By signing the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, President Obama has set forth the first policy of its kind by a U.S. administration recognizing that “development is vital to U.S. national security and is a strategic, economic, and moral imperative for the United States.” For decades, the U.S. government has made global development an imperative, with private and public funders focusing, understandably, on everything from micro-lending programs to bringing together cross-sector partnerships between for-profit investors and non-profit organizations.
However, a crucial factor has been largely ignored by the development community and its funders: the vital role of K-12 education in sustaining long-term development initiatives. The World Bank states: “Education is central to development. It empowers people and strengthens nations. It is a powerful ‘equalizer’, opening doors to all to lift themselves out of poverty. It is critical to the worlds’ attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.” Benefits to the individual cited by the World Bank are perfectly aligned with President Obama’s directive: improvement in health and nutrition, increased productivity and earnings, and reduction of inequality. Benefits to society are also attuned to the directive: driving economic competitiveness, poverty reduction, democratization, peace and stability and concern for the environment.
Yet spending on K-12 education continues to be relegated to the backseat of international development initiatives at a time when our knowledge-based global economy demands an increasingly higher set of skills at even the lowest job level. Without education, nations will remain unable to transition their citizens from privation to economic independence.
I recommend that every development initiative supported by public and private funds contain a mandatory set-aside of up to 10% to support K-12 education in the countries served by the initiative.
But there’s another side of the same coin that is often overlooked by the development community: global education in the United States.
In 2007, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) reported:
- Fewer than 13 percent of college students achieve basic competence in a language other than English;
- Fewer than 34 percent of college students earn credit for an international studies class; of those who do, only 13 percent take more than four classes;
- Fewer than 10 percent of college students participate in study-abroad programs;
- Only between 5 and 10 percent of college students achieve basic competence in a language other than English, take more than four international studies classes, and participate in study-abroad programs.
“Elementary and secondary schools,” AAC&U reported, “play a big role in this pattern of underachievement, and calls are mounting for ‘new alignment’ between high school and college curricula. But there is no set of overarching goals for students’ cumulative learning that can reliably guide educational reform and strengthen student accomplishment from school through higher education. In the absence of such goals, two systems—each in need of significant change—are being patched awkwardly together.”
Beginning in middle school, Bridges to Understanding is introducing students in the United States and around the world to the skills employers are mandating. Through bi-lingual, curriculum-based classroom programs, middle and high school students, are being engaged in project-based learning using 21st Century Learning Skills.
Bridges programs give youth firsthand experience in global awareness, technology, problem-solving, collaboration, flexibility, creativity and communication. Plus, they do so as they connect with their peers in our network of classrooms in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific Northwest, sharing information about their lives and their communities and discussing global issues.
No matter their origin – a remote Guatemalan village or a Seattle neighborhood – Bridges students learn how to gain access to information, discover what they can do to change the world for the better, and take action through the creation and sharing of digital stories about issues that are important to them. Bridges is preparing students to take their place – whether as office workers, micro-business owners or global leaders – ready to further the initiatives now being launched by the international development community.
Global Washington, a membership association that promotes and supports the global development sector in the State of Washington, has taken the lead in bringing education to the development table. Comprised of leaders from for-profit and non-profit organizations, K-12 and higher education, the Education and Engagement Working Group is advocating cross-sector support for global education. When asked, “Why global education?”, Global Washington states, “…so we can create global citizens in the State of Washington who can take full advantage of an interconnected world and be a strong foundation for the global development industry in the state.”
If the United States is to succeed in the new direction set forth by President Obama and funded by the for-profit investment community, foundations, corporations and the government, those of us in the K-12 education sector must have a seat at the table not only at the local and state levels, but at the federal and international levels, as well.
Without robust, relevant education beginning long before college, initiatives in the developing world will fail as the population is forced to continue relying on the outside world for a handout, and education in the United States will continue to lag behind as it is forced to rely on property taxes, pancake breakfasts and small grants for support.