by Kili Lay
Director of Curriculum & Staff Development
From time to time I am asked, “What is the difference between an American school, an American School overseas and an International school?” or “How do American educational standards apply to international schools?” or even “What is an American curriculum?” While there is no simple answer to these questions. To begin with, American educational standards are not set at the national level, but at state or local levels, thus there is no such thing as an “American curriculum." That said, there are a few common elements that characterize American schools overseas, such as ASH.
Alignment to American Standards
In most of our subject areas, we are aligned to standards that come from U.S. educational organizations, for example we use American Education Reaches Out (AERO) in its Common Core versions. These standards are written for American-sponsored overseas schools to help strengthen the curriculum, teaching, assessment, and student learning. AERO provides a framework for curriculum consistency for Kindergarten though 12th grade and is aligned with the Common Core initiative in the U.S. While the concept of Common Core standards has elicited some controversy in parts of the U.S., the overseas AERO version is not subject to the same concern because the AERO standards provide less specificity and more latitude for schools to adapt curriculum specific to their local context. One of the reasons American schools overseas have favored AERO over U.S. State standards is because of the flexibility within the AERO framework to develop content specific units of study to bring a global perspective and local context perspective to our curriculum. You will see this reflected in our Social Studies curriculum in Kindergarten through High School, as well as if you look at specific reading lists in English Language Arts classes, which are not focused on one type of literature or authors from predominantly one culture. While alignment to American standards alone does not define an American school overseas, it is one key aspect.
In addition to a curricular framework, Project AERO also sponsors professional development for teachers to further develop their own curriculum that is aligned to standards, and to use the standards as a basis for assessment. ASH has been fortunate to send one or more of our teachers to an AERO Curriculum Institute in the U.S. every year for the past six years, financially supported by the U.S. State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools and the Overseas Schools Advisory Council. This alignment provides stability in our changing school environment, where student and teacher turnover are often greater than in the home country schools of our families. It also offers high-quality and consistent training opportunities for educators who may be new to AERO / Common Core, international standards in American schools, or even standards-based schools in general. Beyond curriculum-focused professional development, there are many other opportunities to extend a teacher’s knowledge, skills, understanding and application of topics important in order to fully realize our educational program that come from the U.S. Some of this takes place in the U.S. while many others happen in locations outside the U.S., and plenty of professional development has no specific connection to any one country of origin (such as our regional conferences, workshops on inclusion topics, job-alike exchanges, and so on).
We describe our curriculum as an ASH-specific curriculum, aligned to American standards, and we look to the U.S. for an American approach to many aspects of our educational and extra-curricular programs. For example, we offer a strong AP Program (in addition to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program) for our High School students. We look to the U.S. for the starting point of special education and other aspects of learning support, as inclusion has been called the “Next Frontier” of education by leading thinkers in this field. Extra-curricular athletics is another area where we maintain ties with U.S. athletic organizations, and we look for ways to provide our students with stimulating, relevant, age-appropriate competition in our international context. Theater, drama, music are other areas where we work closely with professionals and other educators from the U.S. But it would be impossible and undesirable to take away our local connections and international context. It is the balance of these components that make ASH the school it is.
Safe and Welcoming Environment
One of the most consistently positive pieces of feedback we receive annually from our parent survey is that ASH welcomes newcomers warmly and helps them feel at home away from home in a relatively short amount of time. Extending this to the classroom, our students benefit from close but professional relationships with educators, another characteristic of American schools. Students are encouraged to ask questions in respectful ways, made easier by strong, positive relationships. Our emphasis on questioning, inquiry, and problem-solving is a hallmark of most international systems, and ASH is no exception. Further contributing to a safe and welcoming environment are our school counselors and school psychologist, positions that are found in many American schools. Thus, our varied staffing model allows ASH to more closely resemble the holistic staffing of U.S. school systems.
This is not a comprehensive list of what makes a school “American” – I could have also included our recruiting practices, the origin of many of our curricular resources, the design of our building with lockers and wide hallways, arts and athletics facilities in-house, or our discreet Middle School (as opposed to a secondary school with Middle and High School together). All of these, and more, are part of the complexities of what makes a school overseas an American school. At ASH, our diversity is our strength and allows us the possibility to (as our Mission implies) nurture and inspire character, commitment, creativity, and learning in an American and international approach.