Serving on a school board has increased my exposure to acronyms. I started my board service already understanding STEM, and have now gained a familiarity with (but not a respect for) the APPR evaluation system. I am also familiar with ELA, especially when it involves an added emphasis on testing, and have now added LOTE to my acronym assortment. LOTE stands for Languages Other Than English, which for me is a very important part of the education a student should receive before entering college.
At my local school board meeting this week, we dealt with the elementary school language experience and it was one of the best discussions we have had as a board. In addition, it was enriched (in the public comment section of the meeting) by both the participation of language teachers and members of the public. At the present time, my district’s elementary school students receive exposure to Latin beginning in grade 4 and continuing in grade 5. Everyone is in agreement that this exposure to Latin is a positive factor in the education of our students with benefits that extend beyond Latin language and culture. The discussion on the agenda was precipitated by a proposal by the superintendent to begin language at the kindergarten level and to specifically choose Mandarin as the language that would be taught. Part of the impetus for this change was the added testing at the 4th and 5th grade levels and the added preparation that helps our students do well on these tests. With this testing being concentrated at the same time as the Latin language exposure, it resulted in an overly pressured situation both for the students and for teachers. Another part of the impetus was that the earlier you start foreign language training, the greater the potential for mastery of the language. And here the goal is clearly fluency, rather than exposure. A student beginning Mandarin in elementary school will hopefully have the option of taking Mandarin through 12th grade.
Why the change to Mandarin? Understandable given the superpower status that China has achieved especially in its economy. I regularly see the Chinese students who are studying on Hofstra’s campus. Their motivation is clear as is their desire to enhance their second language skills, first learned by these Chinese students taking English starting in elementary school. U.S. students, on the other hand, have much more limited 2nd language skills and often seem to lack the motivation to achieve sophisticated second language skills. In an ever more competitive world economy where not everyone is willing to use English, language skills matter and as we strive to educate our students to succeed, mastery of Mandarin will clearly help.
In the course of the board discussion, I endorsed the early start of second language education but suggested that the case could also convincingly be made for Spanish, the most used language on our planet. What I really wanted was to offer both languages from kindergarten on, but the funding just isn’t there to make that happen. Ultimately what we perhaps should consider is to start Spanish in 3rd grade (now it starts in 6th grade) while at the same time consolidating some of the language options presently available beginning in 6th grade.
As part of the overall discussion there were advocates for continuing and perhaps expanding Latin, advocates for Mandarin from kindergarten on, advocates for Mandarin and Spanish from kindergarten on, and also advocates for a FLEX approach, with a one or two year exposure to one language, followed by another language, and even perhaps a third language. When it came time to vote, I voted in favor of Mandarin feeling that given the complexity of the language, an early start was essential and feeling also that this was an important language that would become more important in the years ahead. But what I also realized is that there is no one right answer to what the language should be and how much exposure there should be. Any of the proposals being considered had the potential to provide our students with outstanding language preparation. Voting for Mandarin was actually easier when I realized we were choosing what we thought was the best option from among a series of options that would all serve our kids well. It’s always better when no alternative available to you represents a bad choice. In summary, we need more language skills as part of an excellent k-12 education (and I also wouldn’t mind fewer acronyms as part of the education vocabulary).