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December 16, 2010 2:43 pm

EDITORIAL: Reconsidering early foreign language education

Written by Don Amend

When the Wyoming Legislature convenes next month, education issues will be a big part of the agenda.

The most important issue on the agenda is the recalibration of the state’s school funding model that was developed more than a decade ago to  provide equitable funding to all the state’s schools. The periodic recalibration of the model is necessary to account for changes in the cost of educating the state’s young people as well as changes in educational practices that might alter the way money is spent.

The Legislature’s responsibility for funding education in the state has led legislators to pay more attention to what is being taught in the schools, and to take steps to make sure Wyoming’s high school graduates are prepared to succeed in furthering their education. Those efforts have led them to mandate, among other things, foreign language instruction in the lower grades. Since 2002, Wyoming’s elementary schools have been required to provide such instruction in kindergarten through second grade. Now though, an interim legislative committee is considering a proposal to eliminate that requirement.

The thinking in adopting the requirement was that younger children, whose language skills are still developing, have an easier time learning a second language. That is indeed true, but those proposing the elimination of the requirement argue that schools often do not have the human or financial resources to develop an effective language program. In addition, they argue that, unless the instruction continues past second grade, students will lose the benefits of the early instruction by the time foreign language is available to them in middle or high school.

The bigger question, though, is just how many requirements the Legislature should be putting on the schools in the face of the pressure to meet federal and state requirements to improve the achievement America’s students. Many schools are already struggling to meet No Child Left Behind requirements, and those standards will become more stringent in future years. Mandating additional programs will make that more difficult and may have negative effects.

Foreign language instruction in the early grades is a good idea, but the state needs to take a step back and evaluate whether the mandate was really an effective way to meet that goal, and whether they provided the resources needed to carry it out.

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