Raising the Bar

California's community colleges toughen graduation requirements. Some see changes as overdue; others fear standards are too high.
September 10, 2010

Leah Gilman’s “job” this summer was to learn Arabic. A multimedia journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin, she took Arabic from 9:30 to 3:30 every day, for 10 weeks. She took time out for an interview during her lunch break midway through week 10.

“Aside from one day out of the week, my whole days are spent on Arabic,” said Gilman, a junior who started Arabic the fall of her sophomore year. “From when I get up in the morning to when I go to bed on the weekdays I’m completely immersed in Arabic, and at least one day on the weekend is spent completely at the coffee shop doing my homework. They give you about 10 hours of homework during the weekend and then it’s about four during the weekdays.”

It was worth it, she said, and she’s keeping her eye on the reward – a capstone year studying abroad in Damascus. “My plan is to work in the Middle East or to do work with Middle Eastern countries and Arab countries, and it’s just really necessary that I learn Arabic to do that,” Gilman said. “The program here is really grueling but in the end my commitment and desire to learn Arabic is what pushes me to go through all of this. The language itself is beautiful, and once I get out in the real world I know I’m going to be directly applying this in my work.”

Gilman is enrolled in a Language Flagship program. Begun in 2002, the federal Language Flagship initiative originally funded graduate-level study in the so-called critical languages – those languages for which demand for trained speakers exceeds supply -- but has since expanded to encompass undergraduate education and three pilot K-12 programs, too. In 2009-10, about 825 undergraduates were enrolled in Language Flagship programs, and 89 graduate students. Undergraduate enrollment is expected to grow to at least 1,000 in the current academic year, while graduate enrollment will stay steady.

The budget is about $20 million a year, and 23 universities now host Flagship Centers, each offering intensive instruction in a single critical language: Arabic, Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, Korean, Persian, Russian, Swahili, or Yoruba. Undergraduates study language over and above a major of their choice, and each Flagship program includes at least a yearlong study abroad “capstone” experience at one of 11 overseas Flagship sites.

A component of the National Security Education Program, housed at the U.S. Department of Defense -- a not-insignificant detail that has been the cause of some controversy – the Language Flagship has an immodest objective: “to change the way Americans learn languages.”

Indeed, the Language Flagship programs represent a significant shift in the model for foreign language education at American universities. Each curriculum is organized around a very clear and ambitious learning outcome: that students graduate at the Superior level on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages scale or with a score of 3 on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale (which spans from 0 to 5). To put that in perspective, said Catherine Ingold, director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland at College Park, state standards for teaching Spanish at the K-12 level generally require proficiency levels of 1+ or 2. And this is for teachers of Spanish, which millions of Americans speak.

“What the Flagship programs have really achieved is to demonstrate that colleges and universities with well-structured programs that really target serious levels of language proficiency can do it,” said Ingold. “A general problem with language programs in higher education is that relatively few of them target specific levels of language proficiency, or measure it. They don’t necessarily know what their language outcomes are. Relatively few students enroll in longer sequences. But by this time we know what it takes to get to a 3. And Flagship has shown that you can actually set up a higher ed-based program that does it, even in category 4 languages, the languages that are most difficult for English speakers to learn.”

“We are taking people who are at zero,” said Mahmoud Al-Batal, associate professor of Arabic and director of the Arabic Flagship Program at Texas. “Zero to three, this is the model, to show that Arabic is very doable for students who have the determination and motivation. Providing them with a very challenging program and rewarding program, we believe we can do it.” And they have. Of the 17 graduates of Texas’ undergraduate Flagship so far, 15 have achieved ratings of 3 and two of 2+. “If our failure is 2 or 2+, this is a wonderful failure to have,” said Al-Batal.

Up until recently, in fact, that would have been considered an unequivocal success. “Until the advent of Flagship, the average product of an American undergraduate language program would typically come out with something like a 1 or 1+ proficiency,” said Dan E. Davidson, president of the American Councils for International Education and a professor of Russian and second language acquisition at Bryn Mawr College. “They would go abroad for a year, which is the longest you could go, and come back a 2. To this day that’s still considered a good outcome, but it falls short of the level people need to use the language in a professional way.”

