Earlier this week, Professor Paul Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, spoke on campus. He spoke about his new book, Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, published by Harvard University Press.
The book reframes the history of public education (k-12) in America and explains the rise of issues including bilingual education, vouchers, charter schools, and more. It also explores virtual education as the possible next major educational transformation in this country.
In his talk, Professor Peterson opined that public education could not right itself through slow and incremental change. He enumerated the many obstacles in the way of the kind of reform necessary to bring public schools in the United States to the level of say, Finland, Japan, Canada, and Korea. He showed statistics for students’ performances in math and science and, though it wasn’t news to many, it was still startling to see how American students in high school now rank against their peers: 12th in science and 17th in math. Hard to envision the future prosperity of the country when our high school students have fallen so far behind so many other countries.
Instead of proposing limited reforms to our public education system, Peterson called for a paradigm shift, with virtual, on-line resources supplementing the traditional “bricks and mortar” mode of education. Many public school districts are in crisis, unable to teach their basic curriculum at the expected grade levels. Professor Peterson didn’t argue that on-line learning equals or surpasses the kind of education a student could receive, face-to-face, with good teachers. Rather, he said, good on-line content can fill some gaping holes in public education quite effectively.
Foreign language instruction is no exception, and in fact, many argue foreign language programs have been disproportionately affected by the recent recession, with local public school districts eliminating teaching positions and foreign language programs. The state of crisis in language teaching and learning in the public schools is what led the College to partner with a company that has vast experience in providing on-line courses and curricula to grades k-12 to form Middlebury Interactive Languages (or MIL). Through MIL, we seek to expand access to foreign language study and fill a recognized gap in the American public education system.
But our foray into k-12 education did not begin with on-line course development. It began during the summer of 2008, with the establishment of the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA), a four-week, bricks and mortar intensive summer language academy for students in grades 7-12. The academy’s pedagogy is based on the College’s well-established summer immersion Language Schools, which began operating in 1915 on the Middlebury campus.
The impetus for establishing the MMLA program came as a result of a presidents’ conference sponsored by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and then-Secretary of Education Martha Spellings at the State Department in January of 2006. I was one of 100 college and university presidents invited to participate and hear from the Departments of State and Education how we, the academy, needed to help solve the nation’s “strategic language gap.”
Since 9/11, there has been far greater attention given to our country’s long time poor record in foreign language education. Yet, it was odd to me, at least, how these two major departments of the federal government seemed to think the solution to the country’s gap in our language proficiency in strategic languages (e.g., Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, Farsi, etc.) was to pump funds into colleges and universities. That would be great, of course, but a ton of research shows one is able to learn languages far easier and effectively at younger ages, and the ability to learn them declines rather dramatically as one gets older. College age is, for the large majority, too late for one to begin learning foreign languages and attain high levels of proficiency.
Leaving the State Department conference that January day I couldn’t help but think that, if we wanted to increase language proficiency in the country, and create a true pipeline of competent speakers of languages, we should do for younger kids what we have been doing in our Language Schools since 1915: provide an immersion environment with excellent, committed teachers for learning languages and their cultures. And thus was the start of the four-week MMLA summer immersion program for 7th to 12th graders.
Though so many applauded our efforts to expand access to language learning through MMLA, many asked how these students could retain what they learned if so many of their schools did not offer language study at their new, advanced levels when they returned to class in September. Most of the students advanced one, and sometimes two, years in their high school language sequence following their four weeks of immersive living and learning.
Providing quality on-line materials, then, was the logical answer, and led to our relationship with K12 and our decision to form MIL. This initiative also brings us full circle in Professor Peterson’s talk, for in his talk and in his book, he spoke of the need for colleges to partner with businesses that have robust technology delivery systems and the necessary capital to provide the quality content necessary to supplement what is now available through public education.
Our first MIL courses will be in beta testing this coming January. The first courses will offer introductory Spanish and French, and can be used to supplement language lessons in traditional bricks and mortar classrooms, for home schooling, and as stand alone courses in virtual charter schools, which have gained popularity in a number of states due to curricular deficiencies in many local school districts. And although I agree with Professor Peterson that online courses are valuable if they simply fill gaps in public school curricula, our courses, as seen and judged to date by high school teachers and language professionals, will do far more than that. We believe that the MIL courses will both set the standard for online language learning, and improve language teaching at the high school level significantly, addressing local and national needs.
Professor Ana Martinez-Lage, a member of the College’s Spanish Department, and leader of the content development team for the Spanish I course, will give a presentation on her and MIL’s work on Thursday, December 2 at 4:30 in the Robert A. Jones House (RAJ), as part of the College’s Language Division lecture series, “Language Works.” It will be interesting to hear the reaction to our initiative to expand access to language education at the high school level for beginning Spanish and French learners through MIL’s on-line materials/courses.