Education and the Language Gap: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Foreign Language Summit

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Education and the Language Gap: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Foreign Language Summit

December 8, 2010

It is an honor to be here at the University of Maryland which has worked closely with the Department of Education for more than 20 years to advance the teaching of languages such as Hebrew, Farsi, Chinese, and Russian.

As President Obama said on Monday: "Our generation's Sputnik moment is now." The Soviet satellite was a wake-up call that launched a wave of innovation and reform in American schools, particularly in math, science and language instruction. Today's call to action is an economic one. We need to build a strong foundation for growth and prosperity.

We have to educate our way to a better economy, just as our competitors are doing.

This week, we found out that the brutal truth that we're being out-educated. On the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, the United States scored as average in reading and science – and below average in math.

We're behind global leaders such as Finland, South Korea, and Canada. The most surprising news is that Shanghai outscored every other nation. We see this as a challenge to get better.

And one place we obviously need to get better is in teaching languages. The United States is a long way from being the multi-lingual society that so many of our economic competitors are.

My message to you today is that K-12 schools and higher education institutions must be part of the solution to our national language gap.

The President and I want every child to have a world-class education – and today more than ever a world-class education requires students to be able to speak and read languages in addition to English.

The Department of Education plays an important role in supporting second language instruction starting in the earliest grades and to ensure that students are engaged in language all the way through high school.

We have an important responsibility to provide opportunities for those who want to master other languages and prepare them to support America's economic and strategic interests as diplomats, foreign policy analysts, and leaders in the military.

This is a high-stakes issue. For too long, Americans have relied on other countries to speak our language. But we won't be able to do that in the increasingly complex and interconnected world.

To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries, Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages.

It's absolutely essential for the citizens of the United States to become fluent in other languages—and schools, colleges and universities must include producing bilingual students as a central part of their mission.

Nelson Mandela has said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart."

No one understands that better than CIA Director Leon Panetta. As a public servant in Congress, at the White House, and now at the CIA, Leon has been a consistent voice urging Americans to become fluent in other languages.

At the CIA, he has reinvigorated the agency's commitment to ensuring their employees know and use their language skills to ensure our national security.

He has set a five-year goal to double the number of CIA analysts who have a proficiency in a language other than English.

He is working to transform the agency's language training. He has created a powerful incentive for existing CIA employees to maintain their proficiency in languages other than English.

Leon, thank you for all of your leadership, and thank you for convening this meeting today.

When I look at the challenges you face as the CIA director, it's obvious that schools need to do a better job supporting you and other leaders on our national security team.

This commitment goes beyond the European languages traditionally taught in high schools and colleges.

It extends to languages that are essential for our economic and strategic interests – languages such as Arabic and Mandarin Chinese, Urdu and Farsi, Pashto and Dari.

As Mr. Panetta has been pointing out for years, the United States may be the only nation in the world where it is possible to complete high school and college without any foreign language study – let alone with the mastery of another language.

Just 18 percent of Americans report speaking a language other than English. That's far short of Europe, where 53 percent of citizens speak more than one language.

And some researchers predict that China will soon have the world's largest English-speaking population.

Our education system is one of the reasons Americans aren't learning other languages.

Foreign language instruction in the United States is spotty--and unfortunately on the decline.

In 2008, one-quarter of elementary schools offered some form of language instruction – down from one-third 11 years earlier.

Just 10 states require foreign language study for high school graduation--and low-income and minority students in particular lag behind their peers in other countries in their knowledge of languages, as well as geography and other cultures.

Low-income students and those who live in rural areas are a lot less likely to attend a school with language instruction. We have to level the playing field for them and offer better opportunities.

I think everyone can point to bright spots in our K-12 system. During my tenure as superintendent in Chicago, the district made a significant investment in Chinese language instruction.

Over the past decade, the Chicago Public Schools has expanded its Chinese language program to include 43 schools and serve 12,000 students. Many of the children involved are Hispanic. They will grow up trilingual with a new world of opportunity ahead of them.

I am proud to say that Chicago has the largest enrollment in Chinese language courses of any district in the country. But I'm the first to admit that I wish the bar was much higher than that.

Today, even if public schools wished to provide second language instruction, the dearth of qualified instructors often prevents school leaders from hiring teachers.

In the 2007-08 school year, three-fourths of the states reported shortages in second language teachers. I believe that where we have areas of critical need, we should pay those teachers – be they foreign language, math or science teachers – more money. Not everyone agrees with me, but I want to stop just talking about the problem and do something about it.

Teacher preparation programs at postsecondary institutions are simply not meeting the demand for new instructors.

In 2007-08, only 136 bachelor's degrees, 188 master's degrees, and 14 doctorates were awarded in foreign language teacher education in the United States.

And in 2002, colleges in the United States awarded just six bachelor degrees in Arabic language and literature. Six years later, that number increased to 57. It's an increase, to be sure, but clearly we're still far short of what's needed.

Right now, too many colleges and universities are starting to scale back language programs or eliminate them altogether.

And even those where the language programs remain intact, the priority is often put in the wrong place.

Ninety-five percent of college students enrolled in a language course to study a European language, but fewer than 1 percent of graduate students are studying a language that the Department of Defense considers critical for national security.

It's clear to all of us that schools, colleges and universities need to invest more and invest smarter in language instruction.

But how do we get from where we are to where we need to be?

The North Star of everything we're doing at the Department of Education is President Obama's goal that, by the end of the decade, the United States will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Working with Congress, the Obama administration has made a great start in expanding college access this year with the reform of the federal student loan program, which freed up $40 billion for Pell Grant scholarships for low-income undergraduates.

