PUP Exclusive: “International Education: Starting at Home” by Sigal Ben-Porath

One of the tasks schools are charged with today is preparing students for the global marketplace of jobs and ideas. Often, this task is framed in a competitive way: students and schools should perform well on international comparative tests, so that they can succeed, as individuals as well as nationally, in competing against other nations for jobs, resources, and economic success. International education is thus oftentimes in practice not a friendly forum to exchange ideas, perspectives and cultures but rather a fierce race to the top of the international comparison charts. In this way international education is primarily national, offering a forum for maintaining a nation’s reputation through positioning it favorably in relations to other nations’ educational gains.

Because of this comparative pressure as well as for other reasons, schools are called to foster and promote students’ commitment to the nation, which is seen as important in itself in addition to being a stepping stone toward international contexts and opportunities. An American student would engage in international exchanges of ideas and places not as a citizen of the world, but as a representative of his nation. As such, she has to first become a good citizen, a good member of her nation, and then take this knowledge and values to the international arena where she can befriend, learn from and compete with members of other nations.

But who is this American student? More and more, international education is what our teachers are engaged in every day in their classrooms. 5% of the student population in the United States are English Language Learners, 5% are foreign born, and 22% have at least one parent who is foreign born. 10.9 million children in American schools speak a language other than English at home (according to census figures). In this sense, American education (like education in many other countries around the world) is increasingly international in composition. What this means for American teachers, neighborhoods and families is that our affiliation with our fellow citizens cannot be built on the assumption that they share with us many attributes or aspects of our background. It means that as a nation we need to decide what membership (or citizenship) in this nation should mean, and we should strive to provide access to all individuals within the nation to opportunities that would make them full, engaged citizens. We can start doing that by recognizing the forces of migration, international connections and linguistic diversity in our schools, and to devote the needed resources to successfully utilize on these strengths and respond to the needs of the diverse population of students our schools serve.

The goals of international education in the United States should thus begin at home, by recognizing and responding to the internationalizing population that our schools serve, and the growing international connections between the US and other countries’ populations. A worthy goal for those committed to international education would be to endorse an expansive vision of education, encouraging interest in, and respect for the diversity of nations represented within the American public. Surpassing students from Finland, Singapore and South Korea is not a sufficient goal for American schools (or any other schooling system around the globe). Being truly international begins with teaching students to be national – to be good members of their nations, to be engaged and knowledgeable citizens in their communities and in the American political and public sphere, to learn to speak and listen to each other and to recognize the effects that our words and actions have on one another. Being a global citizens begins at home.

This is a guest post from author Sigal Ben-Porath who is assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education and special assistant to the president at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Tough Choices: Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice and Citizenship under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Conflict. This article is part of a series of original articles from PUP authors on issues in international education.