As the globe continues to shrink, the importance of learning about world cultures and languages continues to grow, and, according to a report received by the Kansas State Board of Education last month, Kansas is falling behind.
To be considered a national leader, the state would have to have a K-12 enrollment in world languages of at least 30 percent; to be competitive internationally that enrollment should be 75 percent or higher, the board was told. A survey of Kansas school districts conducted by the Kansas Department of Education in February and March of 2011 put the state’s enrollment in world language classes at 17.57 percent.
That’s a little higher than the state scored in a 2008 national survey conducted by the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages, which set the state’s enrollment in world languages at 16.01 percent. In that survey, Kansas was ranked 30th in the nation and well below the overall national percentage of 18.5 percent. Among neighboring states, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa all ranked above Kansas with world language enrollments of 25.88 percent, 19.6 percent and 16.67 percent, respectively. Oklahoma (15.94 percent) and Colorado (15.54 percent) were just slightly behind Kansas.
The more recent Kansas survey also breaks language enrollment down by districts. As the home of Kansas University, Lawrence likes to think of itself as an education leader that has a greater focus on diversity and multicultural education. However, that isn’t reflected in the Department of Education report that indicates Lawrence has 17.47 percent of its students enrolled in world languages. That puts it somewhere in the middle of the state’s largest school districts, ahead of Wichita, Kansas City and Topeka, but behind Olathe and Shawnee Mission. The Blue Valley district in Johnson County actually was set aside in some of the calculations because its 79 percent enrollment in world languages was so far above all other districts. Spanish is, by far, the most-taught language in Kansas, but there is a surprising diversity of languages including 895 students studying Chinese, 285 studying Japanese and a few dozen studying Russian, Arabic, Italian and Greek.
The study commended districts across the state for increasing world language enrollment from 14.75 percent to 17.57 percent in the last eight years despite declining budgets. But the need for additional progress is clear. Interactive distance learning is essential to increased language offerings, especially in smaller districts. The report noted the need to provide technical assistance to boost language offerings and ensure quality instruction.
Kansas has no foreign language requirement for high school graduation. Maybe it should. Foreign language is only “strongly encouraged” as part of the qualified admissions standards for Kansas high school graduates to be admitted to a Kansas Board of Regents institution. Maybe that should change.
Studying a world language teaches students more than how to read or speak. The Kansas study reminds the state that language education also prepares students “to become better collaborators, competitors and compassionate neighbors in this global society.” There is no doubt that today’s students need to be better prepared to deal with world cultures and a global economy. Language classes and the cultural education they impart are an important part of meeting that goal.