Student Well-Being Opinion

The Value of Middle School Travel Programs

By Heather Singmaster — February 14, 2019 7 min read
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Across the country, we face a shortage of workers with foreign-language skills: Between 2010 and 2015, job postings for bilingual workers more than doubled. This is only increasing, with some reports predicting that by next year, language skills will top the list of the most desirable skills a worker can have—especially Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic.

The United States is not producing nearly enough bilingual workers to meet this demand. Enrollment in higher education language programs is dropping, and only 20 percent of K-12 students study a second language—often not to proficiency. The bright side is that demand for K-12 foreign-language programs remains high, especially for elementary immersion programs, which remain oversubscribed as there are not enough spaces for all interested students due primarily to budgets and a shortage of teachers.

Once students are in the elementary immersion programs, another challenge emerges: keeping students interested in studying the language through middle school and beyond. Middle school is a critical time for language development: If students quit immersion before middle school, they will not have studied enough hours to gain proficiency. Science also shows that a “surge of neuronal growth occurs just before puberty,” making it a prime time for students to more easily learn a language. The research also supports the old saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Yet many students start to lose interest in studying a second language around 4th or 5th grade.

To tackle this particular challenge, many middle school immersion programs have designed a travel experience for their students. This not only provides incentive for the students to continue to study their language through middle school and into high school but also gives them access to authentic learning that teaches them 21st-century skills.

Teacher-Organized Authentic Learning

Kenneth Cushner, emeritus professor of international and intercultural teacher education at Kent State University and the author of the book, “Teacher as Traveler: Enhancing the Intercultural Development of Teachers and Students,” states that travel abroad can greatly impact students and “lead to intellectual growth, spiritual awakening, and a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself and one’s immediate surroundings—be that nature, other people, or both.” He cautions that many student trips do not lead to this deep learning, focusing instead on flags, food, and festival (surface-level) aspects of the culture and keeping students together as a group rather than allowing them to interact authentically with locals. This is often the case with student-travel packages sold by companies.

However, many of the middle school Mandarin immersion travel programs are designed and led by teachers. The Chinese Research Residency (CRR) designed by Portland public schools middle school teachers serves as a good illustration. As part of the CRR, 8th grade students travel to China, stay with a host family, and complete a journal, a capstone project, an inquiry project, field research, and a short video documentary, all of which involve navigating the city of Suzhou by themselves using their language skills. They also help organize the trip, choose chaperones, and present their project to their peers upon their return. The costs for this trip are offset by Shu Ren, a locally-run parent organization that begins fundraising for each class as they enter kindergarten.

Benefits of Study Abroad for All Students

The Portland public schools (PPS) program is one of the oldest foreign-language immersion programs in the country and has grown to include approximately 10 percent of all PPS students. The program is dedicated to equity by focusing on immersion as a strategy to help English-language earners (ELLs) and by using a weighted lottery model. A study of the program, conducted by the RAND Corp. and the American Councils, found that immersion students, whether ELLs or non-ELLs, were seven months ahead in reading proficiency by the end of 5th grade and nine months ahead by the end of 8th grade. Parents and Shu Run leadership strongly believe that students would not stay as involved in the immersion program without the incentive of the 8th grade China Residency Program. If students do not stay in the program, they clearly cannot reap the benefits of it. (Full disclosure, my son is currently enrolled in the elementary Mandarin immersion program in PPS and has been excited for the trip since starting 2nd grade.)

Not much hard research has been done on the value of middle school travel, but there are two programs that are collecting data. D.C. public schools (DCPS) in the District of Columbia has also made it their mission to allow equitable travel opportunities for K-12 students. By summer of 2019, 1,570 students will have traveled on fully funded programs; 91 percent are students of color, and 85 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. George Washington University has partnered with DCPS to study the outcomes of the student-travel program. So far, the program has shown many positive results including increased self-confidence and confidence in making friends and “enhanced feelings of gratitude and motivation for learning.” But the one I find most interesting is that although students were challenged in speaking a foreign language while abroad (all students must have two years of foreign-language experience in order to apply to travel), they also found traveling enjoyable, and the experience motivated them to continue studying a language.

At Democracy Prep Charter Schools in New York City, 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, yet more than 60 percent of students will travel abroad by the time they graduate from high school. Eighty-five percent of the cost of travel is subsidized by the school. The mission of Democracy Prep is to"educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship.” Travel (although not linked to learning a foreign language) supports this mission, as evidenced by the fact that, in 2018, the average college acceptance rate for seniors at this school was 38 percent for those who had not traveled abroad and 48 percent for those who had.

Impacting Mindsets and Developing In-Demand Skills

First and foremost, students gain more openness to other cultures and people—those from Democracy Prep who, when surveyed prior to and upon returning from their trips abroad, showed growth on statements like “I think of myself as a citizen of the world” and “I think my behavior can impact people in other countries.”

And then there are the skills that are developed. Look at any survey of the skills that an employer wants in a new hire—or better yet, ask any business owner—and you will see some version of these skills: independence; self-starting; open to challenges; creative problem-solving; effective communication; and empathy, respect, and an understanding of others. If you release a student into Suzho and give them a destination and let them figure out how to get there on their own, what kind of skills will they develop? That is a large challenge to tackle independently, requiring the student to be a problem-solver, who will definitely need to communicate—especially after getting lost.

Science has also shown that travel can affect one’s brain and make it more creative—neural synapses respond to new smells, taste, sounds, and language. Surface-level travel like spring-break trips won’t do it, however. “The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment,” says Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of many studies on the subject of creativity and international travel.


Travel programs aren’t easy. They involve a lot of hard work from students, parents, educators, and administrators who put in place the mechanisms to allow travel to happen. Funding is always an issue, but there are ways to get creative with funding (as Democracy Prep has done); or seek grant funds (as D.C. public schools did); or promote parent-led fundraising that begins years in advance of travel (as Shu Ren does).

Even when a program is well-established, the challenges won’t stop. In the name of equity, the Portland school board wants to place severe restrictions on foreign travel, threatening to end the Chinese Research Residency, which in turn would endanger their nationally respected immersion program that provides a proven strategy for providing ELL students with an equitable education.

Despite the challenges, the benefits far outweigh the cost and the work. Who wouldn’t want to provide an opportunity for students to gain a leg up on the global economy by not only becoming proficient in a language but also reaping the most in-demand skills valued in today’s job market? Instead of placing limits on travel, districts should follow in the footsteps of the D.C. district and work to expand these travel opportunities to all students.

We invite you to share how your school or program is designing and funding travel-abroad programs in the comments section below. You can find additional resources and learn more about getting started with middle school travel here.

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

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