It’s a Small World After All

On Wednesday, I had the privilege of presenting NCTL’s work to a delegation from the Kuwait Ministry of Education -15 men and women who had come to the U.S. under the auspices of the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association. I want to thank Pat Massa, former principal of the expanded-time Garfield Middle School in Revere, MA (and now a district administrator), for bringing her incredible perspective to the session. We caught them on the second day of their whirlwind two-week fact-finding tour about the complexities and challenges of the American public education system. 

In anticipation of this discussion, I had prepared a brief presentation about our work—borrowing mostly from presentations we make to American audiences all the time—but I have to admit to being a bit anxious that my talk would fall flat. After all, I figured that the Kuwaiti education system was so unlike our own that any discussion of the need for more school time or even what schools looked like here would be either irrelevant or so completely outside their experience that it would hold no resonance. Indeed, before the discussion, as I thought about what I might have to write about the experience, I had thought that my post would revolve around just how different our two countries are and just how wide apart are our expectations of what schools can and should do.

The opposite was true. First of all, the delegates, most of whom were from the Curriculum and Instruction department, could not have been more engaged in the conversation. Second, their questions and much of the discussion centered on the very same concerns that we hear all the time when we engage with American audiences. “What are the concerns of parents, teachers and students in extending the school day?” “How can you use time to differentiate instruction and how do special education students fare in a longer day?” “How do you make sure that the school day reflects what the students really need?” These questions and more animated our 90 minute discussion.
So, while I had expected my biggest takeaway from this session would have been about how these international exchange programs have limited value because each country’s schools are so different they cannot really borrow from one another, I instead now have come to appreciate these exchanges more than ever. How eye-opening to learn that Kuwait’s average school day runs from 7:45 until 1:30 and that they, too, are struggling to meet the needs of all students.  The idea that more time in school can help to alleviate those struggles is precisely on point for this Middle Eastern nation. Ultimately, the Kuwaitis are asking the same fundamental question that we Americans and school advocates all over the world ask: how do we help every child to learn and to reach his or her full potential? 
Now I will say that there was one point that one of the Kuwaiti delegates raised that I had never heard before here in this country. As the discussion was wrapping up, a shy woman raised her hand and said quietly, “I think a longer day would be good in Kuwait so we can keep students in the school buildings when it gets to be 50 degrees [i.e., about 120 degrees Fahrenheit] and there are dust storms in the afternoons.”  Even if we don’t add that particular benefit to our long list of why more school time is necessary, I know I will look back on this experience as a reminder of the universal appeal of our message.