As an American in Paris last month, San Diego city schools Supt. Tom Payzant learned that the United States is not the only country wrestling with the question of what schools of the future should be.
The national debate about education is mirrored in numerous other nations, Payzant discovered during a two-day trip to France for an international education conference. But the approaches to solving problems vary greatly according to a nation's history and cultural imperatives, Payzant found.
Payzant was the American representative to the special meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, a 24-nation group originally set up in 1948 to coordinate efforts to restore Europe's economy under the Marshall Plan. The organization's membership has grown to include developed nations worldwide and its focus has expanded to encompass education issues in recognition of the connection between education and a strong economy.
Met for Critique
In preparation for a spring meeting on curriculum reform worldwide, OECD officials last month convened a group of representatives from eight nations--the United States among them--to critique and comment on papers already submitted on the subject from all the member nations.
"I was the only person in the group who has direct school involvement," Payzant said. "The others were professors involved in research on educational philosophy. And as is usual at these conferences, I learned more than I gave."
Payzant said that without exception, every nation is considering some aspect of what San Diego officials have been calling the "core curriculum," a proposal to upgrade the district's academic offerings to require all students to take college-preparatory course material.
"That really stood out," Payzant said. "Every country in its paper was talking about what should all students have in the way of subject matter and how to teach it."
He said academic priorities among most countries center on mathematics, on the nation's "mother tongue," and on foreign language.
"Those priorities were very clear," he said. "I was the only one at the meeting who was not at least bilingual. The meeting was in English, although the (French) representative always spoke French during his presentations.
"There was an almost unspoken acknowledgement that regarding foreign language, the (lack of American expertise) is simply the way it is in America. But most countries require at least some English as part of their curriculum."
Payzant was somewhat surprised to learn that the issue of bilingual education, still the subject of often-intense debate in the United States, is also a major one abroad.
"Many countries talked of how to deal with the educational implications of changing demographics that have brought refugees and other peoples to their nations whose primary language is not the 'mother tongue.'
"In West Germany, for example, Turks form the largest group and officials there are concerned over how to handle the issue educationally." The San Diego district has written instructional materials for bilingual programs that are now being marketed nationwide.
In spite of internal criticism within the American educational establishment over whether bilingual education promotes or discourages educational progress, Payzant said that other countries, at least in their rhetoric, admire America's ability to accommodate a diversity of peoples.
"I sensed in some papers that there is tension in their countries around the issues of assimilation," he said.
Another common issue is how much control local communities or individual schools should have over education. West Germany has largely abandoned efforts throughout the 1970s to democratize their schools, while countries in Scandinavia and officials in Great Britain are considering proposals for greater local autonomy.
Quality of Teaching
But only the United States is actively debating how to improve the quality of teaching, Payzant said.
"I did not see the same attention to teacher issues in other countries that we have here," he said, referring to the Carnegie Foundation report on future education that calls for better pay and higher standards for the nation's teachers. "That may be because teachers in most countries already have a high status, unlike in the U.S."
Also, the United States pays more attention to the question of equal access to the curriculum for all children and to the issue of dropouts, Payzant said. "You must remember that the compulsory age varies greatly by nation and that other countries assume that not everyone will aspire to (the highest jobs).
"And being a shopkeeper or artisan or sheet metal worker or a police officer is not seen as somehow second class in the same sense that we sometimes imply here."
Payzant came away from the experience with more conviction that international studies should be emphasized in the American curriculum. San Diego already has special curriculums in international studies at Memorial Junior High School and at San Diego High School.
"That was reinforced from several aspects," he said. "Both from the standpoint of how much the economies of nations are interconnected but also just in terms of altruistic reasons, of appreciating cultural traditions and pluralism."
In Payzant's view, the knowledge of other nations and cultures would ease the understanding of how similarities and differences in education, as well as economics, play out from nation to nation.