Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

School Board: Language Partnership Edition

19. August 2008 • Matt Hampel
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Board of EducationBoard of Education meeting: Wednesday, August 20 at 7:30 pm.

The meeting will cover, in part:

  • A proposed new partnership with the AAPS and University of Michigan’s School of Education to offer Spanish in elementary schools. Dr. Donald Freeman, Director of Teacher Preparation and Dr. Maria Coolican are leading from the UM side.

Some details from the presentation:
  • Student teachers fluent in Spanish trained through the World Languages Teacher Education program
  • Teach two 30 minute periods/ week
  • all elementary schools , beginning in the 3rd grade in 2009-2010
  • Expanding to 4th & 5th grades in 2010~2011
  • Supervised by University faculty and field instructors
  • Coached and supported at the building level by media specialists


  • Regularly scheduled reports from Youth Senate , BPSSG, MPAC, PTOC, AAAA, MEA, and other abbreviations.
  • A decision on storm-water containment at Pioneer (discussion about the plan is happening before the meeting, at 5:30pm)
  • Briefings and purchasing approval for two US history textbooks, The American Vision (Glencoe) and 20th Century United States History (TCI-Hunter). The cost of 1800 of the latter is $145,840.
  • Committee assignments

For more reading:

The AAPS Board of Education meets every other Wednesday(-ish). Meetings usually begin at 7pm with a public commentary period, and are held in the 4th floor conference room of the Downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. The 2008-9 schedule is online. Meetings are broadcast live on CTN and rebroadcast several times.

  1. Follow-up article from the news: All Ann Arbor students will learn Spanish (by all, they mean third graders). The agreement still needs to be finalized.

       —Matt Hampel    Aug. 22 '08 - 06:01PM    #
  2. Finally, reports on the school board! Thanks AAU.

       —Cooler Heads    Aug. 24 '08 - 09:15AM    #
  3. I’m surprised there’s not more comment about the mandatory Spanish proposal.

    I’m opposed to it for a variety of reasons, but the flippest one is that it would be a lot more helpful for 3rd graders to start learning Unix. ;-)

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 27 '08 - 05:50PM    #
  4. “I’m opposed to it for a variety of reasons, but the flippest one is that it would be a lot more helpful for 3rd graders to start learning Unix. ;-)”

    An hour a week of foreign language instruction seems to me if anything a disappointingly modest program. What’s your worry?

       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 27 '08 - 06:19PM    #
  5. This is going to set a lot of people’s teeth on edge, but, in the interest of exposing that there are in fact alternate views on the issue (something that the school board does not seem to have considered!), here goes…

    1) I am opposed to anything that implictly or directly supports recognizing Spanish as a second language in the US. if anything, I would like to see less investment in Spanish instruction and more investment in English as a second language.

    2) If I was going to pick a district-wide initiative, there are a lot of other things that I would pick first, i.e. math, science, computer, english composition, lifetime physical activity, parenting classes. Simply put, our deficits in those areas are more important to the future of our children than their ability to speak Spanish or any other foreign language.

    3) Don’t get me wrong—I benefited greatly from six years of foreign language instruction in the Ann Arbor Public Schools and am a big fan of diversity, supporting the disenfranchised, learning about foreign countries, geography, and international amity—what I am opposed to is the misplaced priorities.

    Essentially, I see this initiative as a form of PC showing off by the school board. Something that wastes a lot of energy in Ann Arbor, as with the constant pressure on the library (of all places!) to be more environmentally friendly. (Like sharing thousands of free books isn’t environmentally friendly enough).

    As you note, 1 hour a week isn’t very much… if it was more time, they would have to justify taking it away from the other worthy investments I mentioned above.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 27 '08 - 07:53PM    #
  6. I fully support teaching foreign languages early. As any linguist would tell you (or anybody who has tried to learn a language later in life), if you learn a language young, it’s much easier to pick up.

    And, if you already know 2 languages, it becomes much easier to learn a third.

