The following is part 1 of an email interview with Gregg Roberts, World Languages & Dual Immersion Specialist for the Utah State Office of Education. Despite having designated English as the official language of the state and traditionally conservative politics, Utah has become a leader in language immersion education. Roberts shares his insights and perspectives with us here.
In the conservative Salt Lake City newspaper, Deseret News you were recently quoted as saying “Our main goal is to mainstream immersion…to make that option available to all parents.” How would you characterize the overall reaction of parents and other Utah citizens to the news that Utah plans to “mainstream immersion”?
For the most part I would say it has been very enthusiastically received, especially in the business community, the state legislature, the educational establishment and amongst younger parents. The opposition is coming from the older generation, the less educated populace, and teacher unions who are worried about the jobs of underperforming monolingual teachers.
How long has elementary school language immersion been happening in Utah and what does the future hold for immersion education there?
The first elementary Spanish immersion programs in Utah began back in the early eighties. However, there has not been much growth until the State Legislature created the Utah Dual Immersion program in 2008 with Senate Bill 41. There will be an additional 14 new programs this year bringing the total to 51 for the 2010-11 school year. Our goal is to have 100 programs in five different languages by the 2014-15 school year, so we will need to add 12-14 programs each year to stay on pace. Utah currently has programs in Chinese, French, and Spanish, and will add German in 2011 and Russian in 2012.
Has Speaking in Tongues been useful in helping citizens to understand the goals and challenges of immersion education?
Speaking in Tongues has been extremely useful particularly with business, government and education leaders. We found the Chinese examples particularly useful, and worked with Patchworks Films on a special short video, Inside Immersion: A Chinese Example. However, one must remember that the politics in Utah are counter to one of the principal arguments in the film, English Only, which become problematic for us in Utah. The official language of the State of Utah is English; paradoxically immersion programs are flourishing all over this conservative state. In my opinion, Immersion education should NOT be linked to English only and immigration. Dual Immersion in Utah is NOT a red issue or a blue issue; it’s a purple issue meaning that it should be a non-partisan issue. It’s all about preparing our students for the 21st Century and not continuing to live in the 20th. Finally, in Utah, giving the gift of a second language to a child is all about economics!
What were the motivating factors prompting Utah’s decision to launch so many new immersion programs at one time?
Economic, Economic, Economic! Utah is a small state, so for our economic survival and the national security of our country we MUST educate students who are multilingual. In these tough budget times, the only reason why the State Legislature continues to fund this program, while all others have been cut or reduced, is because this program is tied directly to the future economic development of Utah.
What about the practical struggles of implementing these programs, for instance, how did you find so many teachers so quickly?
Yes, there have been struggles in finding qualified teachers. However, Utah has the highest percentage of native English speakers who can speak a second language so we already had some highly trained elementary teachers who were highly proficient in the immersion language. In addition, Utah has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with China, Spain, Mexico, France, and Taiwan, and these agreements are currently providing about 30 highly skilled elementary International Guest Teachers. In addition, Utah has two renowned universities, University of Utah and Brigham Young University, which are starting to produce elementary teachers who are either native speakers or highly proficient in the target language. Finally the Utah State Office of Education has created an outstanding Alternative Routes to Licensure (ARL) program that has produced some excellent native speaking or highly proficient in the target language teachers who have come from other professions.
What type of choice do parents have in selecting immersion (or not) for their children?
Utah is an open enrollment state, which means parents can chose the school their child attends. All of our Dual Immersion programs are strands that exist in the same school as traditional education since choice in education is extremely important in Utah. Each district participating in the program is permitted to set their enrollment policy and it differs from district to district. However, districts have been great about opening more Dual Immersion programs as the demand increases, thus it is all about meeting the needs of parents and students.
Utah is the first in the nation to develop standardized immersion curriculum. What sort of expertise was required for this curriculum development? How has it been received? Do you feel it could be improved?
Utah has brought in some of the finest immersion experts in the country to work hand-in-hand with our highly skilled curriculum development team. Please remember that the main premise of immersion education is to teach the core content areas through the medium of another language. Thus, our state-approved curriculum aligned to the Utah State Core has been warmly received. In addition, we have also created an enhanced literacy strand in each immersion language. Of course we feel our curriculum can always be improved and we are proud to be releasing our new and improved integrated curriculum (Science and Social Studies) in Chinese, French, and Spanish this year. Utah has agreed to move to the Common Core Standards so this year we will be working on aligning our Math and Language Arts curriculum to the Common Core.
I noticed that your programs are designed for 50/50 immersion meaning that students will spend half their day in English instruction and half their day in the target language. In other programs, such as San Francisco’s public schools, the model is to begin with 80-90% of a child’s instruction in the target language and gradually increase the amount of English instruction time as the children age. How will Utah’s programs change for the students from year to year, and what informed the decision to do 50/50 rather than 90/10 or 80/20?
I personally abhor anything but a 50/50 model for instructional and political reasons! In Utah we use a balanced two teacher model to clearly respect the separation of languages. In addition, our model is a K-12 model where students receive 50/50 instruction grades 1-6, two content course in the target language in grades 7-9, take the AP exam in grade 9, then enroll in university 300-level language courses in grades 10-12. Our goal when these students graduate from high school is to hand them off to universities or the workforce at the advanced level of proficiency in speaking, listening, reading and writing.
In June, representatives from Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and North and South Carolina dropped in to take a peek at the state’s program. How do you feel about being a role model for immersion programs across the country?
We feel very honored and fortunate. I strongly believe if Utah can do this, so can (some) other states. Of course, all politics being local, and yes there are plenty of politics in immersion education, they may need to tweak our model to meet their own unique landscape.