01/23/2014 04:22 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Preparing Our Children for the Global Economy

Now, more so than at any other time in history, the world is coalescing into a single social and economic entity. But are the American children of today being properly prepared to become the cross-culturally competent adults who can handle the challenges that globalization presents? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be "no."

In addition to our inability to keep pace with the rest of the developed world in math, science and reading, as documented in the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results just released, the United States has another educational challenge to overcome. We don't seem to be doing anywhere near enough to infuse our education system with global learning. Why not? Well, to many, global education initiatives and language programs are considered to be either unnecessary or a luxury that their school districts cannot afford.

In point of fact, they are neither. Last fall, a free online tool, "Mapping the Nation: Linking Local to Global," was unveiled by the Asia Society that puts the unnecessary argument to rest. Mapping the Nation uses nearly 1 million data points to qualitatively demonstrate how every county in America is intricately linked to the rest of the world, not just in terms of the cultural origins and languages spoken by its residents, but in the far more important matter of economic integration. All told, more than 23 million American jobs are now directly tied to international trade -- not just along the coasts and northern and southern borders, but in every state in the Union.

As for global education being a luxury that cannot be afforded, the exact opposite is true. It is a necessity which we cannot afford to be without. This country's long-term economic strength depends on our collectively meeting American businesses' employment needs. To succeed in this brave new interconnected world, American businesses need more internationally savvy and competent employees.

It's not enough that our schools produce individuals who can read, write and are competent in math and science -- the current STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) mandates. We also need them to produce readily employable graduates who are globally-minded, cross-culturally competent, and ideally able to speak another language other than English.

The only way we can achieve that is by infusing the entire K-12 curricula with global education and foreign language skills. Right now, only 16 states have any kind of foreign language requirement for graduation with most instruction not beginning until after age 13 or 14, precisely when research shows the ability to learn a foreign language begins to decline. Foreign language learning, therefore, should be treated like any other core subject with sequential instruction beginning in elementary school, if not actually before.

But it's not just languages. Other soft skills repeatedly identified by educators and business leaders as being critical to developing a global perspective -- skills such as open-mindedness, ability to listen carefully to others, interest in other cultures, adaptability and curiosity -- are also best taught beginning in early childhood by parents before being complemented and reinforced by elementary and then secondary school teachers. It is nothing less than a complete fantasy to think that the ability to function productively in the new global workplace can be acquired in a freshman survey course in college or via on-the-job training. That kind of holistic education must begin in early childhood if it is to have any chance of achieving its objective.

Given the fact that a complete overhaul of the K-12 education system isn't likely, parents have no choice but to step in and assume the responsibility for raising their global children. They can do that by insisting upon more cultural education so that children understand and are better prepared to deal with the complexities that exist outside our borders. They can do that by supporting their children's teachers who embrace the importance of global education and act upon that commitment by introducing children to global issues and concepts within and throughout the subjects they teach. They can do that by insisting that foreign language learning begin in elementary school. And they can do whatever they can at home to instill in their children an appreciation and understanding of the wider world. If we as a nation don't do all of these things, we may as well resign ourselves to becoming a nation of "also rans".

Today's American youth will soon be tomorrow's global citizens.

Marshall S. Berdan
is a travel writer based in Connecticut who also writes about American history and culture. His most recent book is titled, Raising Global Children: Ways Parents Can Help our Children grow Up Ready to Succeed in a Multicultural Global Economy, published by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2013.