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US needs integrated approach to improve foreign language skills and cultural expertise


WASHINGTON -- The 14 U.S. Department of Education programs designed to strengthen education in foreign languages and in international and area studies -- known collectively as Title VI and Fulbright-Hays -- have made some progress but lack the resources necessary to keep pace with their mission, says a new report from the National Research Council. And the Education Department does not appear to have a master plan for these efforts, which may not bode well for the nation’s security and competitiveness.

More support from all levels of the U.S. education system is needed to develop an integrated approach to improving foreign language skills and expertise on other cultures, beginning in the primary grades, the report says. Also, the Department of Education should consolidate oversight of its foreign language and international education programs under a high-ranking official who would provide strategic direction and coordinate its work with related activities at other federal agencies. To be most effective, that position should be a presidential appointment and require Senate confirmation.

Universities should play key roles, partnering with federal officials to create systems to continuously improve the programs, the report says. The systems should help develop performance indicators and engage networks of professionals in the field.

“The nation’s infrastructure for international and foreign language education is weak at a time when the United States faces unprecedented demands for globally aware citizens and professionals,” said Janet L. Norwood, chair of the committee that wrote the report, a counselor and senior fellow at the Conference Board Inc., and former U.S. commissioner of labor statistics. “The Sept. 11 attacks brought renewed attention to this topic. However, a comprehensive strategy is essential for building greater knowledge of world cultures and national capacity in a wide range of languages.”

Congress should require the U.S. secretary of education to issue a biennial public report outlining national needs, plans to tackle them, and progress toward goals. To produce the reports, the education secretary should collaborate with the departments of State and Defense, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other agencies with relevant projects, the study committee said.

The Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs were created nearly 50 years ago following the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. The surprise launch shocked the United States, leading to large increases in federal spending on education and scientific research. Over the years, the programs’ scope has grown to encompass undergraduate and graduate education in foreign languages, international studies, and area studies, which focus on particular regions of the world. The programs also promote greater use of technology, foreign language training and research, and the recruitment of minorities into international service professions.

Title VI and Fulbright-Hays have produced some positive results, the report says. For example, they have boosted the teaching of more than 250 uncommonly taught languages, such as Mandarin, and developed instructional materials that are used in the federal government, K-12 education, and academia. And they have been a catalyst for foreign language and interdisciplinary initiatives in higher education. But funding and staff resources have trailed the programs’ expanded mission, the report concludes.

In addition, national data on the programs’ impact are lacking, and there have been few well-designed evaluations. The Department of Education is actively working on improving this information. It should ensure that its new data system provides uniform standards for data collection and allows comparisons across programs and over time, the report emphasizes. And performance information should be publicly available.

Officials should improve how the programs assess the foreign language proficiency of students, the report adds. Specifically, the Education Department should no longer allow those who participate in the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) program -- a part of Title VI and Fulbright-Hays -- to rate themselves, a practice it currently permits.

The federal government should contract out for a project to find new ways to measure foreign language proficiency and to use technology to improve language instruction, the report says. The project should work on research and development, as well as other issues. Last year President Bush announced his National Security Language Initiative, which calls for new and expanded measures to help increase the number of Americans learning certain “critical need” languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, and Farsi. The study committee said maintaining national capacity in a broad range of foreign languages would be prudent, allowing the United States to respond to new and unanticipated challenges around the world.


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