State legislatures nationwide are entertaining an assortment of proposals to require all students to take courses in financial literacy or computer literacy or coding. But in every instance, they fail to ask the most basic question: how can you require a course unless you have an adequate supply of teachers who can teach that course?
Over a decade ago, New York state passed a mandate for all students, beginning in grade 6, to learn a second language and demonstrate communicative proficiency in a language beyond English in order to receive a high school diploma. The rationale was correct, as it remains correct today. The legislation funded new positions to be created and curricula to be developed. It failed completely.
In the March 2, 2011 issue of Education Week, Ann de Bernard described the problem. “The single greatest obstacle to implementing these lofty goals was the inability to locate and hire qualified teachers to help children develop second-language proficiency. There weren’t any.”
For several years, New York struggled to find teachers. Teachers who only spoke English could require students to just read from books in a foreign language; that did not begin to work. You needed teachers fluent in that foreign language. But hiring any person who could speak the language did not work either. Teaching a second language is a teaching skill, and the bilingual person on the street did not automatically have that skill. Nor did New York have enough professors qualified to produce teachers who could develop foreign-language proficiency in students. After a few years of failing to gear up to foreign language teaching, the mandate was abandoned as futile.
But over a decade earlier, another country implemented a nationwide second-language mandate and has today succeeded where the United States failed.
Ascending to power after their disastrous Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiao-ping moved China from communes to a market economy. Russian had previously been the official second-language-to-learn. Now, due to its predominant usage in world trade and science, English would be their new required second language, to be taught from elementary school upward. An English test was also added to the all-important school leaving exam, the gao kao, that determined if and where China’s next generations of students would go to university to study. That focused every student in China on getting the best education in English possible. But where would China get their English teachers?
Since 1993, every year I have flown to China, there have been U.S. college graduates on the plane going to China or returning from China where they have spent a year or more teaching English in China’s high schools and colleges. China likewise has sent English-fluent Chinese students to the United States, several hundred thousand each year over this last decade, to study in all fields. Most now return to take up positions in China’s industries, government, and education system. Come with me on my annual trips to Chinese universities and you can get around quite well on their university campuses speaking just English, because all of their university students and young professors speak English.
English extends down to elementary school. “Number One” urban schools now have excellent Chinese teachers of English. Their rural elementary schools lag behind. Among a population of 1.4 billion, there are more Chinese who speak English in China than there are people in the United States with just over 330 million people. But it took China three decades to build up their educational capacity.
That is where American state legislatures go astray. We want results tomorrow. Educational changes take generations in time. Our average American school curriculum is now the weakest among developed countries. Exchange students come here to find they are several grades ahead of U.S. students. Our students travel overseas and find themselves behind their foreign classmates. Many states have boosted high school science requirements from two years to three, but our students’ science achievement is not increasing because we lack enough qualified science teachers to support our prior weak curriculum.
If we immediately — today — boosted our curriculum in science and foreign language up to developed world status, it would take us 20 to 30 years to train enough teachers to begin producing science literate and world fluent graduates. Instead, we will just buy their future inventions and they can speak English.