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N.Y. Considers Foreign-Language Requirement

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New York may become the first state to require every elementary-school student to study a foreign language and pass a statewide test in it before leaving sixth grade.

The foreign-language requirement is part of a comprehensive plan being developed by the New York State Board of Regents to introduce "global education" into all the state's schools.

Under a proposal currently being considered, the state education department would spend $13 million over 10 years to develop new curricula, retrain teachers who now speak only one language, set up a network of regional resource centers and demonstration projects, and write new statewide examinations.

The plan is intended to systematically introduce students to other cultures, a task that in the past has been left largely to social-studies teachers.

The goal of the global-education effort, according to a recent draft of the proposal, is to develop in students "an understanding of the interaction among their own and other cultures in an era of change, diversity, and conflict; and an understanding of the world as a network of interdependent cultural, social, economic, and environmental systems."

"The days when we could withdraw into a shell are gone," said Martin C. Barell, a member of the board of regents. "The world is much smaller today; it is imperative that students have a knowledge of how it works."

In their discussions of the plan, the regents have emphasized the dependence of New York's economy on foreign trade and the state's prominence in international commerce.

However, the New York State School Boards Association is strongly opposed to the plan on the grounds that it represents a costly new curriculum mandate.

"Knowledge of other cultures does not require a specific [curriculum] mandate," said Richard O. Weber of the school-boards association's legislative-services office. "The proposal contains a set of rather unreal expectations."

The New York State United Teachers group, which represents 90 percent of the state's teachers, supports the global-education plan in general and the elementary-school language requirement in particular.

Robert J. Maurer, executive deputy commissioner in the state's department of education, said, "No one is saying that there will not be problems in implementing the proposal, but if we do not make some moves now, we are going to be at a very big disadvantage in world markets in the near future."

While the state department of education will spend $13 million to start the global-education program, there are no precise estimates of the cost of the elementary-school language requirement to local school districts. School District 19 in Brooklyn has spent about $57 per student per year to teach Spanish as a second language to all of its 20,000 elementary-school students.

Minimal Cost to Districts

Mr. Maurer said the state education department is trying to devise ways to put the foreign-language requirement into effect at minimal cost to school districts. Among the possibilities are retraining single-language teachers and having regular and bilingual teachers switch roles during certain class periods.

However, Mr. Maurer acknowledged that the program may be very costly in rural school districts, which have few bilingual teachers and would be forced to hire new language teachers.

Under the regents' proposal, study of a foreign language will be optional for students after the sixth grade, although those talented in foreign languages will be encouraged to continue their studies. The plan does not require students to pass a foreign-language examination in order to graduate.

According to state figures, 3 percent of New York's 1.29 million elementary-school students are currently enrolled in foreign-language programs. Thirty-six percent of the state's high-school students take a for-eign language. Nationally, the figure is 17.8 percent for high-school students, according to a 1978 survey by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

No state currently has an elementary-school foreign-language requirement.

However, some school districts, such as New York City, have recently adopted policies requiring students to take at least one year of a foreign language in order to earn a diploma.

The New York City public schools require foreign-language study in their college-preparatory course of study leading to an "academic" diploma, one of three granted by the system.

A bill in Congress that would, among other things, grant $10 million to state education departments to reward "innovative" foreign-language teaching was reported out of the House Education and Labor Committee but has been tied up in the House Rules Committee and is not expected to be considered during this session of Congress, according to Congressional aides.

The state board of regents is expected to vote later this month to distribute its global-education plan for official public comment. A public hearing would follow in the fall, after which the regents will make a final decision on whether to implement the program.

According to the regents' current schedule, students in the graduating class of 2005 would be the first high-school graduates to have begun foreign-language training in first grade.

J. Edward Meyer, vice chancellor of the regents, said that there is ''solid support" for the entire global-education program among the regents. But he said budgetary restraints leave final approval of the plan "a little up in the air."

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