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Foreign Languages Back In The Mix

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The state education department estimates that 15 percent of the 350 school districts in the state do not now offer any such instruction. "I've dubbed this 'back to the future' education,'' says state Rep. Douglas Peterson, who sponsored the language bill. "My parents were required to learn Latin. When I came out of New York 35 years ago, every 5th grader in my elementary school had to choose French or Spanish.''

The new law adds foreign language to the list of subjects for which all Massachusetts students will have to pass a 10th grade competency test, beginning in 1997. The others are English, mathematics, science and technology, history, and social sciences.

According to the Joint National Committee for Languages, Massachusetts joins five other states--California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, and Texas--that mandate statewide assessment in a foreign language. "Twenty-seven states have integrated foreign language into their core curricula,'' says Julie Inman, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based committee, "but very few offer assessments specifically for foreign languages.''

The organization recently released a report concluding that foreign language instruction has "been threatened and bolstered by education reform simultaneously.'' The inclusion of foreign language in the national education goals and in state-level core curricula has helped, the report says, but budgetary constraints and competition with other academic disciplines have hurt.

"Every local district has different priorities and needs,'' Inman says. "Foreign language as a discipline is still viewed by many as a frill.'' What's more, she says, 35 states are experiencing shortages of qualified foreign language teachers.

During the debate over Peterson's bill last year, the state education department expressed doubts about whether school districts without any foreign language program could establish an adequate one in time for students to reach a level in which they could pass a competency test. "But now that it is law, we don't object to the bill,'' said Alan Safran, a spokesman for the department. "We strongly endorse putting assessment tests behind the common core.'' The department is now speeding its plans to assist school districts that do not have foreign language programs. "The question is: How quickly can the districts scale up to make sure all their students have had a chance to learn a language?'' he asks.

Peterson, the measure's sponsor, contends that districts without language programs have plenty of time to hire instructors and should not complain about a lack of money because the state has boosted funding to districts in the name of education reform. "If we are really talking about a world class education, then you can't leave foreign language instruction out of that mix,'' he says, "because the world is teaching its students a second or even third language.''

Peterson, a Democrat, had little trouble persuading Gov. Weld, a Republican, to support his bill. Weld speaks or reads French, Spanish, German, Latin, and ancient Greek.

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