Elite International Schools Have a Racism Problem
Most finishing schools for the Davos class teach excellence—as long as the excellence is White, Western, & English-speaking.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The “placement gong” rings out in the offices of Teaching Nomad, a recruiter for international schools, every time the company places a teacher. The past few years it’s been ringing a lot.
International schools—private, expensive, the instruction almost always in English—were once the exclusive domain of the children of diplomats and expat executives. Today, parents everywhere want in, seeing a Western-style education as a child’s pathway to success. On average, two new international schools are opening a day, and the demand for teachers is insatiable. Teaching Nomad’s website features hundreds of job openings, from Panama to Vietnam.
Some applicants are novices looking for an overseas adventure. Others are veteran educators seeking to burnish their credentials. Few of them understand, however, that their chances of getting a job might come down to the photo they upload with their résumé. It’s been an open secret in the industry for decades that parents, and therefore schools, demand Caucasian teachers and administrators.
Teaching Nomad responds to that with a simple system: Candidates are categorized Level I for Whites, Level II for all others, according to four former employees who logged and classified applicants at the company’s offices in Denver and Shanghai. The agency also notes what kind of teachers each institution seeks, with a drop-down box that offers the option “White Only,” say the ex-employees, who asked not to be identified, citing concerns about legal retaliation for violating confidentiality.
Brett Isis, Teaching Nomad’s founder and president, says the ex-employees misunderstood. Teaching Nomad does separate candidates into tiers, he says, but the levels have nothing to do with race—they’re an assessment of a candidate’s “hireability,” based on many factors. He acknowledges that the system notes schools’ requests for only White candidates but says Teaching Nomad forwards all qualified applicants to those schools, regardless of their skin color. “The reality is that we’ve helped hundreds, if not thousands, of minorities to achieve their teach-abroad goals,” Isis says, pointing to the company’s reviews on goabroad.com and gooverseas.com. “Many, many of those are African American or Black candidates.”
Teaching Nomad isn’t an outlier. Teach Away, a competitor in Toronto, has worked with local recruiters and partner schools in China that categorize candidates by race: A 2019 spreadsheet seen by Bloomberg had a column labeled “skin color”—with A for Black, C for White, and B for the rest. Teach Away said in an email that since August 2018, it’s required all clients to accept a school diversity pledge and that schools which don’t follow best practices on diversity and inclusion risk having their contract canceled.
These are just two agencies, doing what’s expected in an insular system that’s only beginning to examine itself. The racial reckoning that swept schools across the U.S. in 2020, calling attention to the White privilege and systemic racism endemic in academia, initially went unheeded at international schools. It was an American problem, irrelevant in their enlightened halls. But as the Black Lives Matter movement rippled abroad, students, alumni, and teachers began to peel back that worldly patina. First-person testimonies about racial discrimination emerged from schools on six continents, inspiring a movement calling on international schools to expand beyond their Western-centric biases.
Interviews with dozens of teachers, administrators, and recruiters reveal hiring tactics unheard of in almost any other industry. International schools overtly prize White skin and calibrate salaries accordingly. Ads for teaching positions are blunt about what kind of candidates should apply: “White only,” reads a recent one for a school in China. Another, for a Saudi school, states, “Must—Native American (Fair and Blonde).” In the U.S. such practices would be illegal. But abroad, discrimination laws differ, enforcement can be negligible, and the schools are largely unregulated. There’s a rule of thumb in the trade: The more elite the school, the less diverse the staff.
David Stewart, a former Teach Away recruiter, says he tried repeatedly to place qualified candidates of color but found it too hard. After two years he left, dispirited. “Racism” he says, “is just baked into the business model.”
International schools trace their roots back more than a century and a half. They were born of a certain idealism. In 1864, Charles Dickens urged his countrymen to take note of a new international school established right outside Paris—the first in a program that planned to rotate boys through schools in Europe so they could learn alongside classmates of all nations and acquire the local language in each country. The result would be “a citizen of the world at large,” Dickens wrote.
As businessmen and diplomats increasingly began venturing abroad with their families, there was also a practical need for schools that allowed children to continue their education overseas. A group of enterprising women in Tokyo banded together in 1902 to create what would become the American School in Japan. Two decades later, Royal Dutch Shell set up a school on Borneo, where it had struck oil, to attract engineers from Europe.
