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Globally Competent Kentucky: A State Approach

As mentioned in our previous blog, we are beginning to see an increased interest by states to provide their students with a globally focused education, including increased access to world language programs and acknowledgement of heritage languages through seals of biliteracy. Kentucky has not only made a public statement on the importance of global competence and world languages for its students, but is taking time to evaluate the situation before moving to expansion. Lu Young explains.

by Lu Young

In early 2009, the Kentucky General Assembly passed landmark legislation, commonly referred to as Senate Bill 1 (SB 1), that shifted the focus of P12 education to college- and career-readiness for all students.  At that time, Kentucky became the first state to adopt the Common Core Standards (CCSS) in English/language arts, reading, and math.  Much of the focus of SB 1 was to redesign the state assessment and accountability system to measure readiness at graduation with checkpoints along the way with the expectation that every Kentucky graduate would leave prepared to pursue postsecondary learning and a productive life in the 21st century.

The Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) charged the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), under the direction of forward-thinking commissioner of education, Dr. Terry Holliday, with designing the new college-and career-readiness system to ensure that Kentucky students would be competitive nationally and internationally—not just at the state level. Much discussion about global competency has ensued, led in large part by strong voices on the KBE and the tenacity of Dr. Holliday and others in state government and economic development. kentucky.jpg

KBE member (and former Kentucky legislator), David Karem, shared his passion for focusing our attention on the real need for global competency, noting in 2013 that "Kentucky's exports growth rate of more than 14% translates to the second highest growth in the nation" and that "96% of potential consumers reside outside the U.S."  This economic argument is hard to refute or ignore, yet Kentucky schools had not risen to the challenge of ensuring that our students graduate with some level of global competence to allow them to compete in the global marketplace.

With the advent of SB 1, Dr. Holliday and his team pushed the inclusion of a World Languages Program Review for all Kentucky schools as part of the state accountability system.  Despite meeting significant resistance from educators and school leaders concerned about the availability of world languages teachers, as well as funding to add world languages programming starting at elementary school, Dr. Holliday and the KBE stood firm on the expectation that proficiency in a second language was a cornerstone of global competency and should be expected of and available to all Kentucky children.  The world languages program reviews are currently being piloted and will become part of the accountability system starting in 2015-16. 

As a district leader, I, too, worry about the practical and logistical considerations required of such a large-scale initiative, but as a former world languages teacher, I know that this move is fundamentally right for the children of our state.  In addition to the obvious economic implications of preparing a globally competent workforce, there are myriad cognitive benefits associated with second language learning.  The learning of a second language causes physiological changes in the brain that equate to improved memory, enhanced multitasking, and improved command of one's native language, to mention only a few.  Bilinguals are also more perceptive and have a greater awareness of and sensitivity to other cultures. 

The world languages program review process will also force schools and school districts to change the way we approach the learning of other languages by introducing languages at primary school rather than waiting until high school. The optimal time to learn a second (or third) language is during preadolescence when learners acquire languages more naturally and with a more native accent.  That is not to say that older learners can't also learn languages, but it does invite us to capitalize on what we know about brain development and introduce languages sooner, not later.  In a state like Kentucky, that will require training more world languages teachers to teach younger learners as well as utilizing technology and other language learning approaches that are both affordable and widely available to schools in more remote regions. 

None of this is easy, but it really is essential if we are to 'walk the talk' of global competency across the commonwealth.  In the words of Dr. Holliday in a summer 2014 blog post: "It is imperative that our high school and college graduates who will be obtaining work in firms that are exporting products and services understand the language, culture, business climate, and geopolitical issues they will be facing. This work must be integrated with existing programs in our schools.  It cannot be seen as an 'add-on' or just another program. We must integrate in language, social studies, math, and other content areas.  Yes, we should make certain our students have opportunities to become bilingual, however, it is even more important our students understand the global competition they will be entering upon graduation."

Lu Young is Chief Academic Officer, Fayette County Public Schools. Follow her on Twitter

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