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Schools Monday: Language Made Foreign


Half a century ago, D.C. public school students on the honors track were required to take four years of foreign language to be graduated from high school. Today, fewer than one-third of D.C. public high schools even offer a four-year language program; most offer but two years, and some, only one.

Now comes the reform brigade of Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty, and what do they want to do with one of the most critical areas of study, one of the few places on the education landscape where even this back to the basics-obsessed federal administration is pumping in millions of new dollars? Why, scrap the ninth grade foreign language program--at least for the most academically needy students.

In a Feb. 8 memo, D.C. schools Chief of Teaching and Learning Sherry Ulery announces that at the most academically troubled high schools in the District--the 10 out of 15 high schools that have persistently failed federal test standards--those ninth graders who have fallen far behind will no longer be offered foreign language, but will instead take just English, math, science, and one semester of World History.

Not until tenth grade will those students start a language, and that is the only year in which language study is to be required.

The change is the result of a drive to focus on getting those students up to snuff in English and math--the subjects tested under the No Child Left Behind regimen that drives so many public school decisions these days.

"This leaves no time for foreign language for ninth graders, which interrupts foreign language for many incoming students," says Erich Martel, a Wilson High teacher who has spoken out against the new schedule and its rigid focus.

"You can't necessarily learn French all that well if you don't have a strong grasp of the English language," Chancellor Rhee told me today. But Rhee says the restriction is aimed only at students who have dropped behind the rest of their grade by "three or four levels. Any kid who is performing at grade level can take foreign language."

Remarkably, despite the premium the business and political worlds put on globalization, the District is hardly alone in relegating the study of other languages to a back shelf. This list of language requirements in all 50 states shows that most states have no foreign language requirement at all.

Locally, in the well to do suburban districts, advanced students generally take three years of language, but the requirements for all students are minimal. Although there is no foreign language requirement In Fairfax County schools, to qualify for an advanced diploma a student must take three years of a foreign language or two years each of two languages.

The Fenty administration's own reform plan calls for an expansion of language instruction to middle and elementary schools, with new programs being phased in starting in 2009.

And Rhee says she will move aggressively to add higher levels of language instruction at all high schools starting this fall. The chancellor says she does not know exactly what portion of kids at the most troubled high schools fall into the category of students who will be excluded from foreign language, but it will vary considerably from school to school.

Meanwhile, the system continues to add language instruction at some elementary and middle schools. "Early exposure to foreign languages facilitates" mastery, the Fenty plan says. But that's nothing new: A plan to pump language instruction into the middle schools was in place under Rhee's predecessor, Clifford Janey. Nothing came of that.

A 2005 report by Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools found the level of language instruction to be dismal:

In 1948, all comprehensive [D.C.] high schools offered three, and most offered four foreign languages. Today, only one high school has a Latin teacher, and only two have German teachers. Two offer only one foreign language, either French or Spanish; of those that offer two, two schools have only two years of each language. Contrast Fairfax County high schools: all 24 offer French and Spanish, 20 offer German, and 9 offer Japanese. Any language offered includes courses at least through Level 4, enabling students to take at least four full years of a language.

This sorry situation comes as the Bush Administration, embarrassed and frightened by the pathetically weak state of foreign language instruction nationwide that became evident in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, is pouring money into foreign language instruction. Big budget increases are meant to support and expand the teaching of languages, especially Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi.

Of course none of those languages is taught systemwide in the District. And nationwide, schools continue to cut back language instruction, finding language teachers among the easiest positions to cut when budgets get tight.

Rhee has repeatedly said she wants to not only strengthen student test scores but instill a love of learning and expand students' horizons. She often speaks about restoring art, music, and physical education to the curriculum. But foreign language is a subject especially well suited to efforts to bridge the racial achievement gap that lands the D.C. system at the bottom of most school rankings. A comprehensive language training program that starts with rigorous efforts in elementary school and continues all the way up through high school can be every bit as valuable as math or science in helping kids from poor homes break through.

In this climate in which inner-city schools are increasingly judged by the number of AP tests their students take, depriving any students of ninth-grade language courses makes it extremely unlikely bordering on impossible for them to reach the Advanced Placement level in their studies. Rhee says it is "absolutely our goal at every school to enroll students at an aggressive trajectory so they can reach the AP level in every subject, including foreign language."

But while the chancellor intends to make "tremendous progress toward that goal" at the start of the 2008-09 school year, she said it would take more than one year to complete that project.

