Original URL:  http://www.accessatlanta.com/ajc/opinion/tucker/2002/092502.html

Teens need languages; comprende?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 9/25/02

What could they be thinking?

Still reeling from news of Georgia's abysmal showing
in national SAT rankings (Georgia is 50th of 50, in
case you forgot), Gov. Roy Barnes and the state's
educational establishment are poised to drop the
requirement that Georgia's college-bound students
study a foreign language.

Never mind that research shows students who learn
a foreign language generally do better on the SAT.
Never mind the generally accepted view that
Americans will increasingly have to compete with
citizens from all over the globe, suggesting that
foreign language proficiency would be good
preparation for future careers. Never mind that
Georgia has experienced a huge flow of immigrants
over the last decade, many of them Spanish

With Georgia dead last in SAT rankings, the state's
educational leaders want to lower the standards.

That would be absolutely the wrong way to go. While
college-bound students need concentrated study in
mathematics, literature and the sciences, they
should also be required to study four years of a foreign language. Georgia's political
and educational leaders should reinvigorate their efforts to make those courses
available and effective.

Friends and colleagues with children in local public schools argue that foreign
language classes are a waste of time and resources, since local schools teach
foreign languages poorly. But that's no reason to give up. Instead, the state should
raise the standards, insisting that schools teach languages well.

That might require giving up foreign language classes in elementary schools. With
limited finances and too few foreign language teachers, the state should concentrate
on teaching college-bound students from grades 9 through 12. While experts argue
children learn languages more easily in elementary school, they are also too young
to decide which language they wish to pursue seriously.

If the state had unlimited resources, every elementary school would have foreign
language programs. But with limited resources, concentrating on college-bound high
school students makes more sense.

Can all state high schools, even those in rural areas, provide their college-bound
students with a foreign language? Certainly. If the state makes a dedicated effort
over, say, 10 years, it can be done. After all, foreign languages could be taught
using the state's distance learning program, through which students in rural school
systems are linked to a distant teacher through video-conferencing technology.

Not all of the state's educational leaders are cavalier about teaching foreign
languages. "To not have foreign language as you finish your k-12 education would
seem to be shortchanging students," says Thomas Meredith, chancellor of the
University System. Indeed, Georgia's colleges and universities make the study of a
foreign language a requirement for admission, and Meredith said "there has been no
discussion" about changing that requirement.

Providing a good education is costly -- whether it involves hiring more teachers to
reduce class size or paying a subsidy to get good Spanish teachers in Hahira. But
the cost of providing a poor education -- with the resulting low-skilled work force -- is
even higher.

Cynthia Tucker is the editorial page editor. Her column appears Wednesdays and


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