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Reauthorization of ESEA: Where in the World Are Languages?

By guest bloggers Marty Abbott and Bill Rivers

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is leaving behind world languages. Marty Abbott the executive director of American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and Bill Rivers the executive director of Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL), outline why this should not be the case and how you can get involved.

Demand for World Languages
Global skills are fundamental to responsible citizenship in the 21st Century. The need for global skills has never been as acute, as dynamic, and as challenging, influencing the growth and fulfillment of the individual and carrying significant implications for global security, economic growth, and social justice, both in the United States and worldwide.

What's more, Americans recognize this. Surveys show that 70% of respondents consider language to be as important as math and science and that our children should be fluent in another language by the time they graduate from high school. Parents all over the country pressure their Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to start language programs at the elementary school level—and increasingly, these parents start charter schools when the local school system doesn't provide options for learning languages. Forward-looking governors in states as diverse as Utah, Delaware, and Kentucky have started statewide world language initiatives for their K-12 systems. Seals of Biliteracy for the high school diploma have been established in eight states, with legislation pending in at least six more. 

A Federal Obligation
Why then do we see K-12 world language education as a "federal problem"? Simply put, the United States Department of Education has an obligation to lead policy on world languages. Why? To begin, it's worth remembering that there are more than 17,000 public school districts in the United States. Each one has broad discretion over curriculum, and almost all are governed by locally elected school boards. As a result, inclusion of language education at the K-12 level is haphazard at best, and too many LEAs ascribe to the persistent myth that language education is "nice to have," but that achievement in English language arts and mathematics are first and foremost in the curriculum. 

As we know, this myth is demonstrably false. Language programs, and in particular, Dual Language Immersion, have been shown to reverse achievement gaps for the most disadvantaged students in our schools, and Dual Language Immersion participants show impressive results in English literacy and in math. Denying children the opportunity to participate in world language programs because they are seen as "enrichments" constitutes a fundamental affront to the principles of equal access and excellence for all students.

The Federal Role, in our view, is to provide leadership—both in terms of rhetoric and funding—to encourage school systems to add world languages to their curricula. This requires a federally-driven program and funding.

Fortunately, there has been a world-class, innovative world languages program in the US Department of Education since 1991. The Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP), created as a recommendation of the 1979 President's Commission on Foreign Languages and International Studies, served for 20 years as a living laboratory for world languages, providing three to five year matching grants to Local Education Agencies to seed language programs. There were also options for funding at the state level and in partnership with institutions of higher learning. At the local level, dozens of school districts used FLAP funding to seed language programs, including Memphis, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; Anchorage, Alaska; and Oxford, Mississippi.

But FLAP faces a bleak future, with nothing to replace it. The US Department of Education stopped funding FLAP in 2012 and placed it in the Well-Rounded Program bucket, which hasn't been funded since. Congress is working to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formerly known as No Child Left Behind. None of the versions of the new Act—Senate, House, Republican, Democratic—have any dedicated programming for world languages. 

We Need You!
So what can be done? You can lend your voice to those of the 13,000 language educators of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the 103 organizational members of the Joint National Committee for Languages, by letting the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions know that languages matter. JNCL and ACTFL have a template for messages to the committee; click here to access it and send a message.

It's too important—we can't let languages slip through the cracks in the reauthorization of ESEA!

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