Ohio schools in need of foreign language 101

The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published an article about the poor performance of students at Ohio’s foreign language immersion schools. While poor test performance is unfortunately common in urban districts, as Fordham’s 2009-10 report card analysis shows, the article also touched on an important issue that gets a lot less attention: the status of foreign language instruction in Ohio.

From a national perspective, Ohio seems to be doing okay. Thirty-five percent of our students in grades 7-12 were enrolled in a foreign language class in 2000, compared to 34 percent nationally. More recent figures show that on average, Ohio’s districts required 1.6 years of foreign language courses for high school graduation in the 2007-08 school year. The national average was 1.4 years.

But these comparisons are incomplete. A better way to measure foreign language preparation in Ohio’s schools might be to look abroad, since our graduates are increasingly competing with young people around the globe.

In many other countries, nearly all students begin learning at least one, sometimes two, foreign languages in elementary school. Foreign language is often a required subject every year through high school graduation. In Ohio, only 20 percent of students in grades 6-8 and a mere three percent of our K-5 students were enrolled in foreign language classes in 2007, according to a recent state report. Most of Ohio’s students have little or no exposure to a language other than English until high school, by which time their ability acquire new languages is significantly reduced.

Of course, many contend that because English is currently the language of international commerce, learning a foreign language isn’t a necessity for our students. And the idea of making more language options available to our youngest learners is appealing, they would say, but Ohio’s looming budget deficit makes implementing it all but impossible.

Certainly, it’s unreasonable to look for increases in spending on foreign language instruction in the next year or two, but unless we begin to see the inadequacy of our current system, language classes will continue to be viewed as peripheral, non-essential “electives,” a perception that is putting our students at a greater and greater disadvantage with every passing year.

Consider for a moment the job market we face today. American businesses are expanding rapidly overseas, even as foreign companies expand on American soil (in 2006, foreign companies employed almost 200,000 Ohioans), producing an unprecedented need for people proficient in foreign languages and cultures. At the national level, the federal government is currently doing all it can to recruit foreign language speakers. The continuing shortage of language experts has already become a security risk that will grow in magnitude if qualified candidates continue to be unavailable.

In response to this rapidly growing demand for foreign language proficiency, Ohio has offered a mediocre response at best. The Ohio Department of Education recently began a two-year revision of Ohio’s foreign language standards, but preliminary reports on the proceedings indicate that more focus is being placed on re-categorizing wording than on raising language class requirements and providing more language study opportunities to students. Some districts in Ohio now offer foreign language immersion schools.

But as the Enquirer pointed out in its article, such schools tend to fall behind in non-language subjects. Further, stories like this one about a French immersion school in Columbus call into question how concerned these schools are about teaching even the target language they are built around. (The school hired four teachers with no French skills--much to the consternation of parents--because of the contract requirement that the first teachers laid off in a district be the first ones re-hired, regardless of the hiring school’s language requirements.)

In order for Ohio’s students to be prepared for competition in the global job market, such shenanigans must come to an immediate halt. They should be replaced with requirements that students begin learning languages earlier than grade 9 and that students take more than 1.5 years of language courses before graduating from high school. In the current budget crunch, expanding funding immediately for such programs may be unrealistic, but possibilities abound for the use of distance-learning technologies and programs like Rosetta Stone, as long as they incorporate substantial interaction with native speakers. The bottom line: If foreign language instruction in Ohio continues to receive only the scraps of district budgets and is held merely to the current paltry standards, our students will never acquire the proficiency they need to succeed in the modern world.

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