If the chancellor is serious about injecting rigor and excitement into the system's classes, making certain that students graduate having mastered another language would be a real leap forward.

By Marc Fisher |  March 3, 2008; 8:13 AM ET
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Interesting. My friend went to a technical high school (private school not being an option, and the local school being less than appealing) and later, when he tried to get into the University of Rhode Island, was told he'd have to hit the community college because, in addition to a less than tight English requirement at his high school, he didn't have any foreign language background.

I am a keen language enthusiast, having studied Spanish, French before and in middle school, adding Latin in high school, and German and Russian in college.

Don't these education experts realize what language brings to a curriculum? Let me guess, they already took out art and music?

I was very lucky to go to a place where the public schools, by anyone's standards, were phenomenal. But I'm constantly reading about the education problems in this area and I am appalled.

Can't the administrators see that these children need more than to be able to check off the correct boxes on a test written by adults interested in federal grant monies?

I student taught French in a classroom of 9 inner city kids, 6 of whom did not speak English at home, and all of who had come to the U.S. within the past 3 years. And it was so exciting to see their faces light up when they would suddenly understand something -- in this class, they were special, because they could do it.

Ugh. Education around here makes me sick and I can't figure out what I need to do to help.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 3, 2008 9:18 AM

May be someone here should look at curriculae in other countries, like Eastern Europe, China, Korea. You will be shocked to find out what those kids are studying. Kids here are being dumbed down in a big way, hence the need for foreign engineers, scientists etc, all the while American kids are stuck with nothing, because jobs at the other end of the payscale, like cleaning, construction etc., are given to illegals from South America.
Kids in Russia start studying foreing language in 4th grade and go on to study it until 12th grade. Physics starts at 5th grade (goes on until 12th grade), Chemistry , Algebra and Geometry -- 7th grade, biology -- 4th grade.

Posted by: Irina | March 3, 2008 9:25 AM

Another component to the problem is that for most school districts foreign languages -- note the plural -- equals Spanish. Now I hate to fan the flames of the whole immigration debate, but the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants has distorted our whole idea of foreign languages. I received some important insight into the issue when I recently served as on a parent advisory committee for a local county school system. While none of us wanted to dismiss Spanish, our whole agenda was, isn't there a way that all these languages which are generally considered strategic and undertaught could be introduced into our curriculum? The consistent answer we got from our school administration rep was "no." And a big part of the reasoning centered on the fact that so many of the student population were from Spanish-speaking families, even if they might have grown up speaking more English than Spanish. She was straightforward about the fact that the main goal of the program was that these heritage speakers did not lose their native skills. I am not going to say that this is not a worthy goal, but is this really foreign languages?

There was an interview with the National Director of Intelligence in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago in which he pointed out that we better not get into a hacking war with the Chinese since they have tens of millions of IT specialists who speak English, while how many do we have who know Chinese?

Posted by: $0.02 | March 3, 2008 10:14 AM

Mon Mar 3, 2008 at 8:32:34 AM EST

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Posted by: | March 3, 2008 10:33 AM

That the USA is headed down the tubes on a raft of ignorance should come as news to nobody.

First and foremost, all coursework in the Spanish language in all US schools, below high-school level, should be BANNED. This is to prevent people who speak Spanish at home from being passed on as "good students" because they can converse in their native language. Comparably, native speakers of English who cannot write a clear sentence by the time they are 10 ought to be kept back until they can write a clear sentence in English. They should then advance no more than one grade until they can write a clear paragraph in English.

Only when generally competent in their own language should US students be both allowed and encouraged to study foreign languages. Admittedly, my own understanding of English was more improved by my first month of French -- thanks to an excellent and thorough teacher -- than by all of the years subsequent or previous in English coursework. This isn't to say that we can't do a much better job of teaching English in the very young age groups, so as to reasonably allow the study of other languages as well.

Posted by: klaatu1 | March 3, 2008 11:06 AM

Children in most industrialized countries speak at least two languages fluently by high school. Often three. One example: Every child in the Netherlands begins foreign language instrustion beginning at age five (English). By high school many there speak three or more languages. The US is so behind in the language area. The media, including the Wash. Post, does nothing to alert its readers as to how much we lag. Come on, Jay, how about a story on this?

Posted by: It is much worse than that | March 3, 2008 11:34 AM

To "It is much worse than that, don't blame Jay. He has done several stories on this issue.

