California needs to cultivate international interests

Op-Ed by Michael C. Watkins published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on December 29, 2012

On a recent trip to China, I had an opportunity to visit a number of elementary and secondary schools in the Beijing and Guangzhou regions of China. The program for educators is sponsored by Hanban in partnership with the College Board and is entitled “The Chinese Bridge for American Schools”. This was my second visit and it was no less impressive.

Benefitting from other advanced nations promoting their national languages, China began a comprehensive effort in 2004 to advance Chinese language and culture in foreign countries. Their grasp of the important role that globalization is playing and will play in the future is stunning, especially in light of the Cultural Revolution that took place between 1966 and 1976 where intellectuals were ordered to the countryside. The term intellectual, at that time, referred to anyone who graduated from a middle school.

China appears unrelenting in their effort to become a major player on the international front and for them education and the ability to speak a foreign language are the keys to that success. All of the Chinese students that I met spoke English fluently, including those in elementary school.

This effort to speak Mandarin as a Second Language is gaining momentum across the United States as well, and if fully embraced and understood, our students will be better educated and our communities will be economically stronger. Utah has emerged as the leader in developing a Mandarin Dual Language Immersion Program followed closely by the states of Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

All have an emergent Chinese presence and or businesses in their areas and an unwavering desire to use local talent, but to do so require fluency in both English and Mandarin.

Utah Governor, John Huntsman, a fluent Mandarin speaker, launched a program earlier this year called Flagship-Chinese Acquisition Pipeline, (F-CAP). This program will create two pathways-one for students entering immersion programs at kindergarten and another for students beginning their Chinese instruction in middle school.

California has sadly remained on the sidelines in this effort with all but a few school districts embracing and understanding the importance of bilingualism and the cultural influence that foreign countries have in the United States. Research has shown that students enrolled in dual language programs achieve high proficiency in the immersion language, perform as well or better on standardized tests, develop greater cognitive flexibility and show increased cultural sensitivity.

Workplace skills and demands have changed dramatically in the past 40 years and it appears that China is adapting to those changes at a much quicker pace. The United States has continually used routine, memorization (many times without learning) and standardized tests to determine proficiency at the expense of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.

What I observed in China was the importance of cultivating the broader interests of each student through the arts, culture (students making tea for the guests), music, opera, dance and physical education and how each elective played a key role in academic success. China like the United States has many flaws; however, it appears that the one thing they are getting right is education.