    So if it were Spanish, Chinese, or even Latin, I would support an initiative like this for the long-term benefit it would offer children. In this increasingly globalized world American’s need to have the skills to connect across languages and cultures. This sets our children up to succeed not just with Spanish but with other languages.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Aug. 27 '08 - 08:27PM    #
  7. The globalized world meme is ubiquitous in discussions of foreign language teaching, but I have some degree of skepticism based, ironically, on the closely related and equally neglected and outward-looking discipline of geography.

    the fundamental insight of geography is that location matters. the united states covers most of a continental land mass and is separated from its neighbors by deserts and prairie. In those locations on the borders where our neighbors are in close proximity, fine, more language instruction.

    This recent study in cosmopolitan Europe found that 83% of people never leave a 50-km radius of their homes.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 27 '08 - 08:38PM    #
  8. Fred Zimmerman wrote: “Essentially, I see this initiative as a form of PC showing off by the school board.”

    I’m not sure if by ‘showing off’ you mean to claim that it’s a top-down effort by the board. But.

    In a survey of parents of elementary school parents in Ann Arbor, 1219 said they strongly supported creating of a World Language Program at the elementary level, while 41 said they flat out didn’t.

    I think that this plus the Burns Park Foreign Language Initiative, plus the collaborative aspect with the U of M, tends to undercut any claim that this is a top-down effort on the part of the school board.

       —HD    Aug. 27 '08 - 08:42PM    #
  9. i didn’t claim that it was a top-down initiative, but, I do think that it is. what I meant by “showing off” is that the program, as designed, is at the same time mandatory, unnecessary, and ineffectual, a brilliant combination.

    i suggest that we apply the same standard of review to this program that we apply to constructing a new city hall, approving a new apartment building, or adding parking places down town. ;-)

    the statistics you quote about 1219 in favor are meaningless unless the respondents had to make trade-offs. of course everyone supports it, it’s a nice-to-have. and of course,conducting a survcey, and collaborating with Burns Park or U of M, is not the same thing as having bottom-up support.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 27 '08 - 08:57PM    #
  10. I’m with Chuck, learning a second language can help with more than just that single language. That’s not as critical for English speakers as for non-English speakers, but it’s still useful.

    And there’d seem to be advantages to picking a single language; kids from different classes can practice with each other, materials can be standardized and shared, etc. And if you were going to pick one, may as well pick one for which native speakers and material in the language are easily available. So Spanish seems like a pretty sensible choice.

    I’m a little mystified by Fred’s “second language” comment—if it’s based on the fear that promoting Spanish risks weakens the need to learn English, hence hobbling kid’s English skills, that seems a little far-fetched in this case. I agree that ESL programs are more important, but I certainly hope we could still manage a measly hour a week of foreign language instruction….

       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 27 '08 - 09:20PM    #
  11. well, gee, when you put it that way, it sounds pretty reasonable …

    but what are they going to remove from the curriculum to make room for the measly hour a week that will, in the end, benefit only a percentage of the students? are you going to take out their library hour? (sounds possible, given that the instruction is with Media Center specialists?) an hour of gym? an hour of music? an hour of math or English?

    Force the tradeoffs, and this looks a lot more like a fuzzily thought-through top-down initiative.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 27 '08 - 09:37PM    #
  12. Full disclosure…I am an AAPS employee. The Foreign Language Initiative with the U of M was not a top down initiative. It is part of the district’s Strategic Plan and has been discussed and researched for a few years. It wasn’t until the partnership with the U of M came to life that it truly became a reality. Funding is a clear issue when starting a new initiative in public education. To be able to introduce a new program like this for only the initial start up costs of $60,000 for a district Ann Arbor’s size is unheard of in this economy and funding structure by the state. The U of M partnership is groundbreaking. It will instruct students not in the proper grammar that we all got in our high school foreign language classes but in how to identity key statements, ask questions, learn about another culture…all important to grasping a second language at an early age. It is also not intended that all these students will continue with this language as they enter the secondary level, but rather give them a base to allow them to explore other languages if they choose. Having developed a level of comfort and exposure in the elementary years, the U of M data reports, will give students confidence to learn global languages into their high school years and beyond. We should be celebrating this partnership and supporting it rather then finding reasons, even before it starts, to criticize it.

