Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Global Education Certificate

It does not exist yet but everyone seems to like the idea. The idea was born at the Global Education Summit in February at Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center and bundles many suggestions made at the concluding roundtables. Work on the specifics of this idea will begin this summer.

The concern is obvious: Many school districts struggle to meet even the minimal state requirements for world language learning. As you know, school districts must offer the opportunity to learn a world language in regular instruction beginning in grade 7. Many school districts do a great job and try to expand their world language programs. More often than not, though, electives such as world languages take a hit, both in staffing and in the number of languages offered. DPI’s last meaningful data tell us that just 54% of our high school students are enrolled in a world language class. In most cases, students are enrolled for two years only, as this satisfies most college entrance or exit requirements. The School of Education at UW-Madison, for example, requires the equivalent of two high school years of world language study at the time of graduation from college. In turn, this means that most teachers in our schools have only had minimal experience with world language learning. In the absolute majority of cases, this also means that most of our teachers have not had any significant international learning experience. This scenario is not conducive to a school climate that supports global and world language learning.

Let me be on record with the good news:
• Many school districts do an excellent job with global education. Our Global Wisconsin video series is testament to that.
• Wisconsin still leads the nation in the percentage of students enrolled in a world language class.

But we also know that this is not at all competitive in an international context. In countries such as France or Germany, you cannot even enter college unless you have studied one world language for a minimum of eight years and a second one for six. All students, regardless of their future career and job training track, are required to take at least one world language. It is generally understood that global knowledge and language learning are cornerstones of educating enlightened citizens. This understanding is reflected in their education policies and school curricula. In that way, the US is seriously falling behind other nations. “If we are to have a globe worth inhabiting,” Howard Gardner writes , “we must attend unflinchingly to the kinds of human beings that will inhabit it.” As public attention focuses on test scores in only a few subject areas, Gardner comments that “the world will not be saved by high test scores… What we need is a laser-like focus on the kinds of human beings that we are raising and the kinds of societies --indeed, in a global era, the kind of world society – that we are fashioning.” In other works, we need to be able to communicate in other languages, and we need to understand issues of global significance.

The good news in Wisconsin is that State Superintendent Tony Evers asked Gilles Bousquet, chair of the state superintendent’s Statewide International Education Council, to submit some policy items for his consideration, policy items that are designed to support global education and world language learning in our schools. It is understood that these would be non-budgetary items. This is the context in which we are beginning to discuss the Global Education Certificate.

What might this certificate look like? Well, imagine students would receive this certificate on their high school diploma for the following types of learning scenarios:

• Points for taking world language classes
• Points for engaging in international experiences, such as participating in a student exchange.
• Points for taking classes in world history, world geography, world literature or music, etc.
• Points for engaging in school extracurricular events such as International Education Week, membership in the French, Spanish, German, etc. Club.
• Points for being an honors student in a particular language.

These are just some criteria that come to mind. I would love to hear your suggestions and ideas, so please send them my way and engage in this conversation.

What would have to happen to turn the Global Education Certificate into a meaningful piece of high school graduation and not simply a gold star for a job well done?  For one, institutes of higher education would have to acknowledge this as an important admissions criterion. Many colleges already do so informally, but it would help to have their official and public support. Employers would also be asked to sign on to this initiative. Since they keep telling us that they expect their future employees to have the kinds of skills that we cultivate in world language and global education, this should not be too much to ask.

But we cannot reduce our conversation simply to jobs and economic competition. Since their inception, American public schools have served a purpose much greater than providing students with job skills; they have served a purpose that is greater than employment and economic competition. American educators and policy makers understood that public schools engage students in the making of a democratic society and nursing the best and finest in each student. Therefore, the curriculum has always emphasized the arts and all of the humanities. In the best tradition of the Jeffersonian ideal, American educators understand that their students must be educated in all matters that affect a great and democratic society. This effort includes knowledge about global issues, it includes learning other languages, and it includes learning the skills that enable us to understand people from other cultures and civilizations. Combined with the technical skills needed for employment, these elements create a strong society without which a strong economy cannot exist.

Let us see if we can strengthen what we all believe to be true. World language education is an important and central key to understanding the world. If a Global Education Certificate steers more students to our classrooms, we will have made an important contribution to educating the enlightened citizens that Jefferson was talking about.