Schools Monday: Language Made Foreign
UPDATED 2 p.m. WITH CHANCELLOR MICHELLE RHEE'S COMMENTS:
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.
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