       —LNM    Aug. 28 '08 - 01:09AM    #
  13. but you haven’t answered the questions i put.

    1) what is being displaced from the curriculum for this extra hour of a “nice to have”?
    2) is 3rd grade second language instruction really a high priority? i think if you ask with true rigor—the same rigor we apply to adding parking spaces downtown—the answer is going to be no.

    as far as top-down, all I can say is that I am an actively involved parent of a K-6er (every day at school) and this came as a complete surprise to me.

    I vote in favor of every single education millage and always will, and I am glad to see the AAPS trying new things, but I can tell you that if this instruction displaces any of my kid’s other “specials” — library hour, music, gym — I will pitch a fit. they only have 5 hours of specials a week.

    and can you really justify taking away the hour from math and reading?

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 28 '08 - 02:27AM    #
  14. “This recent study in cosmopolitan Europe found that 83% of people never leave a 50-km radius of their homes.”

    Fred, may I introduce you to the internet…. I rarely leave a 2-mile radius of Ann Arbor, but getting my work done requires daily communication with people across the world.

    Of course, virtually all that communication is in English! There’s a huge asymmetry here: “learn English” would be way ahead of “learn UNIX” on my list of recommendations for a French kid who might end up in my field some day. (And this is coming from a Linux hacker.) For an American kid, not so much. And that’s probably true across most fields, and will be for some time. But I still think acquiring some basic foreign language skills is a pretty good idea.

    Certainly important enough that I’m not willing to dismiss a mandatory hour a week of foreign language instruction as a priori “fuzzily thought-through”. And yes, I do realize that’s time that could be spent on math, reading, music, or gym. Duh.

    Anyway, I’m off to practice my French…. (Though in my case, I’ll admit, mainly just because I think it’s fun!)

       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 28 '08 - 03:07AM    #
  15. Fred Zimmerman wrote: “... but I can tell you that if this instruction displaces any of my kid’s other “specials” — library hour, music, gym — I will pitch a fit. they only have 5 hours of specials a week.”

    Would part of that fit you would pitch include enrolling your kids in a private school or home school?

    I pose the question because another one of the survey questions was this one: “If your school aged child(ren) does not attend the Ann Arbor Public Schools, would you reconsider enrolling them in one of the AAPS elementary schools if World Language was offered?” 468 Yes to 58 No. Which on its face sounds like this is going to be exactly the thing that will allow AAPS to compete with private schools … parents will enroll their children in AAPS just to get the benefit of World Language??

    But I say ‘on its face’ because I’m not sure what to make of the responses to that item, given that on a different item, only 170 said that their children did not attend AA public schools.

    I would conjecture that the over-response by people to whom the item didn’t apply is explained as a mis-analysis of the ‘if’ in the if-clause as some sort of indicator of subjunctive mood, even though the verbs themselves are clearly indicative. Otherwise put, respondents parsed the question as “If your school aged child(ren) did not (already) attend the Ann Arbor Public Schools, ...”

    In which case, maybe Fred is right: more attention all around, parents included, on the basics of reading English.

    It’s worth mentioning though, based on my sample of one that Burns Park parents seem fairly well thrilled with the investment they’ve made in Spanish at the elementary level for three years now.

       —HD    Aug. 28 '08 - 06:10AM    #
  16. HD: No, I would not put my kids in private school or home school because of one policy change that is (if I do say so myself) rather minor in the overall scheme of things.

    It’s a bit hard to be sure that’s not because I can’t afford it, but I’ve always been a solid believer in quality public schools.

