Wasted Energy? How Important Are Language Skills in Public Education Anyway?
Original post made
by Fred, Barron Park,
on Mar 18, 2007
Are we all wasting our time focusing on Foreign Language instruction, both Mandarin Immersion and FLES?
I took 5 years of French in public school, some 30 years ago. The benefit was almost nil. All the schools in those days, like now, taught French and Spanish. I've never noted our business or cultural relationship with France or Spain (or other French or Spanish speaking countries) doing anything special (vs., say, Germany or Italy or Japan) as a result. And small wonder, since my French education enables me to read a menu and perhaps the odd museum sign in Paris.
Going back many many years, written and spoken Latin and ancient Greek were required studies for the educated person. Few take Latin and just about none Greek - in fact we mostly find the whole idea quaint (though I much enjoyed my one year of Latin). I look back on mandatory French and Spanish and think the same - it did just about nothing for us. Additional science, math, history, world culture, economics, art, etc. - just about any of them would have been time better spent for the vast majority of kids.
Many proponents of Mandarin Immersion - AND broader elementary language instruction (FLES) - hold out the growing importance of China in business as a key reason to learn Mandarin. But is it true? I have read that in a decade or so, China will have more English speakers than the US, and that English instruction is now mandatory in China from 3rd grade on. So many Chinese, esp those dealing with foreigners, will speak English (as do many, many foreign-facing Europeans). And that's not because the US is important - it's because English is the lingua-franca of business worldwide. So how useful will our efforts really be?
Wouldn't it be better to see our reasources - dollars, classroom hours, adminstrative attention - go to things we KNOW are and will be important - math and science, writing and reading, history and world culture. Understanding Chinese history, culture, and politics seems FAR more useful to me than trying to learn Mandarin (either by immerision or otherwise). I don't have to speak French to fathom how the French behave or understand the drivers of French business and politics.
So let the flavor-of-the-month come and go - be it MI or FLES. Let's beef up our basics, esp in K-5, and make sure our kids are prepared for whatever the world serves up in 30 years.
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Posted by Simon Firth
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 19, 2007 at 9:47 pm
Thank you, Paul for you eloquent and thoughtful contributions here -- I am with you one hundred per cent.
I especially support your questioning of what it means for our children to be educated. I think we have a tendency in this community to equate success in education with high test scores and with entrance to brand name colleges, regardless of their match for the particular child. A number of recent books, among them Denise Clark Pope of Stanford's 'Doing School,' show the poor logic behind such thinking. A shocking percentage of children who score very well on their English SATs and enter 'top tier' institutions, for example, still need remedial composition work in their freshman year.
Pope's thesis is that this happens because the kind of learning encouraged by 'teaching to the test' is quickly forgotten. Instead, she argues, we need to foster real, and resilient, cognitive skills in our children, especially their abilities in creative thinking and critical reasoning. I agree.
To do this within a revenue-limited public school system might mean putting less pressure on our best students to score off the charts in their standardized tests and instead advocating that they learn how to think clearly and creatively, and argue well (and giving them space and time to do it). It might also mean we advocate that students consider colleges with which some of their friends' parents may not be familiar. As the people behind books such as 'Colleges that Change Lives' argue, students from lesser known colleges often outperform the graduates of famous schools. And as Time reported in its Aug 2006 article, 'Who Needs Harvard,' "for students aspiring to go to graduate school, the more personalized education offered at small schools can often provide the best preparation. Pomona College sent a higher percentage of its students to Harvard Law in 2005 than Brown or Duke."
One reason for this, Pope's work suggests, is that the 'high achievers' who get into the famous schools expend too much of their effort on playing the college-entrance game, a skill that has little relevance when it comes to succeeding in college , or in later life, where you are need to be able to develop your own theses (or business plans, or marketing strategies or project outlines) and advocate for them persuasively. The fault lies with university admissions policies, parents and teachers all, but leadership from a 'high-achieving' school district would be a good place to start redefining what it means to be educated by which I do not mean lowering our expectations of our students, but redefining what excellence amounts to in education.
Fred is worried out the test numbers in the SARC reports. I say, though, that it's teaching students to get better numbers on these tests that's the problem. Yes, we need to expect high achievement. But do these tests really measure that?
Fred also says our problem in the PAUSD is how we choose our priorities he advocates art, music, math, science, reading, writing, history, and world cultures before languages. I think the problem is more fundamental than that. It's how we test for educational achievement that's the problem and so long as we keep bowing to the all powerful API, STAR and CST, no additional focus on 'the basics' like math and English are going to help.
