Aid and Appeals on Foreign Languages

At presidents' summit, Bush administration officials propose Fulbright expansion and ask colleges for help.
January 9, 2006

College presidents attending the second day of a Bush administration summit on foreign languages Friday were asked to do more to help the country improve language learning efforts. But they also learned that they might be receiving more help along those lines, too.

Karen Hughes, Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy, used the occasion to announce a new "International Fulbright Science Award for Outstanding Foreign Students in Science and Technology."

"To ensure that America will remain the center of scientific inquiry and cutting-edge technology, we must find ways to demonstrate America's openness to science, engineering and technology students even at a time when the competition for those high-achieving students is more intense than ever before," she told the group of more than 100 college presidents of American universities and colleges in Washington, who had gathered for the launch of President Bush's National Security Language Initiative.

Under the new program, highly qualified foreign students in science and technology fields would come to the United States for "several years of graduate study at our top-flight science institutions," said Hughes. "Unlike most Fulbright scholarships, which are awarded through bilateral programs, a partnership between the United States and a specific country, this scholarship will be awarded through a single worldwide competition."

The under secretary invited college presidents to partner with the government "to help expand the total number of awards available through tuition scholarships and other support that United States universities have so generously provided the Fulbright program over the past 60 years."

"We intend to make the Fulbright Science and Technology Award the leading international scholarship of its kind and thus signal to the world that the United States intends to be the world's pioneer in these fields of innovation and discovery," said Hughes.

David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said that the reaction by many college presidents was one of "delight." "We have a tough time selling ourselves  internationally," he said, "if we're not taking steps to reach beyond rhetoric, and actually reaching out to the international community." 

"It's a simply impressive proposal," said Ward.

The college presidents at the summit received a direct challenge from another speaker, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who argued that America has a lot of catching up to do in the foreign language learning arena and that the nation’s colleges and universities have a vital role to play.

Spellings urged higher education leaders to work closely with elementary and secondary school educators and implored college officials to offer more foreign language classes for both college and high school students, as well as scholarships in this area.  In a press briefing after her talk, Spellings said that her succinct appeal to college presidents is, “please help us, please tell us what you know.” 

Experts agree that Spellings’s call to action is important, but say that it will require significant follow through.

Spellings expressed her concern that only 44 percent of American high school students take any foreign languages, while such classes are required in places like China and even Kazakhstan. Echoing President Bush’s comments on his new National Security Language Initiative, Spellings said that “learning someone else’s language is a kind gesture” and would make America more competitive in terms of business dealings at home and abroad.

Spellings noted that that after Russia launched Sputnik, the number of Ph.D.s awarded in the U.S. “tripled.” “American universities reacted to Sputnik with an extraordinary display of ingenuity,” she said -- though she did not note that this response was driven by a substantial investment of federal money.

She said that in today’s era of globalization, “we have no symbol as obvious as a Russian satellite” to spur action on increasing language learning. At the same time, she argued that Americans have grown too reliant on the international community to solve our technological problems and to teach us. “[W]ho would have imagined that people in Bangalore would be tutoring our children online or solving our computer problems by phone?” asked Spellings.  

The secretary said that the Department of Education would spend its $57 million share of the $114 million proposed by the president for the foreign language initiative in four key areas:

  • Increasing partnerships between institutions of higher education and local K-12 school districts.
  • Providing opportunities for Americans to teach foreign languages at elementary and secondary schools.
  • Providing foreign language teachers with research-based training.
  • Creating an online clearinghouse to serve as a “one stop shop” of proven foreign language programs for educators.

Spellings did not offer a firm timeline for when any of these actions would occur. She indicated that the president’s proposed $114 million is a “good start,” but that most lasting changes would be funded by states and local school districts.

After the speech, Hunter Rawlings, president of Cornell University and a classics scholar, said that the plan would take “a good deal of commitment and a good deal of work,” but he was confident that it could be feasible, especially by focusing on younger learners. He said that his own institution has reached out to the local high schools in Ithaca, N.Y., to reach families that have never had members attend college to help them understand that financial aid and other learning opportunities are available.

Rawlings added that he didn’t think that the $57 million Department of Education commitment was enough “to get the job done.” In fact, he said that the effort would take many decades and many more dollars to see real progress, indicating that he and other presidents have told both the education and state department secretaries that they need to use their “bully pulpits” to help the public understand the need for funding foreign language initiatives. 

Ward, of the American Council on Education, said, “My feeling is that it’s true that higher education has not been particularly effective in working with K-12,” but noted that the sheer number of elementary and secondary schools, combined with financial pressures at many colleges have been “huge” contributing factors to this issue. 

Ward added that having secondary and elementary educators at the event would have been useful, and expects that the federal government will make efforts to follow-up on this summit with future collaborations.

Spellings also offered some hopeful comments, saying that the No Child Left Behind Act has helped elementary students’ scores rise, especially among young and minority students.  She did not provide specific examples of rising scores, but she said that this development would ultimately decrease the need for colleges to focus on remediation issues.   Spellings also noted that the Department of Education’s “Commission on the Future of Higher Education” will offer recommendations come summer on ways to strengthen academe.

In addition, Spellings said that she’s “pleased to be working with the Congress to create new SMART grants for college students who major in math, science, or critical foreign languages.”

The SMART grant legislation -- which would be authorized at $3.75 billion over 5 years -- was on its way to apparent passage when the Congressional session ended late last month. Under the plan, a student must qualify for a federal Pell Grant and enroll in an eligible postsecondary academic program, as determined by the Secretary of Education, for eligibility in this program. (Although some college officials welcome the new aid, others, particularly at community colleges and open access state institutions, say it will leave many students out of the mix by restricting eligibility to full-time students and requiring students to meet academic eligibility requirements to be eligible for and keep the awards.)

“By providing up to $8,000 during their junior and senior years -- for a total of more than $2 billion over the next five years -- these grants will encourage more students to go into fields that increase America’s security and continue our fine tradition of innovation,” said Spellings.
During a press briefing after her speech, the secretary added that she didn’t have any issues working with the Department of Defense on education issues, although some critics have argued that defense involvement could skew the priorities of the program. 

The Defense Department is expected to fund a significant portion ($25 million) of the president’s initiative and plans to spend an additional $750 million from 2007-11 to increase language and regional expertise capabilities within the Pentagon’s realm.  “They know a heck of a lot about how to educate people quickly,” said Spellings. “We definitely have a relationship.”


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