International schools today guarantee children will emerge speaking fluent English, the language of aspiration and a prerequisite for a shot at the Ivy Leagues and Oxbridge. Power coheres early, and children establish lifelong ties with peers groomed for the global elite. The notables who’ve emerged from such schools include Rockefellers and Rothschilds, former chief executive officers of Nokia Corp. and Standard Chartered bank, the king of the Netherlands, and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland.
What transpires inside the schools is nothing short of “social alchemy,” Alexander Gardner-McTaggart, from the University of Manchester, wrote in an article in 2020 for the Journal of Educational Administration and History. “Turning the ordinary metal of the non-white, non-English student to gold.”
I experienced that alteration firsthand. From kindergarten through high school, I attended an international school called Canadian Academy, in the Japanese port city of Kobe. It had been founded by Canadian missionaries. The centerpiece of our campus was a charming if dilapidated building that was dedicated in 1929 by Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and was seized during World War II by the Japanese government as “enemy alien property.” In many ways the school was ahead of its time. It hired a teacher of color in the 1950s, George Samuel from India, whose mathematical brilliance was legendary. In the mid-60s it was teaching the Japanese language at a time when it was still widely believed that bilingualism stunted children’s cognitive abilities.
Over time the school evolved, mirroring Japan’s economic development and the exigencies of globalization. It secularized, adopted an American curriculum, and, by the time I was in high school, relocated to an artificial island conveniently located near the regional headquarters of Procter & Gamble and Nestlé SA. My commute was fairly typical: I’d leave my hillside home and traipse past a third century Shinto shrine through a maze of narrow alleyways to join my schoolmates aboard a fully automated, driverless monorail that would deposit us on the island. A flat, soulless tract mimicking the streetscapes of North American suburbia, it had roads laid out in a perfect grid, a Wendy’s and Cinnabon beckoning from a nearby mall. It was a daily 45-minute exercise in learning to shut out the country we lived in and immerse ourselves in a land quite literally constructed out of the ocean to suit foreign sensibilities.
Like students at almost every international school, we celebrated our diversity with a United Nations-like cascade of flags in the atrium and an International Food Fair day, for which moms would spend days preparing Korean bulgogi, Australian pavlovas, and Indian samosas. We all had what we called our passport country, but we defied categorization. One of my oldest friends, Rekha Sachdej, is a trilingual Sikh raised in Japan with a Thai passport. She studied in the U.S. and became a teacher herself; she had a job offer withdrawn by an international school in Bangkok after the school’s board saw her photo and passport. They said she was “not international enough.”
Researchers spoke at our assemblies, telling us we were special TCKs, or “third-culture kids”—transnationals who’d demonstrate to the world how to bridge ethnic, linguistic, and cultural divides. It was a well-intentioned and, for its time, progressive area of academic research. But it planted a dangerous complacency common to international schools: We grew up believing we were immune to discrimination and to discriminating.
I never asked why I had to memorize every U.S. state and capital in primary school but graduated without being able to point to most Japanese prefectures on a map. The Japanese language was an elective (many international schools don’t teach the host-country language at all), and some students spent more than a decade in the country learning barely a lick of it.
No one questioned why, at a school in Asia, not a single leadership or administrative position was ever occupied by an Asian—or a woman, for that matter, aside from a few years when we had a female elementary school principal.
Decades of research have underscored the advantages of being a White student in an industry dominated by White teachers. Students tend to achieve more and be disciplined less under a teacher of the same race. White teachers are more likely to identify White students as gifted. It was a lesson I intuitively grasped. As a youngster, I imbibed VHS recordings of Beverly Hills, 90210 to become more like my American peers—something I did so well that I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to shake people’s assumption that I’m from the U.S., a country I have no ties to. I’m a Japanese-Australian biracial woman who’s spent two-thirds of my life in Asia, but in the parlance of today, I am White-passing. The social alchemy worked.
When I graduated from high school in 1994, international schools were still fairly niche. There were no more than 1,000 worldwide, existing primarily to support Westerners abroad. But the industry was on the brink of a massive expansion. Few industries would benefit more from globalization while simultaneously reinforcing colonial hierarchies so visibly.
