10/06/2009 11:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Closing the Achievement Gap

A new report by the Center on Education Policy released last week, shows that based on data from 2002 - 2008, the achievement gap appears to be narrowing. It further shows that this does not seem to reflect slower progress by high-achieving students, but instead reflects increased achievement by lower-performing groups. While there is still much work to be done, these results are to be applauded because they show that poor academic achievement and low graduation rates are not intractable problems. What the data begins to suggest is that students for whom schools have historically fallen short will respond to more engaging, rigorous instruction. There is similarly encouraging evidence elsewhere.

Since 2003, Asia Society has worked in partnership with school districts and charter authorities to address these imperatives through the creation of the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN). ISSN is a national network of design-driven public schools that are achieving success in attaining their core mission: to develop college-ready, globally competent high school graduates. The network currently includes 18 schools in urban and rural communities across the United States and serves over 4,000 students in grades 6-12. 85% of all students are minorities, and 74% are from low-income families.

ISSN schools recognize that the problem of persistent underachievement, particularly among minority and low-income students, is intertwined with the other most pressing issue facing U.S. education today: preparing students for work and civic roles in a globalized environment, where success increasingly requires the ability to compete, connect, and cooperate on an international scale. In the context of a rigorous, college preparatory curriculum, these schools emphasize developing deep knowledge of the world and how it works, proficiency in at least one foreign language, community service, international travel, and exchange of ideas and shared project work with peers around the world.

At the heart of the International Studies Schools Network design is the reframing of traditional courses and the development of new ones to systematically integrate knowledge about the world and skills to understand how that world works. The design does not simply add an international frosting on top of existing practice, nor does it implement a one-size-fits-all international studies curriculum in every network school. Rather, the network provides detailed course frameworks, exemplary curriculum units, and intensive professional development in a curriculum planning process. The goal is to build teachers' capacity for thoughtfully infusing international content and perspectives within rigorous, engaging coursework that addresses state content and performance standards.

This approach is proving to deepen students' global knowledge and perspectives, while engaging them in their coursework. Research shows that ISSN students are doing better academically and graduating at far greater numbers than their peers. In June, 2009, eight ISSN schools had graduating classes - the average graduation rate was 92% and the college going rate was 94%, of which over 70% went to four-year institutions. An analysis of ISSN schools compared to schools in the same districts with similar demographic profiles shows that from 2004-08, students in ISSN schools achieve at higher levels in 85% of such comparisons.

Closing the achievement gap completely is of utmost importance- but in doing so we must ensure all students are being prepared to compete and collaborate with their peers around the world - success in the global marketplace of the 21st century demands it. The ISSN schools are showing that we can have college readiness and global competency too.