NRC Sees Deficit in Federal Approach to Foreign Languages

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 03, 2007 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education should have a more visible presence in directing efforts for international education and the teaching of foreign languages, particularly in K-12 education, concludes a report sent to Congress last week by the National Research Council.

The report characterizes the Education Department’s programs for the teaching of foreign languages and cultures as “fragmented.” It says that “there is no apparent department master plan or unifying strategic vision.”

The report, International Education and Foreign Languages: Keys to Securing America’s Future, is available from The National Research Council.

Holly Kuzmich, the deputy chief of staff for the department, which paid for the report, said in an interview last week that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings “thinks we need to do a better job in getting more students to study foreign languages and understand other cultures.”

Ms. Kuzmich said the Education Department’s participation last year in launching the National Security Language Initiative—which supports the teaching of languages considered critical to the nation’s security, such as Arabic, Chinese, and Farsi—is evidence of that assessment.

Among the report’s recommendations are that the department should improve how it evaluates programs in foreign languages and culture; that it consolidate oversight of such programs under a high-level official who would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate; and that the secretary of education, in consultation with the departments of State and Defense, submit a report to Congress on the nation’s needs in foreign languages and international education every two years.

Experts in the foreign-language instruction said most of the recommendations are on target. They also seconded the finding that more resources be spent on the teaching of other languages.

See Also

Read Learning the Language, a blog on the schooling of English-language learners by assistant editor Mary Ann Zehr.

“We need specific legislation and funding to expand the teaching of foreign languages,” said Bret Lovejoy, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, in Alexandria, Va. Increased federal funding would help “leverage state and local money,” he said.

Though the report includes various criticisms of the Education Department, Joy Kreeft Peyton, the vice president of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, said she hopes its release would not be used as an opportunity for “finger-pointing” or saying that department officials “aren’t doing their part.”

Rather, she said, the release is “an opportunity to see what we need and put into place the focus, leadership, and concerted effort across agencies that we need.”

No Congressional Funding

The report notes that the National Security Language Initiative, which President Bush announced in January of last year, never received funding. (“Bigger Ed. Dept. Role Seen in Bush Foreign-Language Plan,” Jan. 18, 2006.) Rather, the departments of Defense, Education, and State reorganized existing programs to carry out some parts of the plan.

In the Education Department, that means a larger proportion of the money in the Foreign Language Assistance Program—the department’s only program that provides grants for foreign-language instruction at the K-12 level—now goes to the teaching of languages considered critical to national security rather than to more traditionally taught languages, such as Spanish and French. Ms. Kuzmich estimated that about 80 percent of the $24 million for that program in fiscal 2007 has gone to schools to teach critical-need languages.

Congress did not appropriate money for the department to implement four other components of the initiative, according to Ms. Kuzmich. Those were underwriting grants for K-16 foreign-language programs, recruiting non- educators who speak critical-need languages to become teachers, establishing a clearinghouse for e-learning in languages, and holding foreign-language workshops for teachers, she said. The department did hold some teacher workshops last summer, but wasn’t able to carry out the three other unfunded parts, she said.

Ms. Peyton, who has been monitoring the teaching of foreign languages in U.S. schools since 1980, said she has read reports dating back to the 1960s, after the Russians launched Sputnik 1, that call for the nation to cultivate a greater pool of fluent foreign-language speakers. “As this report points out, we’re definitely not where we want to be,” she said.

A first step, Ms. Peyton said, would be for Congress to finance the proposals in the National Security Language Initiative.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as NRC Sees Deficit in Federal Approach to Foreign Languages


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