I’m writing this piece from Barcelona, an ocean away from American public education and our Common Core (CC) standards. And yet all around me, I see connections rather than differences.
Barcelona was built as a Roman walled city, and added more walls down through much of the 1800s. Throughout those 1,800 years, walls defined and protected the city. But in the late-19th century, the walls were torn down and a new city began to spring up—a city where the fortunes that were made in the textile mills sponsored artists such as Antoni Gaudi, whose buildings are a marvel to this very day. And now Barcelona is almost too open to the world: it’s become the fourth most-visited city in Europe, trailing only London, Rome, and Paris. Being here in August, when many locals leave on vacation, exaggerates the presence of tourists, but walking down Las Ramblas—the vast, outdoor pedestrian mall—you’re mobbed by everyone from everywhere—and that’s only part of the internationalization that’s happened.
What was it—40 years ago?—when the formerly Italian, Greek, and Jewish fruit stands and delis in New York City were all run by Koreans? Then 20 years ago, the Koreans began to hire Mexicans, and now some Indians have joined them. Here in Barcelona, these businesses are run by South Asians—New York is the world and the world is New York. Opening out to the world has lead Barcelona in two opposite and familiar directions. Those who could join the global bandwagon did very well for a while, less so now that Spain is struggling economically, but they’re still doing OK. Those who were less fortunate were left behind and they’ve become poorer and poorer. The city veers between being open-minded on the one hand, and inward-turning and Catalan nationalist on the other.
Thinking of how to prepare for the future, the city has decided to focus K–12 education on training and inspiring students to become innovators, creating with an eye on the whole world. In other words, Barcelona faces the same challenges and offers the same types of solutions we do. We, too, are wide open to the world, with a gap between those for whom this is an opportunity and those for whom it is a growing threat. We, too, see both intermarriage and narrow nationalism growing.
We, too, are trying to prepare our young people to become problem solvers—that’s the essence of CC. My vision is that our students should be working digitally with their peers here in Spain—and also with those in Amsterdam, Paris, London, Delhi, Tel Aviv, and beyond. If we face the same international moment, let’s meet it as an international educational opportunity. Breaking down the walls of our schools may bring us our own new global Gaudi.
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