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Succeeding Through International Education and Engagement

By guest blogger Maureen McLaughlin

This week is International Education Week and we want to honor it with the next installment of our "state of global competence series," to look at what is happening nationally. Maureen McLaughlin, senior advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the director of International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education, examines where we are and how far we have come.

Two years ago the Department of Education (ED) released its first fully integrated international strategySucceeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement, linking our domestic and international priorities to simultaneously strengthen U.S. education and advance our nation's international priorities. Increasing the global competence of all U.S. students, learning from other countries to improve our education policies and practices, and engaging in active education diplomacy will advance these larger goals. 

While this is the first-ever international strategy for ED, it builds on a foundation for increased international involvement that began some years ago. In 2000, President Clinton issued an executive memorandum directing the federal government to strengthen its role in international education as well as a proclamation recognizing International Education Week (IEW) "to celebrate the benefits of international education to our citizens, our economy, and the world." Around the same time, Secretary Riley coined the term "educational diplomacy," highlighting that education should be seen as a vital and important way to expand U.S. diplomatic efforts.

This week we celebrate the 15th anniversary of IEW, a milestone that makes me stop to reflect on what has happened at the federal level in recent years as well as my own journey with international education.

In 2000, I was a deputy assistant secretary in the postsecondary education office at ED and while our office was involved in drafting the executive memorandum with the State Department, international was not my key focus. This changed shortly thereafter, however, when I received an Ian Axford Public Policy fellowship and moved down under with my family to work with the New Zealand Ministry of Education.

My fellowship was designed to build deeper policy and personal connections between our two countries. We shared lessons and learned together while I was in New Zealand, but that learning did not end when I left the country. The still deep and strong connections I made there illustrate concretely the value of education diplomacy and exchanges, and how countries can learn from each other to improve their education systems.

In fact, when I returned to ED in the summer of 2010, my experiences internationally in New Zealand and at the World Bank really helped as we debated and shaped ED's first international strategy. I jumped in with both feet as Secretary Duncan was preparing to host—with international and domestic partners—the first-ever International Summit on the Teaching Profession in spring 2011, bringing together ministers and union leaders with high-performing and rapidly improving education systems from around the world to discuss how to enhance and elevate the teaching profession worldwide.

That summit proved such a success, and there was such a hunger for learning from colleagues in other nations, that the U.S. co-sponsored—by popular demand—a second international summit in 2012. It has now become an international community of practice with the Netherlands and New Zealand hosting in 2013 and 2014, and Canada in 2015. The learning from other countries has also had an important impact on U.S. teacher policy, including RESPECT and Teach to Lead.

Over the past 15 years, international benchmarking of education systems has gained a new prominence. Secretary Duncan takes international benchmarking seriously and looks carefully for insights into what is working and what is not. For example, as OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were released last year, he highlighted that the U.S. had stagnated and called for higher standards and expectations.

Several new international surveys have also been released and analyzed recently. For example, the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) provide, respectively, a picture of the skills of the adult population and the views of teachers on their jobs.

During International Education Week last year, we partnered with Asia Society, Longview, and SAS in the release of their data tool, Mapping the Nation, which includes economic, demographic, and education data for states and counties that help to make the case for global competence. We need to develop globally competent students who can compete for good jobs, work to address global challenges like climate change and health epidemics, as well as support our national security and diplomacy. Access to the kinds of data points found in Mapping the Nation can inform and help advance education and workforce development efforts at the national, state, and local levels.

ED's international strategy is firmly based on the belief that a world-class education for all—both domestically and internationally—is a win-win. Attention to education worldwide has grown in so many ways but the needs are still enormous. This is why ED has joined State Department and USAID as a champion country for the UN's Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) to put every child in school, improve the quality of learning, and foster global citizenship. We have also partnered with USAID to help countries at risk including, for example, Haiti.

Every week is really international education week, but with Thanksgiving right around the corner, I am thankful that we have one week where we focus and reflect on the important role education plays in connecting us across the globe. We have made much progress in our international engagement but there is so much more to do.

View Secretary Duncan's IEW2014 message.

Maureen McLaughlin has been senior advisor to the Secretary of Education and the director of International Affairs since 2010. Follow ED, Arne Duncan, and Asia Society on Twitter. 

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