Posted by: $0.02 | March 3, 2008 11:40 AM

While the current state of language instruction is pretty poor in both DC and the US, there is a reason for the cutback. As the principal of a newly-opened high school in Denver noted, "if you want to know why we have English classes with 37 students in them, look to the Intermediate Japanese class with two students enrolled." With a limited number of teachers and facilities, educators feel they have to focus on basic skills. This is particularly unfortunate nowadays with Spanish broadcast networks and cable sources like MHZ, which has a variety of foreign language newscasts that were not available to American students in the past.

Posted by: Sad State | March 3, 2008 11:56 AM

I don't get it, all of the kids I know in kindergarten and Pre-K in DC are in Spanish Immersion or Bilingual classes. Are you saying that Spanish Immersion and bilingual classes are in Elementary school only? That doesn't make sense. Why do they stop in High School?

Posted by: DCer | March 3, 2008 12:29 PM

Hey, Marc, um, I don't know if you actually read people's comment on here, but just to let you know, your latest blog isn't showing up when you go through the blog directory. If you go through the directory, you just get an old blog post about having chicken and packing.

Posted by: Ryan | March 3, 2008 12:46 PM

Part of the problem with extending immersion to high school is our standardized, test-centric system. It is impossible to find materials that match the English versions exactly. What do you think would happen if one year it turned out that kids in Spanish immersion math got averaged 5% lower on their SATs? Let predict screaming, hollering, and lawsuits.

Posted by: $0.02 | March 3, 2008 12:49 PM

Not to mention the professional environment. I can't even count how many Americans we have not given jobs to and hired foreigners instead because the Americans had zero foreign language experience. Now, because of stricter Visa laws we hit our limit on foreign workers (who are already going at a premium). So what are we supposed to do? We need foreign speakers but none of these local graduates speak foreign languages and we can't hire from abroad? We had to expand our European office instead.

How can our gov't preach free trade but not give us any tools to compete?

In our Europe office they pay roughly 15% more in taxes every year but in exchange they don't have to pay anything for workers health care or pensions and they have access to a huge and talented workforce with no college debt to repay. After all is said and done it actually costs us as an employer more to employ less talented workers in the US.

I'll gladly pay 15% more for a better educated workforce that I don't have to provide health care or retirement for and who can get further education without us having to pay $30,000/year.

Health Care

All should be the responsibility of our government if they want to keep any jobs in this country.

Posted by: Southeasterner | March 3, 2008 12:50 PM

Thanks, Ryan--I'll see if we can get that fixed.

Posted by: Fisher | March 3, 2008 1:08 PM

Given the many articles Marc published extolling the virtues and merits of the Michelle Rhee "education reform" plan, reading article makes me believe he feels duped. There have been so many recently published contradictory and outlandish articles about Rhee's DCPS special ed, budget and spending developments that run counter to stated "innovative reform plan" that looks to me anyone who initially gave credibility to Rhee's pronouncements now see she and her plans are half-baked, if not basic dry ingredients still in the mixing bowl.

While this Fisher article rightfully articulates the academic benefits of foreign language, it is Marc's last few paragraphs that best convey his true feelings of betrayal at supporting the Rhee/Fenty propagandized plan.

Interestingly, he loved her just a few weeks ago... "The chancellor brings a determined mix of charisma and reformer's zeal to the job. Even antagonistic audiences want to believe in her. Her rhetoric lines up well with the historic gripes that have dominated the system: She's all about smashing the barriers to delivering the same education whether kids live in poverty or affluence."

Sounds like Fisher actually believed in Rhee and her "education reform plan," - so much so that one of Fisher's more recent articles takes great aim at protesters and opponents of the school closure plans. Marc reveled in chastising protesters and opponents.

Now... suddenly... Fisher sounds outdone... offended... completely aghast. He now takes to task "the reform brigade of Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty, and what do they want to do with one of the most critical areas of study, one of the few places on the education landscape where even this back to the basics-obsessed federal
administration is pumping in millions of new dollars? Why, scrap the ninth grade foreign language program--at least for the most academically needy students."

Uh, Marc.... what happened? Isn't Rhee she still "smashing barriers?" What about that "determined mix of charisma and reformer's zeal" he embraced so heartily?

Could it be that the "education reform plan" that now includes eliminating foreign language has left Marc Fisher with a large splattering of egg on his face? Might he feel a bit betrayed, even gullible that he devoted so much press doing rah-rah Rhee pieces that he can barely contain himself with this thinly veiled lash piece?

