domains where such consensus is elusive. After a century of “reading wars,” there is enough consensus on the benefits of a balanced approach to early literacy instruction.

In contrast, teaching civic engagement requires working in a domain with less consensus about what works. Because our public schools are such an essential institution to cultivating the habits of mind that democracy requires of citizens, of people who can think for themselves, we accept and value that teachers experiment, that they take risks, that they venture into territory that is relatively unchartered. In our schools, we welcome even the questions for which we have no answers because we believe there are merits to cause people to think about them and value in the deliberation that such questions raise.

The problem with standards-based reform is that it makes it more difficult for teachers, forced into the compliance mindset that accountability reforms can bring about, to be creative, to experiment, to take risks, including the risk of devoting time to those things that are not assessed, which “do not count,” where there is less consensus on the evidence about what constitutes good practice.

Helping students develop global competency requires education practices that do not benefit from the same consensus of literacies that have been the focus of schools a little longer, such as literacy, numeracy or the traditional disciplines. In this sense, global competency shares the challenge of many of the skills and dispositions considered necessary for the 21st century. High among these skills are creativity, entrepreneurship, socioemotional development, self-knowledge and technological literacy. The challenge for the school leader is to “create space” for teachers to focus on those skills, at a time when the powerful tools of standards-based reform focus attention elsewhere.

An Expanded Perspective

The leadership conundrum is how to support skills that matter but are not measured.

In spite of growing consensus on the importance of an expanded set of skills, knowledge and competencies to help students engage in life, have jobs or participate civically, report after report highlights the failures of schools to teach those skills.

In 1991, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a report outlining the skills that work required of schools, a report endorsed by large companies, labor unions, state departments of education and universities. The report highlighted the importance of interpersonal skills, including the ability to work productively in culturally diverse teams.

More recently, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills articulated a framework to represent the expanded set of competencies necessary for life and work in the new century. This framework included world languages and global awareness as core skills and themes. The 2013 Report to the Secretary by the Equity and Excellence Commission of the U.S. Department of Education underscores the importance of “21st-century concerns like global awareness.”

With this growing consensus on the importance of an expanded view of education, dissatisfaction with schools also is growing. A recent report of a task force of the Council of Foreign Relations concludes that the underperformance of American schools is a threat to the national security of the United States. A third of the latter report underscores the failure of our schools to provide global education, a theme highlighted earlier by a National Research Council report on international education and foreign language study.

Moving Forward

Seven sets of questions await local education leaders to advance global education.

Leading beyond compliance. How should we promote instruction in a domain not explicitly targeted by the state and national standards and not assessed in state tests? How much time, attention and financial, political or symbolic resources should we invest in support of this goal? How do we lead in a way that invites creativity, risk taking, attention to the big picture and experimentation and collaboration, so we can build on the professionalism and deep sense of purpose of those on our team, rather than force them to hunker down into the silos of their subjects and classrooms in a compliance mindset?

Leading ambitiously. How do we promote global education in a way that is rigorous, effective and at scale? Many teachers create some lessons that foster global competency, and some of these are excellent, but how do we take this work to scale well beyond a few students and some scattered classrooms.

Leading with clear purposes. How do we engage a team to develop a clear set of outcomes, a profile of a globally competent graduate, which can help us build a curricular sequence that transcends a few lessons or a single class and that enables us to create pathways and instructional sequences and interdisciplinary work?

Leading for deep learning. How do we use global education as a Trojan horse for 21st-century skill development more generally? Rather than add more knowledge objectives to the curriculum, what if we used global education, a somewhat peripheral domain, with fewer vested interests, to develop the full range of cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies necessary for the 21st century? Could global education be an avenue to introduce new pedagogies — with more student-led activities, extended projects with capstones and multidisciplinary experiences?

Leading as learning. How do we use the opportunity that global education offers to create, to engineer novel approaches and to design curriculum. How can we create a system of continuous improvement and learn from our mistakes? How do we structure this work so that we can indeed learn and continuously perfect our work in global education?

Leading with our team. How do we build teacher capacity to do this work? Are professional development communities, tested mostly in helping teachers improve practice in well- established areas of the curriculum, likely to work in areas that are more novel?

Leading in good company. Are there other leaders who share our ambitions and challenges? Can we learn from one another? Are there opportunities to build an improvement network, a set of schools or districts committed to the shared goal of advancing deep, rigorous and effective global education at scale, and might we organize our efforts in ways that help us engage in concurrent cycles of experimentation and learning?

In answering these questions, school leaders will find whether they are in a context where they have the conditions and resources, including personal commitment and skills, to help all students develop the global competencies they will need to become self-authoring individuals in a world ever more interdependent.

Fernando Reimers is Ford Foundation professor of practice of international education at Harvard University. E-mail: Fernando_Reimers@harvard.edu. Twitter: @FernandoReimers


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