Curriculum Opinion

Reauthorization of ESEA: Where in the World Are Languages?

March 02, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By guest bloggers Marty Abbott and Bill Rivers

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is leaving behind world languages. Marty Abbott the executive director of American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and Bill Rivers the executive director of Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL), outline why this should not be the case and how you can get involved.

Demand for World Languages
Global skills are fundamental to responsible citizenship in the 21st Century. The need for global skills has never been as acute, as dynamic, and as challenging, influencing the growth and fulfillment of the individual and carrying significant implications for global security, economic growth, and social justice, both in the United States and worldwide.

What’s more, Americans recognize this. Surveys show that 70% of respondents consider language to be as important as math and science and that our children should be fluent in another language by the time they graduate from high school. Parents all over the country pressure their Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to start language programs at the elementary school level—and increasingly, these parents start charter schools when the local school system doesn’t provide options for learning languages. Forward-looking governors in states as diverse as Utah, Delaware, and Kentucky have started statewide world language initiatives for their K-12 systems. Seals of Biliteracy for the high school diploma have been established in eight states, with legislation pending in at least six more.

A Federal Obligation
Why then do we see K-12 world language education as a “federal problem”? Simply put, the United States Department of Education has an obligation to lead policy on world languages. Why? To begin, it’s worth remembering that there are more than 17,000 public school districts in the United States. Each one has broad discretion over curriculum, and almost all are governed by locally elected school boards. As a result, inclusion of language education at the K-12 level is haphazard at best, and too many LEAs ascribe to the persistent myth that language education is “nice to have,” but that achievement in English language arts and mathematics are first and foremost in the curriculum.

As we know, this myth is demonstrably false. Language programs, and in particular, Dual Language Immersion, have been shown to reverse achievement gaps for the most disadvantaged students in our schools, and Dual Language Immersion participants show impressive results in English literacy and in math. Denying children the opportunity to participate in world language programs because they are seen as “enrichments” constitutes a fundamental affront to the principles of equal access and excellence for all students.

The Federal Role, in our view, is to provide leadership—both in terms of rhetoric and funding—to encourage school systems to add world languages to their curricula. This requires a federally-driven program and funding.

Fortunately, there has been a world-class, innovative world languages program in the US Department of Education since 1991. The Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP), created as a recommendation of the 1979 President’s Commission on Foreign Languages and International Studies, served for 20 years as a living laboratory for world languages, providing three to five year matching grants to Local Education Agencies to seed language programs. There were also options for funding at the state level and in partnership with institutions of higher learning. At the local level, dozens of school districts used FLAP funding to seed language programs, including Memphis, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; Anchorage, Alaska; and Oxford, Mississippi.

But FLAP faces a bleak future, with nothing to replace it. The US Department of Education stopped funding FLAP in 2012 and placed it in the Well-Rounded Program bucket, which hasn’t been funded since. Congress is working to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formerly known as No Child Left Behind. None of the versions of the new Act—Senate, House, Republican, Democratic—have any dedicated programming for world languages.

We Need You!
So what can be done? You can lend your voice to those of the 13,000 language educators of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the 103 organizational members of the Joint National Committee for Languages, by letting the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions know that languages matter. JNCL and ACTFL have a template for messages to the committee; click here to access it and send a message.

It’s too important—we can’t let languages slip through the cracks in the reauthorization of ESEA!

Follow ACTL, JNCL, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum In Their Own Words Why I Kept Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird When Others Wouldn't
A recently retired English teacher explains why she continued to teach the classic novel after it was challenged in her district.
6 min read
Retired teacher Ann Freemon is pictured in Everett, Wash., on November 24, 2023.
Retired teacher Ann Freemon is pictured in Everett, Wash., on November 24, 2023.
Chona Kasinger for Education Week
Curriculum More States Require Schools to Teach Cursive Writing. Why?
Technological advances notwithstanding, advocates give a long list of reasons for teaching students cursive.
5 min read
Photo of child practicing cursive writing.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
Curriculum Computer Science Courses Are on the Rise—But Girls Are Still Half as Likely to Take It
Schools expanded the availability of foundational computer science classes, but stubborn gaps in access to those courses persist.
4 min read
Photograph of diverse group of primary school students using laptops in a bright classroom.
Curriculum Many States Are Limiting How Schools Can Teach About Race. Most Voters Disagree
A majority of polled voters want students to learn about the history of racism and slavery in the United States and its legacy today.
4 min read
The "statue" of Michelle Obama, played by Kaylee Gray, talks to students during Black History Month's wax museum at Chestnut Grove Elementary School in Decatur, Ala., on Feb. 27, 2020. Instead of the usual assembly, Chestnut Grove students played the roles of famous black and white people who contributed to the civil rights movement and black people who have made significant contributions to history.
The "statue" of Michelle Obama, played by Kaylee Gray, talks to students during Black History Month's wax museum at Chestnut Grove Elementary School in Decatur, Ala., on Feb. 27, 2020.
Jeronimo Nisa/The Decatur Daily via AP