“What if you could send people overseas with 2-level proficiency instead and you could give them an intensive year of training? What would happen then?” Davidson asked. The American Council administers many of the overseas study centers for Flagship students, for the study of African languages (in Nigeria and Zanzibar), Arabic (in Egypt and Syria), Chinese, Persian (in Tajikistan), and Russian. This spring, Davidson published a peer-reviewed study analyzing 15 years of language acquisition data from 1,881 students studying abroad in Russia, including five years of data from Flagship students studying at St. Petersburg State University.

“The answer is they [the Flagship students] do not come back as 2s or 2+s, they come back as 3, 3+s and 4s. We have never had that kind of outcome in the past.”
While the total population of Flagship students studying abroad remains small, the (still unpublished) data collected for Flagship students in Arabic, Chinese and Persian are consistent with the findings for Russian, Davidson said. If students enter the capstone study abroad year already at level 2, they leave at level 3 – a professional level – or higher.

The Not-So-Secret Sauce

How have the Flagship programs achieved this? “The answer is there’s no magic new method here at all,” said Davidson. “Flagship draws on an array of best practices that have been developed by the field for decades. No one came up with anything new here. It’s more a matter of having the resources from an administrative point of view for configuring all the best things that we know for learning a language as a young adult.”

While studying abroad at the Flagship overseas centers, for instance, students benefit from homestays, internships, direct enrollment in a host university, peer tutors, and individualized language training with online, biweekly reports sent to U.S.-based academic advisers. “We pull out every stop we know to pull out for a well-designed program,” Davidson said.

“The point is to combine language study with a four-letter word, work,” said Galal Walker, who directs both the National East Asian Languages Resource Center and the Chinese Flagship Program at Ohio State University.

Consider the sample four-year undergraduate curriculum for an incoming Ohio State student starting Chinese from scratch. The summer before freshman year, the hypothetical student could take an intensive summer program in Columbus covering the first year of Chinese. Taking an intensive, two-hour-a-day track, the student could then complete the second and third levels of Chinese during the freshman year. He could take another intensive summer course, this one at the Flagship center in Qingdao, the summer before sophomore year, and then fifth-level Chinese at Ohio State upon return. He could go again to Qingdao the next summer, before the junior year, and subsequently take advanced-level Chinese and language tutorials in his “domain” -- his area of study or professional interest – during the academic year.

His senior year he’d go abroad for a “capstone year” in Nanjing, where he would enroll directly at Nanjing University and complete an internship. There are substantial scholarships available for this student to pursue intensive summer and overseas study -- up to $3,500 to support domestic summer study, up to $7,000 for overseas summer study and up to $15,000 for the full capstone year abroad.

But even when financial barriers are taken care of, there’s still that pesky matter of time. Keep in mind: this hypothetical student is not a Chinese major (or at least not solely a Chinese major). A stated goal of Flagship is not to graduate more language majors but to create a cadre of “global professionals” – professionals in a variety of fields with superior language abilities. Flagship language students complete their coursework in their major at the same time they work toward Flagship certification.

Not everyone can follow the ideal path for language study. Some students have more demanding majors; some discover the language their freshman year and have to start language study as sophomores. Some Flagship students, not surprisingly, take an extra year.

“Basically, there are two variables for whether they get out of here in four years. The first one is the student’s aptitude and the second is the student’s major,” said Anne Baker, associate director of the Arabic Flagship Program at Michigan State University.

“If you think about it, we’re asking kids who are 17 or so to make a commitment,” said Susan Gass, director of the Michigan State Flagship and a professor in the department of linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African languages. “Most of these students who are coming in have not had Arabic before and we’re asking them to make this major commitment about their future and what they’re going to do for their four years to five years in college.”

“What’s unique about [Flagship] is the extreme attention that’s paid to it, the individualization of the program and the commitment, the commitment on the part of faculty, the commitment on the part of the students,” Gass said. “There is a goal; they know what they have to do. They understand what it takes to get where they need to go and they’re committed. If they’re not committed they’re not going to be successful and if they’re not going to be successful they’re not going to stay in the program.”

"Trying to establish language programs based on proficiency means that you have to work backwards,” said Michael Nugent, deputy director of the National Security Education Program (NSEP) and director of the Language Flagship. "Where do you want to be at the end of this process? You want to be at a level 3.”

"People will say, in order to get students to that level, we have to do things differently. By setting that goal you're putting the pressure on the language faculty and everyone else involved to change what we do."

From Controversial Beginnings...

