New Approach to International Education

Major improvements sought in federal programs to promote foreign languages and area studies.
March 28, 2007

A special panel of the National Academies on Tuesday released the most extensive review ever conducted of federal programs to support foreign language education and area studies. The panel found that programs are insufficiently reviewed, lacking in overall strategy, and not always aware of whether they are succeeding. The panel also found that the programs do valuable work that has been made more important by recent history.

Within hours of the review's release, it seemed that everyone was declaring victory. Some of the biggest critics of the programs said that their concerns had been vindicated and that the increased accountability proposed by the panel would advance their agenda. But many of the groups that have defended the programs said that their views had been vindicated, and that the importance of their work had been backed up by the outside panel.

The programs under review are known as Title VI (for a portion of the Higher Education Act that governs them) and the Fulbright-Hays programs. Collectively, the programs support research and education centers at universities all over the country where scholars seek to study foreign cultures and teach advanced foreign languages, including languages rarely studied in the United States. The programs also support dissertations for graduate students, curricular reform in grade schools and various efforts to intellectually link Americans and people from other parts of the world.

Whether because of the post-9/11 geopolitical realities, economic competition from abroad, reports about how hard it is to find an Arabic speaker in the U.S. embassy in Iraq, or some combination of those and other factors, there is widespread consensus among educators and politicians that the work supported by these programs is vital. But whether these programs are effective has been the subject of much debate. At some level, there have been educational and organizational issues involved, and this is where the panel spent its time.

But the National Academies panel was created -- at the request of Congress -- amid a culture wars skirmish that the report doesn't discuss. Critics of the programs have charged that they support area studies over language instruction, and area studies with an anti-American focus to boot. In particular, those who say that Middle Eastern studies in the United States is too hostile to U.S. policy, Israeli policy or both have latched on to the federal international education programs as a way to push for change.

And proposals advanced in the last Congress would create new oversight boards for the programs -- boards that many scholars fear would meddle in inappropriate ways. Scholars in Middle Eastern studies have viewed these debates as evidence of a very different problem. They see scholarship and teaching about the Middle East hindered by political attacks, and say that the critics are trying to shut out ideas that make them uncomfortable -- at the very moment that the United States most needs to better understand parts of the world that aren't going to make Americans feel comfortable.

Leaders of the study noted Tuesday at a press briefing that they hadn't been asked to study the allegations that anti-American bias plagues these programs. But Kenneth Prewitt, a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, said that visits he and other panel members made to universities all over the country didn't turn up evidence of the bias critics allege exists. "If bias were rampant," he said, it would have been visible. "It's not out there."

Prewitt said in an interview after a press briefing that he hoped the report would demonstrate that there are plenty of ways to improve the federal programs -- without adding "another layer of supervision" in the form of a board that might do more harm than good.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said he hoped that would be the case, but he wasn't sure. "The suggestion of political bias was never based on compelling evidence that there was any. So I'm not sure that the presence of evidence that there isn't any will prevent this from being discussed," he said. Hartle said that the fact that leaders of the panel said there was no bias problem vindicated the position of academics all along.

But Martin Kramer, a leading critic of Middle Eastern studies programs in the United States and of the Title VI programs, said his views were proved right. "The recommendations cannot be read any other way. Their thrust is to insist that the programs refocus on language, come up with better measurements, and be made subject to much greater oversight on a rolling basis," he said.

And Stanley Kurtz, a columnist for National Review, wrote Tuesday that while he feared the report would be a "whitewash," that it was "stinging" in its criticisms of programs. "This means that in the competition for federal subsidies, schools that focus on language preparation and the inculcation of skills that a foreign service officer or intelligence analyst might actually need are going to get a leg up. Schools that focus on politicized theory course at the expense of real language preparation will be in trouble," he wrote

While sidestepping the political bias issue, the report suggested numerous ways to improve the programs. It called for:

  • The creation of a system of independent reviews, every four or five years, for every federal international education program.
  • The development of "a system of continuous improvement" to be used by universities in the programs, along with "performance indicators" to tell whether programs are effective.
  • The development of new systems for measuring whether students in these programs are in fact language proficient. The report found that many university programs report proficiency based on student self-reporting or on the use of oral proficiency tests that are not applied consistently.
  • The creation of a new position at the Education Department, one requiring Senate confirmation, to oversee and coordinate the programs.

Some of the educational questions the committee studied relate in part to the political debates that surround these programs. For example, some question whether there is enough focus on "critical languages" -- those viewed as particularly relevant to whatever foreign policy crisis the United States is facing at a given time. Many of the Title VI programs date to the Cold War, and were once responsible for educating people in Russian language and Soviet studies.

The panel members rejected the idea of defining "critical" in some narrow way. As Prewitt said (to applause from some of those watching the briefing), "you don't know what the critical languages are going to be 20 years from now," so the only logical approach is to "build a reservoir" of knowledge in a broad range of languages.

Another issue that mixes educational and political matters concerns the relative emphasis within these programs on language and area studies. Generally, critics of the programs have pushed for more of an emphasis on language studies. In short, people who don't trust most Middle Eastern studies professors still agree that the United States needs more people fluent in Arabic.

The report notes these concerns -- and evidence that the programs may be supporting more area studies work than language work. One table in the report, for example, notes that between 1997 and 2004, there were 25 dissertations at Title VI institutions in Middle Eastern languages, compared to 462 in Middle Eastern studies. Similarly, there were 81 dissertations in Slavic languages, compared to 578 in Slavic area studies.

But while those proportions are just the sort that critics use to attack Title VI, the report's tables also indicate that those proportions are similar in departments that aren't receiving Title VI support, and apparently reflect student interest irrespective of federal funds.

"You can't just teach language" in isolation from cultures and histories, said Janet L. Norwood, chair of the committee that wrote the report and former U.S. commissioner of labor statistics. She said that it was "particularly important right now" that the students being trained to work for the U.S. government understand the context and culture in the regions on which they are becoming expert.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association and a former Spanish professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, praised the report for seeing how study of language and study of culture are connected. The MLA is currently finishing work on a report calling for language programs to be overhauled to move beyond language and literature to more study of history, economics and culture.

The National Academies report appears consistent with the MLA's view that language programs are important and need more support, Feal said. "It sounds to me like this report has the right spirit."

On the question of how departments evaluate students' language proficiency, Feal said that the report was correct to say that there is "not a standard method." She said she supported efforts to find better ways to make such judgments, but warned that she was uncertain that "you can systemize this."

Hartle of the American Council on Education said he was pleased with the recommendation to create a more senior Education Department post to oversee these programs. Student aid programs are "so big and overwhelming" that it is hard for an area like international education to receive appropriate attention, Hartle said. A more visible advocate might change that, he said.

As for the calls for new accountability systems on all the programs and the participating universities, Hartle said that these were "reasonable" ideas. Hartle noted that some in higher education worry about broad assessment systems that seek to measure the effectiveness of diverse programs at diverse institutions in some single way. In this set of federal programs, Hartle said, there is enough commonality that developing appropriate measures should be much easier. "Because this is targeted in terms of knowledge and skill sets, it's the kind of thing institutions can do," he said. "There's no reason to be afraid of this."


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