The United States needs foreign-language speakers, and in particular it needs many more Arabic speakers. Despite massive investment and President George W. Bush's plan to spend a further $117 million next year, it does not seem to be getting them. What's wrong?
America's National Research Council is now undertaking a comprehensive review of its language programs, funded by Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Are the massive grants provided to area studies programs for language instruction effective? How exactly has more than $100 million, allocated annually for area studies and foreign language instruction, been used? Have they been co-opted by universities to subsidize other aspects, such as theoretically-driven research, at the expense of language instruction? Hopefully, definitive answers will be available when the NRC finishes its review in 2007.
In the meantime taxpayers must continue to ask whether Title VI money is being well spent and whether there are ways to ensure that it is. In the debate over reform of the Higher Education Act no issue has been more controversial than a proposed advisory board for areas studies and foreign language instruction. Predictable cries of censorship and manipulation were common. In the previous round of fighting over legislation revamping Title VI, some went so far as to misrepresent the modest suggestion of an advisory board effort to allow intelligence agencies to moderate U.S. students abroad.
But a simple examination of programs funded by the Education department, and numerous government agencies, shows that advisory boards are in fact standard procedure for programs large and small.
Examples of these include the committee for student financial assistance, which examines performance-based operations, modernization and technology, simplification of law and regulation, distance learning, and needs assessment; the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the Secretary of Education on accreditation under Title IV of the Higher Education Act and holds public meetings twice a year in Washington, D.C.; and the Presidential Scholars program, which funds up to 141 of the nation's most promising high school graduates in the performing, creative and visual arts. Each body has an advisory commission.
Mechanisms to promote accountability and exercise oversight are not restricted to advisory boards. The Education department even has an entire agency "to make certain that Federal funds produce high results and are well-spent."
But international education and area studies appear uniquely exempt from oversight or expert advice. Even the links marked "performance" on the individual program web pages are inactive.
Continual oversight and regular advisory process are the norm in other branches of the government that fund research and education programs. The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development has an advisory council. Its duties include advising, consulting with, and making recommendations to the NICHD Director on matters relating to the research and research support activities and functions of the Institute. The roles and responsibilities of the council members include secondary review of grant applications, with a focus on NICHD scientific program priorities and program balance.
At the National Science Foundation the number of advisory groups is similarly dizzying and range from groups overseeing entire branches, such as the Directorate for Mathematical & Physical Sciences and Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences, to individual units such as the Office of Polar Programs and the Office of International Science & Engineering. An inspector general also polices grants for fraud and waste and encourages efficiencies.
The role of NSF's Directorate of Education & Human Resources advisory committee is to provide advice, guidance, recommendations, and oversight concerning NSF's science and engineering programs. This includes effective and efficient strategies for assessing the condition of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in the U.S., evaluating program results, achieving overall program balance, evaluating program results, and long-term strategic planning.
The same types of advisory boards, panels of experts and outside reviews exist across the entire government, from NASA and the Department of Defense to the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service. No doubt there are also many programs that do not have panels, either deliberately or through omission. But area studies and language instruction are uniquely important at this time, and $100 million is still a lot of money. A panel evaluating balance, results, and planning seems eminently reasonable.
The recent proposal from the Bush administration for a new national language initiative will spend another $117 million in fiscal year 2007 alone on the teaching of Arabic, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian in dedicated language programs through the State and Defense departments. It is also acknowledgment that existing Title VI programs have been utter failures. The flagship academic organization representing Middle East specialists goes so far as to boycott one education program because it is run through the Department of Defense. There is little wonder that leading figures on the Title VI gravy train have voiced their disapproval with the new proposal.
But the lack of adequate Arabic language skills throughout the U.S. government is a failure that must in part be laid at the feet of academics and administrators who make promises, take Federal money, but produce little of value. An advisory board might point that out, hence it is rejected. But why should a fairly narrow class of professors in area studies and language instruction be entitled to receive government money without the merest glance from the same sort of advisory committee that advises the Secretary of Education about Title III, or the head of NSF about geological sciences? The sense of entitlement, coupled with self-righteous indignation that anyone should have the temerity to even propose what is standard operating procedure everywhere else does not serve the interests of students, universities or the taxpayers.
The question of how and why some academics are so alienated from the needs of society, and yet so confident that they deserve its money if not respect, is a question for another time. The problem that must be solved now is how to make sure Title VI money is well-spent to improve America's language skills. An advisory board is one obvious way.
Alexander H. Joffe is the director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.