The source of funding for the National Security Education Program – which encompasses the Language Flagship – has been a source of controversy. In 2002, when the first Flagship grants were awarded, the boards of both the Middle East Studies Association and the African Studies Association issued resolutions stating concerns about the link between Defense Department dollars and language learning.

The African Studies Association’s motion stated opposition to “the application for and acceptance of military and intelligence funding of area and language programs, projects, and research in African studies.... We believe that the long-term interests of the people of the United States are best served by this separation between academic and military and defense establishments. Indeed, in the climate of the post-Cold War years in Africa and the security concerns after September 11, 2001, we believe that it is a patriotic policy to make this separation.” The association’s board reaffirmed this statement at a meeting in 2008.

“Obviously the ASA very strongly supports the idea of promotion of language learning, that’s obvious, and in general education and scholarship on Africa,” said Charles Ambler, the association’s president and a professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso. “But our position is driven by two fundamental concerns. The first is a principled one that philosophically, we believe that the promotion of language learning and knowledge about cultures shouldn’t be a consequence of strategic needs but of educational goals and therefore that the funds ought to be funneled through the Department of Education or some other appropriate unit like the National Endowment for the Humanities, rather than as it is now through the Department of Defense. That’s one aspect of it.”

As for the second, Ambler continued, “I know that in general people can respond and say, ‘Well, you need to be realistic and so forth,’ but we also have to understand that the parts of the world we’re dealing with have histories vis-à-vis the major powers, including especially the United States, that leave them sensitive about their sovereignty. And the association of research with [military and] intelligence can appear to complicate the research agenda. And it can put, certainly American researchers, but also their colleagues in various African countries in difficult positions.”

“We’re not doubting the sincerity of these efforts,” Ambler said. “It’s just a matter of principle on the one hand, and perception on the other.”

The Middle East Studies Association’s 2002 resolution, revised in 2003, expresses similar concerns as to whether the link between the academy and defense and intelligence agencies could make scholarly research more difficult and dangerous. In addition the statement notes, “While MESA welcomes enhanced attention to language-study programs, we are uneasy about the directed goals of NFLI-P [the National Flagship Language Initiative – Pilot Program], and in particular the direct link that it envisions between academic programs and government employment.”

But Ingold, of the National Foreign Language Resource Center, said that the Flagship programs are not as tightly tied to government employment goals as they were at the beginning, when it was a graduate-only initiative. “One of the realities of the United States is we need speakers of a lot of different languages,” she said. “The only way to achieve that is to have a really broad-based program from which you can grow a much larger pool of people who might be drawn to government service or contract work or teaching …the [government] service requirement is only one piece of the pie and probably strategically appropriately so.”

Graduate students who receive Flagship fellowships -- of which 20 to 25 are awarded, nationally, each year -- incur a government service commitment, as do undergraduate Flagship students who apply for Boren Scholarships to support study abroad (15 Flagship students received Boren Scholarships in 2009-10). But the rest of the students enrolled in the Flagship programs -- the vast majority of them -- do not have any government service commitments.

“All these grants that we [as an institution] have received do not carry any obligation on the part of students,” said Al-Batal, the director of the Arabic program at Texas and a member of the Middle East Studies Association’s board.

From Al-Batal’s perspective, the initial concerns about the Flagship program haven’t come to pass. He added that another initial concern -- that academic freedom would be impinged upon and that the government would intervene in the curriculum – has, in his experience, proven unfounded. “ [The government’s] only concern is, ‘What are you doing as a program to help these students reach level 3 proficiency in Arabic?’ Which is a goal that we completely support as the Arabic program at the University of Texas.”

Furthermore, Al-Batal said, the federal funding that Texas’ Arabic Flagship program receives – $700,000 last year for operating costs, plus another $250,000 for student scholarships, mainly for study abroad – has allowed for improvements across the Arabic program that benefit Flagship and non-Flagship students alike. For instance, faculty have increased the contact hours for first and second-year Arabic classes to six hours per week. They’ve added new advanced content-based language courses, in which students study topics like "Modern Arab Societies" and "History of Modern Egypt" – in Arabic. “The standard now for us is we are striving to push all our students to superior-level proficiency by the time they finish their undergraduate curriculum,” said Al-Batal.

“The Flagship model is changing our approach to foreign language education and is definitely raising the standards and setting a new standard, a standard of excellence.”


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