The Elephant in the (Class)room

Three ways to close the global education gap.

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Second, foreign languages are boring to us. Thus, we are wasting our linguistic capital. While our global cities, New York, Los Angeles and to a lesser extend Chicago, are home to all the world's major languages – thanks to our vibrant immigrant communities, by the third generation, the vast majority our Asian and Latino-origin Americans will have lost the mastery of their ancestral languages. To paraphrase Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson, Los Angeles and New York are now the world's largest cemetery for languages: where German, Japanese and Italian died a century ago, Spanish, Mandarin and Korean are slowly dying today. Linguistic diversity when coupled with the geographic endowment of cities like L.A., San Francisco and Seattle at the crossroads of Asia and Latin America is a real advantage that we are letting go to waste. In the economies and societies of the 21st century, speaking only one language is a clear handicap. Brain researchers have documented the cognitive advantages of speaking more than one language, and new research soon to be published by Patricia Gándara and Rebecca Callahan shows there are also economic advantages to bilingualism. Bilingual workers are both paid and valued more. Bilingual workers are 75 percent more likely to be hired than their monolingual peers with the same skills. Additionally, research shows that Latino students who achieve bilingual competency are less likely to drop out of school and are more likely to attend college and earn more than their monolingual peers. We need to make our global cities, starting with New York and L.A., our country's reservoir for world languages – but try to sign up in either city to learn Mandarin, Hindustani, Arabic, or Spanish and you will have to wait months, if not years. 

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Third, we need to prioritize early childhood education. In terms of school readiness and early critical literacy-enriching experiences, we lag behind the gold-standard programs of cities like Italy's Reggio Emilia – the world's beacon for early childhood education. When kids are not ready, boredom and disengagement can become endemic. What follows too often is not life-long learning but life-long catching up. Engagement is the only way to close an achievement gap among low-income immigrant and marginalized children of color that is already evident by age three, when a majority score well below their white peers in vocabulary, letter recognition and early numeracy skills. Studies suggest that the timing, duration and quality of childcare settings are indispensable to boosting school readiness. In a classic study, economist James Heckman has shown that every dollar invested in quality early-childhood development for disadvantaged children produces a seven to 10 percent return, per child, per year, per dollar invested.

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Lastly, the American teaching profession needs support for a culture change. When the world looks for a 21st-century education model that works for all children there is no better example than Finland where teachers work in highly professionalized teams involving psychologists, social workers, and nurses – all continuously supported by the public and the government, well remunerated, and backed by strong unions. Teachers are the pride of Finland. In contrast, our American teachers are dispirited.

Bored kids and dispirited teachers are a bad, bad combination.

Turning our kids into makers of technology, saving our languages, investing wisely in early childhood education, and honoring our teachers would go a long way reverse our current unhappy educational status quo.   

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is dean and a distinguished professor of education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. He is the author of many books including "Educating the Whole Child for the Whole World."

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