Public school expenditures on world language instruction are on the decline. However, America’s need for a national workforce with foreign language skills is on the increase. “It’s not that kids have to learn a language because the U.S. is losing supremacy,” said Jane Swift, CEO of Middlebury Interactive (a world language instruction provider). “On the contrary, learning a language will help the U.S. sustain its leadership position.”
On the occasion of Swift’s upcoming session, “Emerging Development Trends,” at the SIIA Education Business Forum, we discussed the challenges facing world language instruction and how those challenges can be overcome by trends in the education landscape.
I asked her how well the US is preparing students with the language skills and cultural understanding needed to compete in the global marketplace. “Our intentions are good,” said Swift, “but there is not the needed funding to execute on them. Compare public school expenditures between 1997 and 2008. In 1997, thirty-one percent of elementary schools were offering language courses. Now, only 25 percent do; at middle schools that number has dropped from 75 percent to 58 percent.”
Swift attributes this decline to schools’ need to address Common Core standards as well as widespread budget constraints.
Can technology-enhanced instruction help? According to Swift, “digital content and solutions help schools to be more flexible. Whereas before they struggled to find and afford qualified teachers in languages—both who have the ability to speak fluently and be certified to teach that language, now we’re seeing growth in blended learning—where schools can use their scarce budgets better.” For instance, students can work on a computer several days a week learning the target language, then study with a travelling instructor once a week. “This way,” Swift explains, “school districts can expend the impact of one high-quality teacher across schools and grades. We also see schools that use our virtual teachers, especially in uncommon languages.”
But before technology solutions can live up to this ideal, schools need to address their widespread lack of technology readiness. “Technology readiness has been a naïve approach in some schools—buy a bunch of iPads and we’re ready. The hardware devices and tech support at schools still have a long way to go,” noted Swift. While the focus on Common Core may siphon attention and budget away from foreign language instruction, it is also paving the way for greater technology readiness. As Swift observed, “The trend in schools to require electronic assessment for Common Core is going to make their ecosystem better prepared for embracing more technology solutions.”
Technology solutions also help to create the “immersion experience” that transforms language learning from rote vocabulary acquisition to true understanding of another culture. “Advances in audio and video have allowed language learning to become really engaging and to use authentic materials,” said Swift. Social media also plays a key role. “Research-proven pedagogy shows that you can’t speak language unless you know the culture. Connecting to other speakers and cultures through social media has also led to motivation in both students and teachers. “
Asked what else needs to happen to make globalization at the K-12 level a reality, Swift replied: “There needs to be a lot more public awareness of the opportunities students have when they do gain these cultural and language skills—in terms of wage differential. Just like in STEM where folks have done a great job educating the public around the gains kids will get from STEM—such as career preparedness and for driving economic health here in the U.S.” According to Swift, language education groups are starting to band together to talk about the advantages of language acquisition.
To drive the next revolution in education, not just in foreign language instruction, Swift discussed the need to institutionalize more cooperation between K-12 and Higher Ed, and for Higher Ed institutions to get to know the K-12 experience and provide schools with critical services. Some colleges already do this: Middlebury College formed a joint venture with K-12, Stanford ran a charter school in Palo Alto, and Johns Hopkins’ School of Education conducted research on K-12 providers and provided feedback on the efficacy of their solutions. Colleges can also partner with organizations that service K-12 schools.
What are other ways we can drive positive change for education? I look forward to continuing the discussion at SIIA’s Education Business Forum.
Joana Jebsen is President of O’Donnell Learn, a strategic advisory firm with extensive market and product development capabilities. O’Donnell Learn has helped education companies design, build, and launch successful products for the past 23 years. Prior to O’Donnell, Joana held executive roles at HarperCollins Publishers and Questia and consulting roles at Thomson Learning Labs, now Cengage Learning, and Factiva. She sits on the Post-Secondary Board of the SIIA, and spent her formative years in German-speaking countries, where she developed a passion for languages and other cultures.