Since 2000 the number of schools has soared fivefold, to almost 13,000; the number of students enrolled has surged sixfold, to 6 million; and tuition revenue has soared tenfold, to $53 billion, according to figures from ISC Research, a British company that tracks the industry. Just about every country has at least one international school; the city of Dubai alone boasts 300. When Brexit prompted Deutsche Bank AG to begin returning staff to Germany, the company block-booked hundreds of spots at international schools in Frankfurt. By the end of the decade, the industry’s fee revenue is set to reach $112 billion, according to consultant DeBakey International.
Because there are only so many Western expats to cater to, that growth has had to come from a new market: local populations, especially in Asia and the Middle East. Two-thirds of international schools today are run as for-profit businesses. The biggest global chains, GEMS Education, Nord Anglia Education, and Cognita, jointly operate hundreds of schools. Venerable British private schools—Harrow, Repton, Dulwich, to name a few—are setting up franchises abroad so fast that teachers jokingly refer to them as “pop-up cafes.” The demographics have flipped: About 80% of students now enrolled in international schools are locals, ISC Research estimates.
A ranking system has emerged among parents and teachers, dividing schools into three tiers—unofficial yet explicit enough that relocation consultants refer to it, academic researchers study it, and schools reference it on their websites. These rankings have little to do with educational outcomes. Typically, Tier 1 schools have predominantly Western faculty, are accredited by a Western agency, and have only a small percentage of domestic students. They are the preferred choice of diplomats, bankers, and executives, whose employers usually pay the tuition fees, which rival those of top universities. Tier 2 are a little bit cheaper, a little more local, a little less choosy. Tier 3 are for-profit businesses catering almost exclusively to the domestic market.
Tier 1 schools are hardest for teachers of color to break into. Many stop applying. Parents want White teachers, and the schools are loath to challenge parents. The remit to educate goes only so far.
In 2020, Heidi Dyck Hilty, a former international school teacher, publicly called on schools to start educating parents. In an article for the International Educator, she recounted seeing parents walk out at the first sight of a Filipina teacher, balk at an Indian teacher, and band together to complain about a teacher of Vietnamese origin (who turned out to be Canadian). She wrote of hearing administrators tell staff to change names that were “too ethnic.”
The willingness to indulge parental bigotry can require deception. When a school in Japan hired Charley Mendoza, a Filipina, as a homeroom teacher, it paired her with a young, White, American male aide. Mendoza says staff outright lied to parents, presenting the aide as the lead teacher and Mendoza as his assistant. “It is what it is,” the principal told Mendoza when she complained. “The parents want native speakers for their kids.” He didn’t need to explain that it really wasn’t about her English—after all, Mendoza was schooled in English from the age of 4. Her English is impeccable.
Two practices in hiring are especially pernicious: the “native English speaker” rule and the “local hire” contract. At international schools, a native English speaker isn’t someone who aces language proficiency tests. Nor is it a person who comes from any of the more than 50 nations, from Singapore to Nigeria to India, where English is legally an official language and often the de facto tongue of the highly educated. (Globally, such English speakers outnumber speakers from traditionally Anglophone nations by 3 to 1.) Rather, native English speakers are citizens of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland—and sometimes South Africa, but only the 8% of South Africans who are White (and they count even if their first language is Afrikaans). “That way they manage to exclude most of the world’s Black and Brown people, coincidentally or not,” says Adrian Scarlett, an educator whose career has spanned more than two decades and eight countries, including China, France, and Zambia.
Employment contracts institutionalize a two-class system: expatriate hires vs. local hires. The pay and perks can differ vastly. Safaa Abdelmagid, a graduate of Winona State University in Minnesota with teaching experience in that state, returned to her home country of Sudan to teach alongside White colleagues with similar qualifications. Flush on expat contracts, she says, they saved their entire salaries in bank accounts abroad. Their housing and cars were paid for, and their local “living allowance” funded boat trips on the Nile, safaris, and black-market liquor. Their living allowance alone, Abdelmagid says, was more than double what she earned as a local hire.
The Council of International Schools surveyed 265 heads of school in 2020. Almost 80% were White, and their average salary was $131,410, or 19% more than non-White heads and almost twice the average paid to Black heads. Expats earned 39% more than local hires.