That is the biggest increase in student aid since the G.I. bill. And it came at a critical time. We have seen a 38 percent increase in the number of Pell Grants awarded over the past two years. We did that simply by stopping subsidies to banks and instead investing in our nation's college students.

K-12 schools have a critical role to play as well by ensuring that high school graduates are truly prepared to succeed in college.

Over the past two years, state and local leaders have responded by raising the bar for students.

Forty states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted a set of common standards that truly measure whether a student is ready for success in college or a career when the graduate from high school.

This is a game-changer. Historically, states have dumbed down standards to make politicians look good.

These standards focus on reading and mathematics because they include the foundational skills and knowledge that students need to excel in other parts of the curriculum.

But today's students also need a well-rounded curriculum that provides the opportunity to learn a second language, as well as history, civics, and the arts.

These subjects are essential ingredients to a world-class education. Education leaders need to be perpetually vigilant that their schools do not narrow the curriculum and offer students the language instruction that will prepare them for success.

One of my top priorities for next year is to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I want to underscore that our proposal goes much further than the existing law in supporting a well-rounded curriculum.

It will allow states to incorporate assessments of subjects beyond English language arts and math in accountability systems.

The blueprint to reform ESEA would create a competitive pool of $265 million to strengthen the teaching of languages, the arts, civics and government, and other subjects. This pool represents a $43 million increase in total funds available for this work – a significant new investment.

Existing programs for all of these subjects have worthy goals. But they have resulted in fragmented funding at the federal, state, and local level.

Under the ESEA proposal, high-need districts, and states and nonprofits in partnership with high-need districts, would be eligible to apply for the grants.

At the same time, we would increase access and funding for college-level, dual credit, and other accelerated courses in high-need schools to support not only a well-rounded, but a rigorous curriculum. Exposure to college-level classes is an extraordinary opportunity for high school students. We want to invest $100 million in this effort.

I recognize that the plan to include funding for foreign language education into a competitive program with other subjects may make some of you in this room nervous, even if it means you can potentially compete for significantly more funding than in the past.

But I urge language educators to participate in this process and demonstrate the impact of their programs on student outcomes. Multiple, small pots of funding perpetuate the status quo, but they don't lead to the transformative change we need.

One promising development in the research about language instruction is that programs that are proven to be successful continue to grow and thrive.

With a strong research base that's emerging around such programs, our investment in these and other language projects could potentially easily exceed the amount currently appropriated for programs.

I hope you will accept this proposal as a challenge to show the outcomes of second language programs and an opportunity to assemble grant applicants that will demonstrate the necessity to expand and improve foreign language instruction in schools.

But our investment must go beyond K-12 and continue in higher education.

Since the Sputnik launch in 1957, the federal government has focused the development of second language instruction through resource centers and fellowships to support the study of languages.

Over time, these programs have shifted as economic and strategic interests have changed, and today they are supporting thousands of students as they earn degrees and have experiences in foreign languages that will prepare them for careers in public service and the private sector.

Through Title VI of the Higher Education Act, the Department of Education supports colleges and universities that are teaching strategic languages.

The funding goes to just 3 percent of the nation's higher education institutions that offer language instruction.

But those institutions account for half of all undergraduate enrollment and more than three-quarters of graduate enrollment in rare languages.

In addition, the National Resource Centers under Title VI support teaching and fellowships for the study of 110 languages every year. The 48 colleges and universities with National Resource Centers award an average of 2,000 PhDs and 6,000 graduate or master's degrees in languages every year.

These graduates represent a high proportion of the employees in our national security agencies and our military. The U.S. Army, for example, sends its officers seeking master's degrees in languages to institutions supported by the resource centers.

In particular, these resource centers have been strengthening ties with partner institutions with substantial Muslim populations around the world.

The department will support and help build on innovative education efforts like the University of Hawaii's Muslim Societies in Asia and the Pacific program.

And four-year grants have supported advanced intensive language study in Indonesian, through Ohio University; Turkish through Princeton University; Arabic in Egypt and Syria through the University of Texas at Austin; and Kiswahili in Tanzania through Michigan State University.

The resource centers also do significant outreach to K-12 educators by posting curriculum materials and offering workshops for teachers.

The Department also funds faculty, doctoral students and educators at the K-12 level in their study of other languages and cultures through the Fulbright Hays program.

The program supports doctoral students conducting research and teachers as they develop curriculum and instructional resources.

The program also gives doctoral students, faculty and future teachers the opportunity to travel abroad and use their language skills in critical languages such as Arabic, Mandarin, and Vietnamese – to name just a few.

While these programs are making significant contributions to the expansion of language instruction in K-12 schools and colleges, it's clear that they aren't doing enough.

The path to expanding and improving language instruction faces many significant challenges.

Perhaps the biggest are the budget constraints in K-12 schools and higher education. At every level of education, schools are facing a New Normal in which they will need to be more productive and efficient.

There are productive ways and unproductive ways for schools to meet the very real challenge of doing more with less.

The right way is to cut waste and to identify ways to accelerate student achievement without raising costs.

The wrong way is to cut programs like foreign languages that are essential to providing our students with the well-rounded education that they need to excel in the interconnected, knowledge-based economy.

Our country needs to create a future in which all Americans understand that by speaking more than one language, they are enabling our country to compete successfully and work collaboratively with partners across the globe.

So this is our challenge: To expand and improve language instruction at a time when financial resources are tight and the international economic competition is greater than ever.

We need to embrace this challenge with all of our collective will and courage – the stakes are too high for the future of our children and our country to ignore it.

Let's embrace the fourth 'R' – reality – that Director Panetta spoke so passionately about today.