I do agree with Fred, and Eric, in their analysis that we have a problem with an absence of leadership in advocating for what our district's teaching priorities should be. It's not just that someone needs to be a persuasive advocate for a particular set of curricular subjects, however. We also need both a BOE and a superintendent able to articulate what an education is for today, what it should constitute and how it should best be delivered in a public setting. I'm not sure we're getting that right now.
I think this ties in with the question, asked on an earlier thread here, of whether the PAUSD really is a great school district. There's a knee jerk assumption that it is simply because it scores well on standardized tests. I wonder, though, if it could do a lot better by its students than it does right now? For me, certainly, a great school district would have the courage to do more (and ask more of its students and parents) than to focus on scoring high on standardized tests and sending students to well known universities.
Having said all this, I do believe that languages are vitally important precisely because they help develop the kind of reasoning and thinking skills that I've spoken of above.
So, I think we really do need to address languages in the next round of priority setting and find a place for them for ALL children at the earliest possible grade level.
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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 25, 2007 at 8:29 am
Back fill on SI has not been a burning issue. Turnover has been very low, and there has not been a situation where the census fell below "critical mass." I do not have detailed first hand knowledge of kids who have left the program and how kids have been brought in after K-1, but my hunch is between Spanish speaking families already in the community, and Stanford grad students who move here with their Spanish speaking famiiies, keeping the census at balance has been fairly easy to accomplish for the very few openings that have occurred.
The key point is that most experiences with Immersion programs is that the retention rates are high, and no programs find themselves at risk due to attrition. Could it be a problem if MI were introduced in PAUSD? Yes, but this is a red herring, not a major consideration, but in theory a slight risk, which do occur in life from time to time when some action is taken.
As regards facilities--this is a thorny issue for the District. It is a plain fact that modulars are being added due to growing enrollment. It also is a fact that if another choice program--in this case MI--were introduced at this time, it would draw from the exisitng pool of students, no new students would be attending PAUSD due to the new choice program (interesting tangent I could go on about what happens if there were a Charter, but I will stay on point.)
The two bones of contention, as I perceive the facilities matter, have to do with enrollment in neighborhood schools, and opening a 13th elementary school. Choice programs, and how many choice programs, complicate this issue, because facilities is definitely a pie slicing operation. Even if choice schools were not part of this district, we would be experiencing some of these challenges right now.
There are plenty of other strings about facilities, so I will just make a couple of observations. First, there is a very clear process being followed via AAAG, to address this matter. This work is getting top priority in the district right now, resources at Churchill are focused on it, other things are waiting in line in order to get the facilities and attendance/school enrollment determined in the short and medium terms. I am not involved in this at all, but there are many people who are, and from what I understand, anyone who wishes to participate in the discussions around this are welcome to do so. The key deliverable will be setting boundaries for what school different neighborhoods will flow to going forward.
The 13th school has been held out as a way to preserve the nieghborhood schools and also provide the opportunity to provide more choice programs in a school facility that has such a mission. The idea would be three campuses, Ohlone, Hoover, and Campus "C" would offer choice programs exclusively, and a school such as Escondido, current a hybrid of neighborhood and choice (SI), would go back to serving exclusively as a neighborhood school. SI, along with other language immersion or perhaps some other choice concept, would move to Campus C.
On the surface, this seems like a very logical and appropriate way to preserve both the neighborhood and choice models that the community values, and are district policy. It largely comes down to a financial question, if I have followed the discussion correctly, as it is relatively more expensive to operate 13 elementary schools than it is to operate 12 schools with modulars--same student count in both cases. At some point, adding more modulars becomes impractical, and then a 13th school must be opened, so demographic projections on future enrollment become important in determining when that point of inflection will arrive--and if it will last.
Not an easy question! Largely has nothing to do with achievement levels, curriculum design, language instruction, choice programs. But, add those matters into the mix, and it does require some clear minds to understand the calculus, and such clear minds may come to different conclusions about what we do at this point. And that is where we are.
Fred, on your achievement gap question--it is an important item, and I make the offer to buy you a cup of coffe at your Peet's of choice so that I can provide you with an understanding, from my point of view, of how addressing this requires a different playbook and resources than are needed for addressing foreign language policy matters. You ultimately may not agree with my premise that they are separate challenges, both important, that can be handled concurrently. I perceive you still think there is a direct trade-off between the two, which is not how my experience suggests is the case, but I may be missing something here that you can help me understand. If nothing else, we can talk about the Red Sox.