Commentary

Timothy Platts-Mills: Mandarin debate misses point

June 27, 2014 

In the coming weeks, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board will decide the future of the Mandarin dual language program at Glenwood Elementary School.

The decision has created controversy because maintaining or expanding Mandarin education will be expensive and take resources away from other schools already strained by recent budget cuts. Costs of the program include busing students and recruiting and paying for visas for Mandarin-fluent teachers.

Parents of the 132 children currently in the dual language program at Glenwood have spoken almost unanimously in favor of the program. Much of the debate has focused on the value of the Mandarin dual language program, in which half of the teaching hours are taught in Mandarin, on student education. This debate largely misses the point. The question is not how much students in the program benefit but rather which students benefit.

There are many purposes of public education and many mandates for our school board, but chief among them is to ensure that all students, regardless of the resources of their family, have the opportunity to make a successful transition to higher education.

Put more simply, the school board needs to make decisions which minimize the achievement gap.

Dual language programs began as a way to provide challenging but accessible educational content to students with limited English proficiency. The available evidence suggests these programs are quite good for students who don’t speak English well. For the most part, in the US, these have been English-Spanish programs with the primary Spanish-speaking students coming from families with limited financial resources.

How does Mandarin education at Glenwood address the need to help level the playing field? Not at all. Most Mandarin speaking students in our district are already proficient English speakers and are not economically disadvantaged.

Of the 78 Asian K-5 students in the current Mandarin Dual Language program at Glenwood, only 13 (17 percent) are Limited English Proficiency; in comparison, 180 (58 percent) of the 308 Latino students in the district’s Spanish dual language programs are Limited English Proficiency. The proportion of economically disadvantaged students within the Mandarin dual language program at Glenwood (11 percent) is also substantially lower than that for the district as a whole (31 percent). Mandarin education at Glenwood doesn’t and won’t close an achievement gap, because among the students it will serve there is no gap to close.

Of course the Mandarin-speaking students in the Dual Language Program are only half of the story (or 1/500th if you go by their numbers in the district). English-speaking students within a dual language program may also benefit from the challenge of learning two languages. Again, the key question is not if there is value for these students but rather which students are receiving this value. Families with limited financial resources could send their children to Mandarin dual-language programs, but they don’t. Not surprisingly, parents who have not completed higher education, work two or three jobs, and don’t have many books at home don’t push their children to learn Mandarin. They don’t do it in other parts of the U.S., and they don’t do it in Chapel Hill.

In the end, the Glenwood Mandarin program becomes a mechanism to cream off a group of students who are already destined to do well. It makes for good press for the district, and it would probably be good for the students who would attend the program. But it is neither just nor wise to focus limited resources on privileged students, and we shouldn’t do it.

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