International schools are, of course, a potent example of soft power. The U.K. government accredits those that “actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy.” The U.S. State Department Office of Overseas Schools has provided $50 million over the past three years to about 200 American schools abroad—institutions such as the American International School of Abuja in Nigeria. The school doesn’t provide health insurance to local staff, but subsidizes housing, insurance, and flights for expat hires, who live and teach walled off in an enclave. (In 2020, when Covid-19 struck, the Western expat administrators were the first to hop on flights out of the country, stranding the school without leadership and without forewarning to students and teachers, according to a person then at the school.)
In response to questions, the State Department said it doesn’t directly operate or manage schools but is committed to “equitable recruiting and compensation practices.” Greg Hughes, now the head of the Abuja school, acknowledged differences in the benefit packages of expats and local hires but said all staff are paid on the same “salary scale” and that locals receive “adequate health care and other benefits.”
In the rarefied world of Tier 1 schools, the International School of Geneva boasts an almost unmatched pedigree. The school has produced a stream of notable global citizens since its founding—former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and famed Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, to name a couple.
Ecolint, as it’s known—a contraction of its name in French, École Internationale de Genève—was founded in 1924 by officials of the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization as a repudiation of the destruction and death wrought by World War I. Early on, Albert Einstein inquired about a teaching position for a cousin. In the 1960s an experiment in its classrooms gave rise to the International Baccalaureate, or IB, a university-entrance qualification that’s become the surest pathway to an upper-crust education. Today, students from 140 nations versed in 80 languages attend Ecolint’s three campuses. “The celebration of diversity is part of the school’s DNA,” Conan de Wilde, one of the school’s vice principals, wrote in a chapter for a 2017 pedagogical anthology about international school curricula.
But that celebration of diversity hasn’t yet arrived in the faculty lounge: Ecolint’s teachers and leadership are overwhelmingly White. The school says that under Swiss law, it’s not allowed to determine the racial makeup of its staff. But a 2020 survey by a group of parents found that out of 352 teachers on two of the school’s three campuses, 95% were White. Of the 5% of color, only two faculty members were Black. Ecolint says, based on its observations, it has more Black staff than that. Former students say they can barely recall teachers of color.
That imbalance has had consequences. Five former students, whose enrollment spanned from 2014 to 2021, recount an environment in which faculty were often unwilling or unable to acknowledge racist behavior. The pattern was so egregious that five parents banded together in early 2019 to track incidents and push the school to confront the problem.
Within a year, their group had expanded to 150 and had documented more than 30 incidents compiled from students, staff, and families. Among the incidents was a couple that had to visit the school three times before the administration would discipline a boy who’d bullied their second-grade daughter over the color of her skin. In another case a Black student approached an administrator about peers frequently using the N-word. Was it said “in a racist way?” the administrator asked. “Maybe it was a joke?”
“We did have some incidents that were so undeniably evident about the work that we needed to do,” says David Hawley, Ecolint’s director general. “Unfortunately these are things that are happening in all schools. We are a reflection of society.”
In the fall of 2019, a group of high schoolers addressed faculty, seeking to convey what it was like for students of color at Ecolint. The next day one teacher mocked the presentation in his class. Another called them brats. The message was clear: There is no problem here.
By the end of that school year, it would become evident that when role models are indifferent, bigots are emboldened. In late May 2020 a group of students trolled an online musical event in support of schools in Africa, bombarding the screen with a slew of vitriol such as “All immigrants should be killed.” Days later an Instagram clip began popping up on the phones of Ecolint students. In it a teenage boy from the school takes a running leap at a black inflatable punching bag as a friend mocks in a shrill falsetto, “Is that George Floyd? He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe.” The boy kicks the bag three times before pinning it down with his knee. Before the video got shut down, 150 people, including many students, had given it a like.
Hawley, the director general, confirms the school has work to do, starting with the staff. Ecolint never implemented some of the more egregious practices other schools use, such as the native English requirement and two-tiered contracts, he says. Nonetheless, for every job opening, the school now requires that candidates proceeding to the interview stage be diverse. If the pool isn’t sufficiently diverse, Ecolint halts the process until it is. The school has also established a teacher training program that provides scholarships to individuals from underrepresented groups and guarantees them a two-year appointment upon completion.
