The U.S. Department of Education needs a high-ranking official to oversee its efforts to expand Americans' proficiency in foreign languages and knowledge of international affairs, according to a report released last week by the National Academies' National Research Council.
The report was prepared by a committee convened to review the "adequacy and effectiveness" of language and foreign-affairs programs, which are supported under two federal laws — Title VI of the Higher Education Act and the Fulbright-Hays Act.
It generally defended the programs and their long-term and broad-based approaches to training people to gain expertise in foreign languages and other cultures. But it also called for more support for their projects, which include university-based National Resource Centers and Language Resource Centers, saying those programs should not have to compete with or conform to more narrowly focused critical-language efforts shaped by current foreign-policy goals.
"You don't know what the critical language is going to be 20 years from now, and you need a reservoir," Kenneth Prewitt, a member of the review committee, said at a briefing on the report, "International Education and Foreign Languages: Keys to Securing America's Future."
Mr. Prewitt, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University, said that reservoir includes the academic centers supported by Title VI. Between 2001 and 2003, the centers offered instruction in 276 less-commonly taught languages. By contrast, the Defense Language Institute and the Foreign Service Institute offered instruction in only 74 of those languages, according to the report.
The committee found that the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs directly support the study of foreign languages and international affairs, and encourage universities to expand those efforts, said Janet L. Norwood, committee chairwoman and a counselor and senior fellow with the Conference Board, a nonprofit business-research organization in New York.
The committee, however, could not compile enough reliable data to determine exactly how effective the programs were and how well participants were learning. Limited oral examinations and self-assessments are the most common methods in place, and both are "inadequate," said Michael C. Lemmon, another committee member and a professor of strategic planning at the National War College of the National Defense University.
Minimal Resources, Maximum Gain
Even more seriously, financial support for both the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs has not kept up with the accelerating pace of the mission they are expected to fulfill, Ms. Norwood said.
While appropriations for Title VI programs spiked after September 11, 2001, they have declined in the last few years, and support for Fulbright-Hays programs has similarly dipped, according to the report.
Although universities have been successful in leveraging minimal resources toward maximum gain, the committee agreed, they need a voice in Washington to advocate for them.
This official should be a Senate-confirmed, executive-level bureaucrat, someone "with clout" in the Department of Education who reports directly to the secretary on whether the nation's efforts in international and foreign-language studies are in step with its needs.
The official should be an academic, said Karin C. Ryding, president of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic and a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University.
"I think most academics would be anxious to have someone with an academic background and a background in language teaching and linguistics," she said in a telephone interview. That person would be best equipped to understand the challenges that professionals in the field confront daily, explained Ms. Ryding, who was not on the committee.
Assessment, she agreed, is a problem. When it comes to Arabic, "there are just not enough proficiency testers," she said. "There's maybe 20 or 25 in the whole nation who are certified, and they are constantly in demand."
The report recommended more research into how technology can help improve assessment and build a common educational platform for use across languages, Mr. Lemmon said.
Committee members agreed that despite uneven progress, a sea change had occurred, one that will not soon be reversed.
The launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, by the Soviet Union in 1957 led to more Americans studying Russian.
Interest in Japanese and other East Asian languages grew with the strength of Japan's economy in the 1980s. Now Americans studying foreign languages are increasingly immersed in Chinese or Arabic.
"We've now had enough shocks," Mr. Prewitt said, underscoring the committee's overall optimism. "We're never going back to a place where we can simply tend our own garden."