Joaquín Fernández-Castro offers structural changes to improve world language programs in public and private schools in the U.S.
World languages, now more than ever, play an important role in our increasingly interconnected economy and global community. It is critical that schools endeavor to have programs able to support our students as successful citizens of the world. The capacity of our students to communicate in other languages, their ability to understand other cultures and to cooperate with other people around the globe in their native tongues, is a crucial component for 21st-century skills. Fluency in world languages enhances creativity, versatility, problem solving, and critical-thinking skills.
What can schools do to improve their world language programs? There are three types of structural changes that can lead to major improvements and help students to achieve their full potential as global citizens.
1. Change the minimum requirement for languages and develop strategies to enhance it.
2. Implement early language acquisition, flexible placement, and acceleration opportunities to meet each student’s gifts and abilities.
3. Offer diploma incentives for students learning two or more languages, establish total immersion abroad, and develop endowment support for world languages.
The following recommendations are based on a comparative analysis of the best world language programs among the top ten public charter and magnet schools and top ten private independent schools in the U.S. according to the rankings of the Washington Post, US News and World Report, and Prep Review from 2010 to 2015.
A Standard World Language Requirement
College requirements for world languages vary, and there is oftentimes a disparity between what schools require and what schools expect. Most competitive colleges expect four-plus years, or the equivalent of an intermediate level. This is typically satisfied by a College Board-certified Advanced Placement (AP) course or by an International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program course, typically taken after Level 3 or 4. However, most high schools officially require up to Level 3 for world language. This is a substandard requirement, resulting in many students dropping languages after tenth grade in many top private and public schools, and after eleventh grade in most public schools. To help students to achieve their full potential as global citizens, schools must establish a standard requirement for world languages of Level 4+ or at least through junior year. The language requirement through junior year will accommodate students who did not have a chance to take a world language until ninth grade. Students with language-acquisition difficulties should be eligible to drop after Level 3, but those cases should be the exception.
A Level 4+ standard requirement could be enhanced if it includes the completion of an AP or IB level or any other form of advanced course by junior or senior year. This is typical of top-ranked public charter and magnet schools like the BASIS academies in Arizona; the magnet School for the Talented and Gifted of Dallas, Texas; Stanton College Preparatory School of Jackson, Florida; the Carnegie Vanguard HS of Houston, Texas; the Signature School of Evansville, Indiana; the Academic Magnet HS of North Charleston, South Carolina; and the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology of Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Students who reach the advanced level before completing the eleventh grade should be required to begin a new language. Some of the top independent schools, like Phillips Academy (Andover) and Phillips Exeter Academy, do indeed have this type of enhanced requirement. IB schools, several of which are among the top public schools, require a world language through senior year to be eligible for the IB certificate program, which is another form of enhancing the requirement.
Another strategy to further improve world language programs is to require Latin in addition to a modern language at the middle school level. This requirement also improves academic performance in math, science, history, and English, as well as ACT or SAT scores. There is a positive link between academic performance and a strong background in Latin. It is not a coincidence that the top independent schools ranked by ACT, SAT, or AP scores, like Roxbury Latin, Brearley, Collegiate, Saint Ann’s, and Trinity, all require Latin and a modern language at their middle schools.
Some of the top-ranked public charter and magnet schools, like the BASIS Academies, the Gilbert Classical Academy, and the Accelerated Primary and Secondary School of Arizona also take this approach. All students are required to take a world language from kindergarten, and by middle school, they are required to take Latin in addition to the world language. If the school does not have a Latin program or making Latin mandatory does not have the support of the school community, a good substitute is to require two world languages in middle school, one of which should be a romance language.
Early Acquisition and Multiple Tracks
The most effective world language programs begin language acquisition early. The top private and public schools mentioned earlier have intensive programs in which all students begin a world language by pre-K or kindergarten. The standard curriculum of Level 1A and Level 1B is completed by fifth and sixth grade, Level 2 by seventh or eighth grade, and Level 3 by eighth or ninth grade. Even when students reach Level 3 by ninth grade, they are required to continue with the language through grade eleven and are encouraged to pursue it into twelfth grade. These schools typically have language placement by skill level at various points of admission and offer accelerated Level 1, instead of 1A and 1B, for students who are accepted in middle school or choose to move faster. Moreover, these top schools have flexible rules allowing the simultaneous learning of several languages and even requiring Latin and a modern language in middle school. IB schools with their Primary Years Program and Middle Years Program also introduce strong world language programs earlier.
The schools with early language acquisition consistently rank among the top ten or 20 public and private independent schools in the nation and support findings from research: a young learner can easily assimilate any additional language and even several languages simultaneously. Nonetheless, many public and private elementary schools do not offer early language acquisition or do not allow students to take more than one language at a time until ninth grade. Such rules are especially damaging to Hispanic and other heritage students, since they prevent them from simultaneously mastering their mother tongues and taking on additional world languages. These barriers are also damaging to female students in coed schools, since girls generally excel in languages more frequently than boys.
Private or public high schools face a different set of circumstances, and they cannot implement early language acquisition by themselves. What can high schools do to improve their world language programs if they cannot influence their feeder middle or elementary schools’ curricula? Independent or public high schools are able to improve their world language programs through multiple tracks, including regular, honors, and accelerated tracks in most world languages. Offering various types of sequencing and paths for students with different levels of ability, interest, and motivation is the best solution to compensate for the fact that they do not control early acquisition from pre-K through middle school. The accelerated and honors tracks could also be linked to APs, IBs, or other advanced courses.
