The following was written by Mary Ann Zehr for Education Week, June 1, 2011:
The federal government has a huge demand for proficient speakers of foreign languages, but Congress substantially reduced funds to support the teaching of foreign languages to K-12 and college students in the budget deal struck for fiscal 2011.
Foreign-language advocates said this week they are discouraged that while President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have stressed in speeches the importance of bilingualism, a pot of money that underwrites the cost of 14 higher education programs focused on foreign languages and international education—some of which provide crucial support to K-12 educators—will be cut by 40 percent in the current fiscal year.
They’re relieved, though, that the $27 million Foreign Language Assistance Program authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which gives grants directly for K-12 programs that teach languages deemed critical to U.S. security and economic needs, emerged from the budget talks unscathed.
The 14 small programs in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 that support language and international education, authorized by the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays sections of the law, were funded at $126 million in fiscal 2010. They weren’t mentioned in the 2011 budget legislation approved by Congress in April, but a chart of the cuts in the 2011 budget posted on the website of the House Appropriations Committee said that those programs could receive a cut of $50 million, or 40 percent of their budgets. The final budget released last month showed the programs will be funded with nearly $76 million in fiscal 2011, which means that the U.S. Department of Education agreed to the 40 percent cut.
It’s a big blow, the advocates say, and they’re lobbying Congress to restore the fiscal 2010 level of funding in the budget for fiscal year 2012, which begins Oct. 1.
Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the Education Department, wrote in an email, “We’re in one of the most difficult budget environments in recent memory” and that has resulted in “some painful cuts.” He added: “We’re committed to the mission of international education and will continue working to do all we can to make sure our students are prepared to successfully compete in a global economy.”
Some advocates for language education say the most crucial of the higher education programs for K-12 teaching and learning of foreign languages is the authorization of money to pay for 15 language-resource centers at universities. Those centers received $5 million in 2010. The research, materials, and professional development the centers provide for precollegiate educators help improve the quality of foreign-language study, the advocates say.
“With them being cut, I wonder what will be the concerted effort to provide high-quality resources, teacher training, development of curriculum, development of assessments, and having people who present on and write about the issues” in language education, said Joy Kreeft Peyton, a vice president of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics.
The language-resource center housed at the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, has formalized into a national initiative what had been primarily a volunteer effort to advance the bilingualism of heritage speakers, Ms. Peyton said.
Heritage speakers are exposed to a language other than English while growing up but may not have developed full literacy or fluency in that language. For example, children growing up in Arab-American families may speak and understand Arabic but not be able to read or write it. If they take classes to develop literacy in Arabic, however, they may become fully bilingual.
The UCLA center started a journal on heritage languages, has held conferences about them, and offers summer institutes for teachers. And it has conducted research on how assessment of the language proficiency of heritage speakers should be different from that of native speakers or second-language learners, Ms. Peyton said.
Marty Abbott, the director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said: “There has been an emphasis in what the [Obama] administration has said about the importance of learning languages. We’re very confident those statements can be turned into action eventually.”
She added: “We haven’t seen it yet.”
Ms. Abbott said the budget cuts don’t make sense, given that the U.S. Department of Defense and other agencies need to hire a larger pool of linguists and other people who have high levels of proficiency in languages. She said having students begin to study foreign languages in elementary or secondary school, or even colleges, is key to meeting the demand.
Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant for the Coalition for International Education, a group of more than 30 higher education associations that promotes the U.S. Department of Education’s foreign-language programs, said a number of the programs nested in Title VI of the Higher Education Act have K-12 components.
Title VI authorizes money for 127 national resource centers as well as the 15 regional language-resource centers, for instance. Many of the programs have some kind of K-12 outreach, which typically is professional development for teachers or a section of a center’s website promoting resources for K-12 educators, Ms. Kazanjian said.
Elaine E. Tarone is the director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, another of the language-resource centers authorized by the Higher Education Act. “We’re not big, but we think we’re effective,” she said about the language-resource centers.
She said she’s frustrated that the Education Department hasn’t released a couple of studies to the public that report on the effectiveness of language and international education programs authorized by the Higher Education Opportunity Act.
One study, an evaluation of the effectiveness of the International Research and Studies Program, which supports the development of instructional materials in foreign languages and area studies and is one of the 14 programs authorized by Title VI and the Fulbright-Hays provisions, was conducted by the Bethesda, Md.-based J.B.L. Associates Inc. Gina Shkodriani, a researcher for the report, said in an email that the report was turned in to the Education Department in March 2009. She said she didn’t know why its findings, which she is not at liberty to disclose, hadn’t been released to the public.
A more recent evaluation of foreign-language programs financed by the Education Department was carried out by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research. A spokesman for the AIR referred questions about the report to the Education Department.
The department didn’t respond to a request for an update on the status of the two reports.