Course, could it also be that Marc Fisher is a Ward 3 resident, and views this particular "innovative educational reform decision" a worse case for he and other Ward 3 parents and/or residents? Seems plausible.

Either way, in reading this article, Marc appears to have now joined an every growing affiliation - the "Yeah, I Was Suckered into Believing the Michelle Rhee/Adrian Fenty Education Hype" Club.

One consolation for Fisher is that the full city council is there to keep him company.

Posted by: Carolyn C. Steptoe /Ward 5 | March 3, 2008 3:21 PM

"You can't necessarily learn French all that well if you don't have a strong grasp of the English language," Chancellor Rhee told me today.

Excuse me Ms. Rhee, but every single one of these kids has, and has had since about age seven, a very nearly perfect grasp of some language. That the language they know isn't Standard American English should not be a barrier for them learning French, or Arabic, or whatever language they elect to study in school. That is unless, of course, you are relying on absolutely antiquated language teaching theories and methodology!

Please, Marc, get some real language teaching professionals who have a decent grasp of second language learning in on this conversation.

Posted by: contrarymom | March 3, 2008 3:54 PM

I have no argument with the idea that second and third languages are useful--to some people in some fields. Those people--a brother-in-law of mine--are able to learn what they need in an immersion course when they know what language is required and the reason for learning it is clear to them. High school students, however, really don't know what they're going to do and don't know what languages are important to them. And if they can't be shown credibly why foreign languages are important, they won't learn much.
And let's face it: We can't predict what languages will be important when they graduate. I was in high school forty years ago, and teachers urged students to take French because it was "the language of diplomacy." By the time my kids were in school, the hot language was Spanish because so many immigrants spoke one variety of it or another (but not necessarily the Castillian Spanish taught in the classroom). Now Arabic and Chinese are considered vital.
The right foreign language at the right point in one's intellectual development is a good thing, but that point may not be high school.

By the way, klaatu, at the college where I teach, students whose native language is Spanish generally receive warnings from our counselors that a Spanish course is not likely to be an easy A. Those warnings are based on the experiences of former students.

Posted by: Realist | March 3, 2008 4:32 PM

Interesting comment re: Fairfax County Schools. My son is a first-grader at Island Creek Elementary School. The last 2 summers we've had surveys sent home asking about foreign language interest so kids could take after-school classes (FFX Co calls this program "FLEX"). My MIL is French so I asked for French classes for my son. He wasn't allowed to take the French class offered last year because he was only in kindergarten. This year, despite the survey, we've had no foreign language classes offered at all! Despite my asking why this was, never did get an answer.

Posted by: Chris C. | March 3, 2008 4:39 PM

Wake up Marc, and smell the chalk. I still find it truly amazing that you are sometimes very discerning and insightful as a journalist, however thoroughly gullible about the Fenty-Rhee education takeover plan. You're right that language, including the communication arts, is a critical component in educational excellence. Nevertheless, many of you commentaries on the Fenty administration's so called "restructuring plan" had obvious holes, and hype clearly seen by the actual parents, teachers and students affected by this ongoing governance sham. Perhaps you'll consider another viable option and voice about improving public education in the capital city of the world's most influential nation:

Dennis Moore, Chairperson
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control

Posted by: Dennis Moore DCICC | March 3, 2008 5:12 PM

The politics of crackhead economics has become a fine art and trademark in D.C. governance. I still find it amazing that any truly discerning and informed District citizen would still be gullible about the Fenty-Rhee education takeover plan. Nevertheless, many news stories here and elsewhere on the Fenty administration's so called "restructuring plan" continue to ignore the obvious budget holes and political hype clearly seen by the actual parents, teachers and students directly affected by this ongoing sham against educational excellence, good governance and fiscal competence. It's 'Amateur Hour' in the District. Since 1 plus 1 does not equal 11, the expanding D.C. budget gaps will disqualify most of Fenty's campaign promises on systemic education improvements. He's hoping a potential President Obama will bail him out.

In the meantime, follow the (on and off the record) taxpayer money. In actuality, there is no actual Fenty "takeover plan" other than the planned obsolescence of the District of Columbia's public schools to pay for the D.C. fiscal crisis to come.
Dennis Moore, Chairperson
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control

Posted by: Dennis Moore DCICC | March 3, 2008 6:12 PM

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