The effectiveness of multiple accelerated tracks can be enhanced through summer programs for some students to catch up to the expected level, jump an additional level, or move to an honors track. Some of the top independent high schools in the nation such as Phillips Academy (Andover), Phillips Exeter Hotchkiss, and St. Paul, offer seven to ten world languages, several tracks for the most popular languages, and summer programs to support students.
One of the major obstacles to improving world language programs is that most schools, independent or public, fail to provide adequate placement opportunities for heritage learners. Students who already speak and understand a world language need to be placed correctly by skill levels regardless of age. Some heritage students also need accelerated tracks where their grammar or writing shortfalls can be addressed while allowing them to advance at a pace that matches their speaking and listening skills. Some of these students should be placed at AP level or in IB’s Diploma Program courses by ninth grade, given their advanced level of language skills, but in most cases, they are pulled down to a non-challenging language level or forced to begin a new language. This is a serious problem affecting many students, such as heritage learners of Chinese and Spanish, and is further perpetuated when students are financially disadvantaged. Such obstacles rob them of the opportunity to use a major advantage and skill: their heritage languages. If we are serious about global skills and expanded access for minorities, all private and public schools must address these problems.
Diploma Incentives, Immersion, and Endowments
The best and most successful world language programs also have diploma incentives, study abroad programs, and endowment support. Most of the top private and public schools in the nation have a diploma program (awarded with the high school diploma) for classical language scholars, world language scholars (fluency in three or more languages) and dual language students or the “Seal of Biliteracy” as it is called in most public schools. Similarly, most of the top private schools have a dedicated Center for Global Studies with resources to support such programs. Many of the top public schools are part of the IB curricula, which enhance a global connection. Diplomas in world languages, global studies and the AP and IB curricula typically motivate students to continue with one or more world languages all the way through twelfth grade.
Further incentives can be articulated through immersion-abroad requirements within the school world language and global studies programs. This is the most effective method for students to acquire fluency in any language while developing 21st-century skills and multicultural understanding. The total immersion-abroad requirement should be for at least a period of four weeks and could be split in two stays of two weeks each. Total-immersion-abroad programs should be fully credited and could be used by students to fulfill their academic requirements, advance faster, or move into an honors, accelerated, AP or IB track. Some of the top elite schools, like Collegiate, include the price of total-immersion-abroad programs in their overall school tuition and their financial aid packages. This enhanced requirement should be in addition to current programs like school year abroad or semester abroad among independent schools, which are voluntary and extremely limited, considering the number of students participating in these opportunities.
A stronger option would be to make at least one semester abroad mandatory anytime during the four years of high school. The majority of public schools cannot afford these types of programs. However, they may be able to obtain grant support from the Department of Education, the State Department, and foundations targeting educational reform. Another alternative is cooperation with study abroad institutions like NAFSA: Association of International Educators or college abroad programs, or even establishing school exchanges between states and other countries. Probably, most schools will need a combination of all the aforementioned to enhance the opportunities for students to become global citizens and fluent in world languages.
The final element to achieve a first-rate world language program is to have endowment support. To increase the number of languages offered and the depth and breadth of the program would require endowed chairs for each different language, as the top independent schools in the nation have. To have effective total immersion abroad, these programs would also require financial support, especially for students who cannot afford to pay for travel study programs.
Within independent schools, world language endowment support can be enhanced even further with endowed bilingual-track programs for heritage students and endowed language summer- and immersion-abroad programs. Public schools have more financial limitations to funding study abroad experiences or providing endowment support. This is where federal and state programs, educational foundations, and cooperation with college study abroad programs can be most helpful.
The educational market includes private and public schools as well as national and international schools, and it is not a coincidence that many of the top private and public schools have enhanced world language requirements, are implementing early language acquisition, and are making efforts to correctly place their heritage students. They are also providing multiple accelerated tracks and opportunities for their most capable and gifted students in order to retain them. These structural changes give a competitive advantage to independent and public school students. These proposed changes, when implemented within the context of the ACTFL World-Readiness Standards and Common Core expectations, assessments, program evaluations, and grading based on those standards, can also allow these schools to be among the top schools nationally and internationally. Independent schools and public schools ignoring the overall global education market dynamic are doing so at their own peril. After all, one cannot have a top-notch school, private or public, with a second-rate world language program.
Prep Review, “Top 50 Private Schools Index,” (2015). Retrieved from http://www.prepreview.com/ranking/
US News and World Report, "U.S. News Releases 2015 Best High Schools Rankings," (2015). Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/articles/us-news-ranks-best-high-schools
Washington Post, "America’s Most Challenging High Schools, National Top 25 List for 2015," (2015). Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/04/19/americas-most-challenging-high-schools-national-top-25-list-for-2015/
Joaquín Fernández-Castro has a BA and MA from the Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain, and an ABD from MIT and is enrolled in the Certificate for New and Aspiring School Leaders at Harvard University. He has more than 20 years of Spanish-teaching experience at both college level (Harvard University) and high school level. He was awarded the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in teaching excellence and is currently teaching AP at Harvard-Westlake School.