Episode 155: Foreign Languages and College Admissions

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This is the third episode in our new series of things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally. But today, we are actually going to talk about some new data out about high schools because those data have implications for college-going, I believe. To be fair, I already knew a lot about today’s topic, but I did not know the data we are going to share with you now–and I think the situation is really very troubling.

1. A Look Back at Foreign Languages

Last August, we took a look at this topic, but I would like to reprise it today. The topic is the study of foreign languages in U.S. high schools. Those of you who are regular listeners know how important I think this topic is, probably stemming from my work a couple of decades ago with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages on a nationwide study of foreign language teaching in elementary and secondary schools and on the writing of a book of exemplary foreign language programs.

Let me repeat here a few alarming statistics from an Education Week article last June by Corey Mitchell:

  • The American Councils for International Education estimates that 10.6 million K-12 U.S. students study a world language or American Sign Language. That sounds like a lot of students, but it is actually just 20 percent of American students.
  • Fewer than 10 percent of students in at least two states study a language other than English.
  • Arabic is the fastest-growing second language among U.S. residents, but only 0.25 percent of American students who study a foreign language study Arabic in school.
  • Less than 1 percent of American students who study a foreign language are studying either Russian or Japanese, two languages that seem relatively important these days politically and/or economically.
  • Only 11 states require credits in foreign languages in order to graduate from high school.

Some of those numbers actually make me want to weep.

2. The Story in Oklahoma

So, imagine my dismay when I read a recent article in the Education Week Curriculum Matters blog by Stephen Sawchuk, who opened with this sad news:

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 [Oklahoma] 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?.

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. (quoted from the article)

Well, there is a lot to talk about there, thanks to Mr. Sawchuk. First, let’s consider the fact that, in the past 10 years, one-quarter of all Oklahoma high schools stopped offering foreign languages, and now one-third of all Oklahoma high schools do not offer any. Frankly, I cannot imagine a high school that offers no foreign language courses–not just because foreign languages can be important for college admissions, but because they are even more important for living in a global society, for understanding cultures other than our own, and perhaps eventually for working in another country or for working with people in another country doing business with American businesses. Kids who are going to college will have another chance to study a language; kids who don’t go to college won’t. High school is their last chance.

Second, the decline worsens as the courses get more advanced. No surprise there, and that’s undoubtedly always been true. Clearly, fewer and fewer kids take foreign languages as the courses get more advanced, and that goes for all languages and all states and all school districts. Many schools no longer offer a fourth year of a language, and too many also don’t offer the third year of a language. And yes, elite colleges do still look at the depth of a student’s foreign language study, hoping for at least three years of study in one language.

But again, three or four years of language study is not important just for college admissions. They are important because two years of language study is not nearly enough to make students even marginally proficient in a language, as I learned when working with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The truth is that kids struggle mightily after even three and four years of high school study, but two years just is not enough. Even knowing that, colleges will sometimes look kindly enough on two years of each of two different languages instead of three years of one (especially if your high school does not offer three years of one). But offering two languages must seem like an idea from outer space to high schools in Oklahoma and elsewhere that can’t offer even one year of one language.

And third, of course, rural schools in Oklahoma were most often affected–not only because of the difficulty of recruiting foreign language teachers, but also because of the difficulty of filling courses often considered as elective courses in high schools with small enrollments. I don’t have some snappy solution for that. Online instruction is the solution that is probably used most often. I have seen it, and I am not overly impressed. Is it better than no foreign language instruction? Yes, it is–at least for meeting state high school graduation requirements and college admission requirements.

3. What You Must Do

I am working with a rural school district right now, and we are getting ready to look at the high school curriculum offerings. I am anxious to see how we will solve the problem of offering good foreign language instruction, but I believe that it is a problem worth solving. And I believe that, if parents allow their voices to be heard in that school district, we will have to try harder to solve it. Fortunately, I will be there to speak on behalf of those parents, but I can’t be everywhere.

So, parents, you are going to have to speak up for yourselves and your own kids. That is especially true if your kid attends a rural school–though, by the way, not all urban and suburban schools do a good job of offering foreign languages, either.

And I am not just picking on Oklahoma. I love Oklahoma and have actually done a lot of work in Oklahoma. In fact, it is home to one of my favorite museums and museum gift shops in the U.S. Here is a plug for that truly beautiful facility, quoted from its own website:

The Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, commonly known as Gilcrease Museum, located in Tulsa, Okla., is one of the country’s best facilities for the preservation and study of American art and history. The museum houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of art and artifacts of the American West, including an unparalleled collection of Native American art and material.

As the early statistics we quoted said, 39 states do not require foreign language study for high school graduation and (probably as a sad consequence) only 20 percent of U.S. students study a foreign language or American Sign Language. This is not an Oklahoma problem.

But this is not just a state problem, either. In many schools that do offer foreign languages, kids are not taking them. And they certainly aren’t taking three or four years of one language. So, parents, that is where you come in, and I am hoping it will be easier for you to influence your own kid than to try to influence an entire school district.

Convince your kid to take four years of a foreign language in high school (assuming that your high school makes four years available and, if not, encourage your kid to take three years or, as a last resort, to take two years of one language and two years of another language). We have said in many other episodes how important it is to show a college that a student has taken a rigorous set of high school courses–indeed, the most rigorous set of courses that the high school makes available. Usually, that is translated into taking four years of math and four years of science, especially when those four years can include calculus and physics. But, for some students–and your kid might be one of them–four years of a foreign language might be a lot more attainable than calculus.

I understand that the recent push for STEM instruction nationwide is one more thing that might drive out foreign language instruction in high schools. As a matter of fact, the STEM high school that we co-founded almost 10 years ago faced that problem of how to offer foreign language courses and how to get them into the students’ already jam-packed Early College schedule that focused on engineering and architecture. But at least we had a New York State requirement for foreign language study for high school graduation, so we had to solve the problem.

In the final analysis, parents, not convincing your kid to take three or four years of a foreign language is what causes schools to stop offering them and teachers to stop training to teach them. It is a vicious cycle. So, keep your kid in foreign language courses not just to get your kid into college; do it for a lot of other great reasons, too. As I said in our episode last August, I?with my four years of high school Latin and my three years of high school French–will now get off my soapbox. (And, yes, I took both languages in college, too.)

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