*** K-5 World Language in Cambridge Schools

By Emily Dexter

Given the amount of parent lobbying and School Committee discussion over the past four years related to a district-wide K-5 World Language program (since the IA vote in March 2011), it is concerning to me that the administration, at the teachers’ budget hearing, formally advocated for the expansion of the K-5 Kodaly music program without mentioning another program that would require time in the school day: World Language.  (The Kodaly testimony was offered primarily by the Curriculum Coordinator for Visual and Performing Arts.)  Not only has the parent community expressed an overwhelming interest in having the World Language curriculum start in kindergarten rather than 6th grade, there is far more research on the beneficial effects of language study on academic achievement and brain development than there is research on Kodaly.  Yes, we know that music study “changes brains.”  So does the study of reading, math, art, sports, dance, science, and everything else.  But in particular, we know from many published and peer-reviewed research studies that childhood language study affects brain development and reading achievement.  (To my knowledge, there is only one study of the effects of Kodaly instruction, and that study was not peer reviewed.)  That doesn’t mean that Kodaly isn’t an excellent program with positive effects.  It does mean, though, that there is no reason to favor adding 2-3 sessions of music to the K-5 week rather than 2-3 sessions of well-designed instruction in a World Language. (Or some schools might prefer additional sessions of art or outside play or other beneficial activities. In terms of the “goals” of a K-5 WL program, such a program wouldn’t be enough for most students to become fluent, as they might in an immersion program, but Kodaly won’t turn them all into competent musicians either.)  And unlike World Language, there has been no strong parent or School Committee advocacy for expanding the Kodaly music program.  There has been, however, strong advocacy for K-5 World Language, which was explicitly promised as part of the Innovation Agenda.  

Two years ago, a Morse School parent testified at a School Committee meeting to the effect that: “One of the reasons the Morse parent community supported the Innovation Agenda was because we were promised a K-5 World Language program.  I feel betrayed that this has not been implemented yet.”  She then read a letter to the SC signed by 21 Morse School parents (see link below to full letter) that stated:

We understood that a world language program was to be an integral part of the Innovation Agenda, which you approved.  As strong and active supporters of the IA, we feel betrayed by this breach. The City of Cambridge had (and still has) the financial resources to fund this aspect of curriculum, and fully approved the initiative. We feel it is now your responsibility as our representatives to ensure that this promise is fulfilled for the year 2013-2014.  If you have decided that it is impossible to put the full initiative in place now, we ask that you at least fund a pilot program that will pave the way for a full program in the 2014-15 school year. This will give us confidence that you are seriously working on implementing a comprehensive world language program for all Cambridge students.

Another 21 parents from multiple CPS schools sent an advocacy letter to the SC and Cambridge Chronicle stating:

A K-5 World Language program will enhance students’ language and literacy development in English; deepen their understanding of other peoples and other cultures; help them understand that the U.S. is only one country in this vast and infinitely complex and diverse world; and help them develop the curiosity, imagination, and cognitive flexibility required to truly learn math, science, social science, language arts, the visual and performing arts, and about their physical health and well-being.

School Committee member Patty Nolan has claimed, on multiple occasions, that “monolingualism is the new illiteracy.” Former SC member Alice Turkel, two years ago, suggested gradually expanding the WL language program downward from 6th grade, adding first 5th, then 4th, then 3rd grade, etc.  Parents have asked for pilot programs or experiments integrating World Language study with art or social studies classes. At last week’s SC meeting, School Committee member Mervan Osborne stated to the effect, “We ignore World Language at our own peril.”

The administration, however, has been non-committal about if, when, and how a comprehensive WL program would be developed and implemented.  (See link below to March 2013 letter from the Superintendent about K-5 World Language.) Last year, the curriculum department conducted Year 1 of the formal review of the district’s World Language curriculum, but focused on grades 6-12. Parents were surveyed about their language interests as part of the review, but no parents were included on the review committee. At the SC World Language curriculum meeting (June 2014), when asked about plans for the K-5 program, the Asst. Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction stated only that, “That is still a big discussion we are having at the district. We definitely need to set a time line for that and we will.”  The Superintendent, at the same meeting, stated, “We decided to consider it as part of the overall look at the elementary program, which is starting to be framed this summer and will commence this fall.”  So far, to my knowledge, there has been no public report on how that review of the elementary program is going, yet the administration seems to be peremptorily advocating for expanding the Kodaly music program while remaining silent about K-5 World Language.  The administration’s main reason for not adding World Language has always been: “Not enough time in the school day.”  Yet Kodaly also requires time in the school day.

I will also say that some members of the SC seem to have framed this as a “white issue,” as if English-speaking families of color, particularly African American parents, don’t care if their children learn a world language.  I don’t know the name of George Bush’s speechwriter, but the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” did carry a punch.  I spoke with one African American Morse School parent who was complaining to me that the Morse no longer offered Spanish in the early  grades. She told me, “I mentioned this to a School Committee member and they seemed shocked that a Black parent was interested in their child learning a World Language!”  Despite the previous Morse parent advocacy for a WL program, the Kodaly music program was recently added to their curriculum.  Several Morse World Language advocates told me that Morse parents were never consulted about this addition.

It’s frustrating to live in an international “innovation” city, but to have a 20th century World Language program that doesn’t start until 6th grade for most students.  It’s also frustrating to hear so much lip-service paid to family and community engagement, while large-scale parent advocacy for a K-5 World Language program is overlooked.  World Language is clearly of particular value and relevance to the Cambridge populace and parent community.

Related links:

Letter from Superintendent on WL and FY14 Budget

Morse School World Language Letter

World Language advocacy letter multiple schools

Notes on WL & Science Curriculum Mtg

Note:  Students at the following schools/programs currently have K-5 world language learning opportunities (immersion or non-immersion): Amigos, King Chinese Immersion, King Regular Ni Hao program, the Ola program at King Open (but not in the non-Ola King Open program), and Fletcher-Maynard.

Students at the following schools currently do not have any opportunity to study a world language until 6th grade: Baldwin, Haggerty, Peabody, Tobin Montessori, King Open (except Ola students), Cambridgeport, Morse, Kennedy-Longfellow, Graham & Parks.  See report by Emily Dexter & Leslie Brunetta: UNEQUAL SCHOOLS FY15 08-14-14


One thought on “*** K-5 World Language in Cambridge Schools

  1. Great piece, Emily. The only thing I would say is that it is clear to me that Mervan did not mean peril vis a vis election. He is becoming a really strong advocate of foreign language as a fundamental 21st century educational need.




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