    When I went off to Swarthmore in 1978, I saw in the summer mailing that my roommate had attended the Deerfield Academy. About 1/3 of the students in my freshman class had been to expensive prep schools. I was intimidated! I’ve always thought it was a great tribute to the Ann Arbor Public Schools that it turned out I was better prepared than the prep school kids.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 28 '08 - 11:43PM    #
  17. LNM: Nothing personal, but I don’t think it’s fair to ask for a no-criticism period after a front-page headline announcing a new initiative. Here at Arbor Update we don’t give those out very often, why should the schools be any different? You can’t expect universal acclaim when you roll out something that affects every student in an age group.

    In any event, why worry? I’m the only one complaining! I have a feeling mine is going to be a lonely voice on this issue …

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 28 '08 - 11:48PM    #
  18. Why not give the students choice to learn French or some other useful language as well? There is no big Spanish-speaking population locally and French would be useful for those who have a Canadian connection or another country where French is spoken.

       —Kerry D.    Aug. 29 '08 - 04:32AM    #
  19. The rationale behind Spanish was the large number of qualified teachers from the Ed school, I believe.

       —Matt Hampel    Aug. 29 '08 - 04:46AM    #
  20. “The rationale behind Spanish was the large number of qualified teachers from the Ed school, I believe.”

    Also Spanish was far and away the preferred choice of parents surveyed—61% named it as their first choice. Coming it second at 22% was Chinese.

    “There is no big Spanish-speaking population locally.” My knee-jerk reaction was, Oh, c’mon I bet it’s as high as 10%. A2 census data doesn’t appear to breakdown specific languages, but based on the 3% claiming Hispanic or Latino origin in 2000, it would appear I’m wrong.

    Just to the south in Lenawee County where the UM has had an ESL program for migrant workers in place since the early 2000’s (don’t know if it’s still going) that percentage is 7.3%

    Percentage of Spanish speakers is surely lower than those indicating Hispanic/Latino origin.

       —HD    Aug. 29 '08 - 05:15AM    #
  21. In re. “There is no big Spanish-speaking population locally.” The U of M runs a very popular English-language tutoring program for Spanish speakers of all ages called PALMA. You’ll often see language partners chatting with each other at the AADL.

       —Matt Hampel    Aug. 29 '08 - 07:13AM    #
  22. I’m with Fred on this one. Instead of Spanish we should be teaching our third graders neoliberal economics and America First ideology.

       —Ampersand    Aug. 29 '08 - 04:50PM    #
  23. I served on the committee, part of the Strategic Plan initiative, that proposed the language program. My committee was composed of parents, citizens, AAPS employees. We looked at what the best districts were offering students, across the nation and world. We chose Spanish because it is spoken in a wide geographic area in the world, and because it may the easiest language to implement quickly because of the large number of educators who could do the instruction.

    Other members of the committee proposed Chinese and other languages, but the implementation of instruction in these languages posed a challenge. IN the end, the committee decided it wasn’t so much the language itself, but the instruction in another language early in school. There is research suggesting that learning a second language makes it easier to learn a third, and so on.

    The committee also chose to recommend the district study the International Baccalaureate (IB) program for possible iimplementation, and to stick to high standards and accountability for student achievement. That last piece was never fleshed out as well as it might have been, but it was a start.

       —I was there    Aug. 29 '08 - 05:08PM    #
  24. A reminder: pick a screen name and stick to it, folks, OK?

       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 29 '08 - 11:51PM    #
  25. So, to summarize, a vendor with an agenda is giving us a big discount on a program that will help feed their pipeline and absorb some of their excess resources, and everyone on the buying committee is happy and wondering where’s the applause.

    I was there, I find it striking a) that you feel the need to be anonymous and b) that you didn’t answer my question: what is being displaced?

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 30 '08 - 12:44AM    #
  26. Ampersand, far from being a neoliberal, I fully support the articulation of alternative views of global economics, and I have put my money where my mouth is. See, for example, Pepe Escobar’s GLOBALISTAN, which I published last year. But I am a contrarian, and not a big fan of groupthink.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 30 '08 - 12:58AM    #