Headlines have long suggested that the state of American primary and secondary education is in a bad way. Recent tests show U.S. students falling behind other developed or developing countries in important subjects like math, reading, and science. In North Carolina, only 68 percent of high school students graduate in four years or less. And a disturbingly high percentage of those students who do graduate must take remedial classes if they pursue a higher education.
Given these negative trends, it isn't the best time to reduce the focus and time spent on the core subjects that are the basis for all higher knowledge. But that is exactly what the North Carolina in the World program does, in order to achieve nebulous goals such as training K-12 students to “thrive in the global marketplace” and to “increase student knowledge and skills about the world.”
N.C. in the World has existed since 2005, is funded through the state’s university system (UNC), and is part of another UNC program called the North Carolina Center for International Understanding. N.C. in the World’s action plan is a litany of feel-good concepts like “[B]uilding international school partnerships,” and of unchallenged comments like “[W]e are a global community.”
Its advisory board is a lengthy list of important names from the North Carolina corporate, political and academic establishment. And that might be part of the problem. With so many high-powered individuals on board right from the start, nobody has bothered to look at the program with a critical eye. For if hard-edged skepticism were applied to raise the tough questions about the program’s goals and methods, and to give an honest appraisal of the trade-offs the program implies, it would (one would hope) not exist. (This would also be true of many other similar “global” centers and initiatives in Chapel Hill, the entire state, and across the country.) N.C. in the World is unfocussed, detracts from more important endeavors, and addresses non-existent needs. It is time for the General Assembly to put an end to its annual $200,000 state funding.
N.C. in the World’s primary means to increase “international education” calls for “an inclusion of an international dimension in all subject areas--including “math, technology, social studies, the arts, science, and language arts.” This attempt at embedding one subject inside of others is absurd--many of these topics defy the concept of nationality or culture: there is no German math, no Chinese math; there is just math, and it is the same all over the world.
It is not such a program of “international education” that will ensure our future economic well-being, but a mastery of mathematics, science, and reading and writing. Learning these subjects generally requires intense focus—the concepts are often difficult and require a student’s full attention. Because N.C. in the World distracts from building proper foundations in those core areas, this program will very likely have an effect that is exactly opposite to its own intention, and in opposition to many of the university system’s own goals for the future. Indeed, the UNC Tomorrow Commission, in its recent report, acknowledged how crucial the above subjects are for keeping the state economically competitive.
The only positive aspect of the program is the intent to teach foreign languages at an early age. But the trade-offs must be understood: time spent learning a foreign language, like mathematics, requires intensive drilling. The question must be asked: what gets replaced?
Perhaps the silliest facet of the program is the claim that students, even at the elementary school level, must gain “experience in working in international teams.” According to a New York Time article, “in Jacksonville, N.C., elementary school students recently paired up with their counterparts in Puebla, Mexico, to write a bilingual book and to trade astronomy lessons as part of North Carolina in the World.”
Anybody familiar with these kinds of activities will realize that the emphasis was most assuredly on the communications and not on the subject matter. Given equal amounts of class time, more knowledge of astronomy and better writing skills would result without all the commotion caused by participation on an “international team.”
There are other reasons why this activity is frivolous or counterproductive. First of all, when it is to people’s mutual benefit to conduct business or research with each other, they easily overcome obstacles of culture—foreign trade is as old as mankind. The huge share of the U.S. economy already involved in international trade is testimony to our ability to work across the globe, right now, without programs like N.C. in the World.
U.S. firms have always found ways to provide those workers who conduct international business with the training and information they need to perform their duties. There are even consulting firms that specialize in training employees on how to conduct business in different corners of the globe.
N.C. in the World’s claim that “one in six U.S. jobs is tied to trade” is highly misleading. This figure includes longshoremen who load and unload ships, truckers who transport goods, factory workers involved in manufacturing products for export, and many other categories of workers whose function is purely domestic. The percentage of U.S workers who actually have to communicate with foreign workers on a regular basis is quite small. Most of them are highly educated, or have very specific skills in industries such as oil exploration and extraction.
A 2006 Wall Street Journal article said that in 2001, 294,763 U.S. taxpayers filed returns for foreign-earned income—an insignificant one-fifth of one percent of the approximate total U.S workforce of 150 million. While there are also workers who interact with the rest of the world from within the borders of the U.S., the small numbers of Americans having even slight international contact do not justify a makeover of the state’s educational system when 32 percent fail to graduate from high school on time.
There is also the question of why a K-12 program is part of the university system budget in the first place. N.C. in the World has little or no university component, save funding. If the program is so valuable, then let it be funded by the K-12 system instead, rather than further entangle two massive educational bureaucracies.
Finally, there is a political element to N.C. in the World: it strongly encourages a multicultural vision of the U.S., rather than the unified culture favored by a large share of the population.
What North Carolina needs to do to remain globally competitive is to produce engineers who can design a wide array of products, economists who can distinguish trends, chemists who can unlock the secrets of matter and life itself, geologists who can uncover the world’s riches, technical specialists who can make almost anything work properly, and high-level managers who can see the big picture and make the sum greater than its parts. Also, enormous amounts of time, money and energy are being expended to raise the basic skill level of one-third of the young people in North Carolina to the bare minimum required to graduate from high school. All of these things can be better accomplished without the distractions created by N.C. in the World.