U.S. Will Make Broader Global Skills for College Students a New Priority

U.S. Department of Education

Maureen McLaughlin, the Education Department's director of international affairs, says it's more important that more American students have the skills to compete globally than it is to build up "deep expertise" among a smaller group of graduates in foreign languages or cultures.
August 07, 2012

The U.S. Department of Education wants to ensure that more American students have the skills to compete in a global workplace, and not just build up "deep, deep expertise" among a smaller group of graduates in foreign languages or cultures, the agency's top official for international education says.

In a recent interview with The Chronicle, Maureen McLaughlin, the department's director of international affairs, said it was trying to be more deliberate and intentional in its international efforts. "We didn't previously have a strategic framework for the things we would engage in and those that we weren't going to internationally," said Ms. McLaughlin, who has led an internal working group to develop a global plan.

"We believe in a deliberative, sustainable, strategic approach to international engagement," she said.

That work, Ms. McLaughlin said, is founded on two principles: to strengthen American education globally and to advance America's interests abroad. To do that, the department wants to work to improve the global competencies of all American students, to learn educational best practices from other countries, and to be more active in "educational diplomacy," or diplomatic engagement through education-related work, such as the global exchange of students and scholars.

Over the past two years, Ms. McLaughlin, who previously focused on educational reform at the World Bank, said the Education Department had made strides, particularly in efforts to compare American students' academic performance to their counterparts in other countries, and to undertake strategies to improve those outcomes. She cited a pair of global conferences that the department has organized on teaching, examining ways to enhance teacher education and to attract top graduates to the teaching profession.

Education Department officials also are taking a more active part in multinational organizations, like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and are playing a more prominent role in bilateral partnerships. Education has been highlighted in recent agreements with countries such as India, Indonesia, and Brazil.

Less Urgency

But Ms. McLaughlin acknowledged that, in setting priorities, the department was, by necessity, saying that certain activities may have less urgency. For instance, department officials believe that it's critical that all graduates of American high schools and colleges have certain "21st-century skills" that will enable them to compete in a worldwide marketplace, such as understanding international perspectives and being able to work collaboratively with peers from different cultures and backgrounds. "These cannot just be competencies for a select few," Ms. McLaughlin said.

That could mean less support in the future for programs that focus on linguistic proficiency or academic expertise for a smaller group of students. While it was the U.S. Congress that pressed for recent cuts to international-education and foreign-language programs, Ms. McLaughlin said, "we have used the opportunity to improve the targeting and the impact within the funding levels available, ultimately expanding the reach of these programs to include more students and institutions that have not had access to international experiences in the past."

Such efforts, however, have gotten mixed reviews from international educators, who worry that the lack of investment in studying critical languages or key parts of the world could undermine America's national security and global competitiveness.

The Department of Education could also consider more-substantive programming changes during the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Ms. McLaughlin said.

Still, the department is less focused on stand-alone international efforts than on ensuring that international perspectives are included in all the work that it does. "International engagement needs to be infused into our domestic-education agenda," Ms. McLaughlin said. "That's the world we need to prepare our students to operate in."