Published on TaipeiTimes


US students take a world view


A program launched three years ago aims to make international knowledge and skills an important part of the education of American youngsters



Saturday, Dec 17, 2005,Page 9


When American Tracy Wolstencroft was asked to move to Japan to run the investment banking business of Goldman Sachs, the decision was an easy "yes" professionally. But personally, he was not sure.


He turned to his daughter, who had no clue what he and his wife were considering, and enquired: "How would you feel if we were to live in Japan some day?"


The eight-year-old replied, "Why would we do that? No one there looks like us," recollecting images of Japanese faces on television.


Instantly, the decision for Wolstencroft and his wife became very easy.


"We needed to go, both professionally and personally," he said, looking back to the decision eight years ago.


Wolstencroft is back in the US and now managing director of Goldman Sachs, a global financial giant with extensive operations in Asia.


That little girl of his is now a sophomore in high school. She speaks the equivalent of fifth grade Japanese and is in her third year of taking Mandarin.


She and her brother have also welcomed a new sister into their family, a baby girl they adopted from China three years ago.


"One of the best decisions we made as a family was living in Asia and immersing ourselves in the languages and cultures of that great continent," Wolstencroft said, sharing his own family's experience to US students and teachers gathered at a Washington year-end awards presentation for excellence in international education.


Goldman Sachs Foundation, a philanthropic organization funded by the financial house, and Asia Society, a US-based group striving to firm up links with Asia, are into their third year of a joint program to make international knowledge and skills a key part of a 21st century education.


The program rewards schools which emerged with new ways of teaching world languages and focus on the international dimension of every major subject, including math, science, languages arts, history, geography and economics.


It was launched in response to growing concerns by business leaders and policy makers over the comparatively weak performance of American students in assessments of their knowledge of other world regions, languages and cultures.


"One of the things that always struck me when living in Asia, was how much more students there know about us than ours know about them," Wolstencroft said. "This has to change."


US students risk falling behind peers in other nations in their preparation for new jobs because critical skills needed to compete in the global marketplace have not yet been adopted in most US schools, warned a new study by Asia Society and Goldman Sachs Foundation.


"For today's students, knowledge of the rest of the world is not a luxury; it has become a necessity," the report said.


Until recently, it said, the need for international education and language skills had not been part of the debate on US education standards, which has focused on mastering basic skills in reading, math and science.


Today, political, business and education leaders are grappling how to produce workers and citizens who can remain competitive in a global economy.


Government figures shows US companies notched up US$315 billion in overseas profits last year -- a figure that is up 78 percent over the decade and that far outpaces the growth of domestic profits by US companies.


Already, one in five US manufacturing jobs is tied to exports.


US trade with Asia now equals over US$800 billion a year, and the exponential growth of China and India, officials say, requires a purposeful education response.


"Our students are no longer Virginians competing against Iowans. They are competing against young people all over the world," said Virginia Governor Mark Warner, a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2008.


Despite living in the world's most developed economy and a huge market, US students in high schools and colleges are being told that when they graduate they will be mostly selling to and buying from the world and working for international companies.


In particular, they will be competing with Asians for jobs.


Due to globalization, American "workers in virtually every sector must now face competitors who live just a mouse-click away" in nations whose economies are growing, said a bipartisan report on US preparedness aptly called Rising Above the Gathering Storm.


This year, for example, an estimated 400,000 US annual tax returns were prepared in India. Two of US software giant Microsoft's four major research centers are located in Beijing and Bangalore.


"If young Americans are to take on challenging global leadership roles in the future, they must possess a deep understanding and appreciation for other cultures, geography, history and languages," said Stephanie Bell-Rose, Goldman Sachs Foundation president.


"The world will demand it of them, we must demand it of our education system," she said.


The international education program run by the foundation and Asia Society has made some inroads.


Winners of this year's awards included students from New York and Texas who explored solutions to the HIV/AIDS problem with their counterparts in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City through videoconferencing.


Other award recipients were elementary students in a Portland, Oregon, school who spent half their day learning in Japanese and those in two high schools in Newton, Massachusetts, exposed to Chinese culture throughout the curriculum. In both schools, students had the option of putting their language skills to the test by spending several weeks abroad.


"These innovations can change the face of education," said Vishakha Desai, president of Asia Society. "By integrating international themes into the rhythm of the school day, educators are making instruction more rigorous, relevant and exciting."