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Foreign-Language Courses Plummet in Oklahoma. What About Other States?

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In just a decade, a fourth of Oklahoma's high schools eliminated their world language courses, the investigative reporting site Oklahoma Watch reports in a fascinating new story. Overall, a third of high schools lack a course in even one foreign language.

It's a compelling piece of education data made bleaker by the fact that the decline in foreign language in Oklahoma probably has parallels in other states. But for now, we simply don't know, because as my colleague Corey Mitchell reported recently, the United States doesn't have a very good grasp of the current state of K-12 foreign language instruction.

He reported earlier this year that only about one in 5 U.S. students was enrolled in a foreign language class in 2014-15. That's according to a national first-of-its-kind survey of school districts conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense. The vast majority of students, that report found, take a romance language, particularly Spanish with French as a distant second, rather than critical need world languages such as Mandarin Chinese or Arabic. 

But this national data analysis wasn't longitudinal. It was a snapshot of enrollment at one point in time, so it doesn't give a sense of longer trends. That's where the Oklahoma analysis has really added value, by showing that the state's foreign language offerings have plunged in just 10 years. What's more, reporter Jennifer Palmer found, the declines are both in the "level II" instruction (usually given in sophomore year), and even more catastrophically in year III or advanced classes, such as AP courses. Having such a class can be a deciding factor in application decisions at elite colleges.

Not all schools are equally affected, she notes: Rural schools bore the brunt of the cuts, likely because they weren't able to get teachers to fill the spots.

In fact, nationally, one factor fueling perfunctory foreign language instruction could be teacher shortages, Corey reported. And Oklahoma has been ground zero for teacher shortages, a factor largely attributed to state policymakers' failure to boost teacher salaries and voters' rejection of a ballot initiative that would have raised the sales tax.

Are you a foreign language instructor in another state? Are you seeing this pattern where you are, too? Reach out to me if so: [email protected]

Image: Duncan Cumming/Flickr Creative Commons


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