A new report from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) shows a promising enrollment increase in foreign-language courses and programs.
But it’s only a slight increase ― from 8.6 million students in 2005 to 8.9 million students in 2008. In fact, foreign-language course-taking decreased in seventeen states. Nationally, only one in five K-12 public school students is taking a foreign language. And, of those students, most are taking foreign language at the high-school level.
These numbers are all the more troubling in light of data from the Center for Applied Linguistics, showing that rural schools and schools whose students are of low socioeconomic status (SES) are disproportionately less likely to offer foreign language instruction.
Confession: I’m not an entirely objective commentator. I had a year-long stint as a foreign language teacher at a French école primaire (elementary school). While the French aren’t anywhere near the top of the PISA charts, they are in-line with the trend in high-performing countries. They are teaching foreign language early, with the goal of near-native proficiency.
In an interview with Ed Week’s Eric Robelen, ACTFL education director said, “We’re still woefully behind almost all other countries of the world, particularly industrialized countries. … When you look at all the other countries that surpass us on the PISA tests, they all have early-language programs, they start children learning language in elementary schools.” Smart practice, for one, because studies have shown that students who take at least one foreign language tend to do better on standardized tests.
The President and Secretary of Education have challenged US students to garner critical language skills. But their talk of a well-rounded education isn’t translating into policy: the President and the DOE continue to focus on STEM initiatives at the expense of other education areas. And the President has proposed consolidating funding for foreign languages into a broader fund, focused on promoting a “well-rounded education.”
Unfortunately, with the President’s (technology-heavy and science-light) STEM-obsessed track record, the words “well-rounded education” ring a bit empty.