“We would like as a minimum goal that the teachers who teach our students have a similar composition as the students they are serving,” Hawley says. “Because a child who is not taught by a diversity of teachers will essentially get a handicapped education. We will be contributing to systemic racism in the world.”
For decades, it had never occurred to me that I’d barely had any teachers of color. The jolt came in the summer of 2020, when I read an open letter by Abdelmagid, the former teacher from Sudan, calling out Search Associates, the industry’s top recruiting company. I began scanning my yearbooks, looking for any non-Whites who’d taught me aside from my Japanese language teachers. Only three in 14 years. Dulled by the mantra of global citizenship, it had taken me 26 years to see what was in plain sight.
I tracked down Abdelmagid in Ottawa, where she lives now. The pleasantly neutral cadence of her English over the phone was instantly familiar, as though an echo from my childhood. She recounted how students and parents had loved her, but the job offers were always scarce and the structural barriers were everywhere. She missed a crucial recruitment fair in London, because the U.K. wouldn’t issue a visa for her newborn daughter. She left a job in Zurich, because Switzerland wouldn’t issue a visa to her Sudanese husband. These were the kind of hurdles White, Western passport holders rarely face. “I was up against a grid that thinks I shouldn’t be there,” Abdelmagid said. So she left teaching. One more Black, Muslim, African woman gone.
Abdelmagid sparked a reexamination in me. I’d believed that my international school education was far superior to what I would have received at a local Japanese school. I’d adopted, uncritically, the premise at the core of the industry’s business model: West is best.
But the data don’t support that. The most rigorous comparison of worldwide scholastic performance at the pre-university level shows no indication that Western or English-language curricula produce better outcomes. Since 2000, East Asian countries have consistently dominated the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, which assesses 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science.
Where a Western-style, English-language education does excel is in securing access—to global business, international politics, scientific research, top academic journals, and more. Simply put, native English speakers hold an insuperable advantage. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham once said this about finding success as a startup founder: “It could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent,” he told Inc. (He wasn’t asked why the majority of global English speakers have to conform to the minority.)
“Education has perpetuated the continuation of the hierarchy between Western superiority and dependency of the colonized,” Jeong-eun Rhee, a professor at Long Island University, wrote in the Multicultural Education Review in 2009. The new imperialism, she noted, is also forging a new class: “a transnational class of professionals, who can live and travel globally while freely conversing with their colleagues in English, the lingua franca of the new imperialism.”
Two Ivy League degrees later, having lived on four continents and worked on five, I can see that I’m both a product and a beneficiary of those forces. The system that molded me is now a mass educational pipeline for 6 million children, replicating privilege across the world.
The international school industry finds itself in an odd state of reversal—a flag-bearer of 20th century liberalism under fire as an anachronistic and toxic legacy of colonialism. Teachers have come forward in open letters to call out schools, administrators, and recruiters for racist practices. A petition begun in 2020 by a teacher successfully drew commitments from four recruiting companies to drop photos from résumés and bar the “native speaker” requirement in job descriptions.
Teach Away said it began removing the term “native English speaker” from its postings last year. Teaching Nomad’s Isis says he supports the sector moving from nationality to the International English Language Testing System as a qualification. “I would love that,” he says. “It would be great for business.”
There are other stirrings of a shift. The International School of Dakar in Senegal changed its recruitment practices in 2019. Traditionally it had favored candidates with IB teaching experience. “An unintended consequence of this was excluding excellent teachers of color” who’d never had the opportunity to teach the IB curriculum, Alan Knobloch, ISD’s director, explained in a post. So the school flipped its criteria to elevate diversity over IB experience. The following school year, 43% of new hires were people of color. At Ecolint, changes to the recruitment process have resulted in an 11% increase in diversity in its teaching staff, according to the school.
How is it possible that so many educators—self-described lifelong learners—and alumni took so long to wake up? Like generations of children who’ve passed through the system, I feel conflicted and complicit. I wonder how much better it would have been for all of us if we’d had more teachers like Abdelmagid, more leaders of color, more women. Surely there’s a way to provide children a pathway to opportunity without asking them to leave their identity behind.
I still love my alma mater, I’m grateful to my former teachers, and my closest friends to this day are from that period. But there’s a nagging regret: I was colonized before I had a say in the matter.
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