Another in an occasional series of informal reports, analysis and opinion based on a meeting of the Harford County Board of Education.
A decision last week by the Harford County Board of Education to award high school credit for foreign language courses completed in middle school also sparked a backlash against mandates and raised the specter of inequity in Harford County Public Schools.
At the outset, school board members and Superintendent Robert Tomback agreed in principle: Students who complete high school level coursework should earn high school credit.
The debate arose over how such credits should be classified, and therefore whether students who essentially satisfied the high school foreign language requirement when they were in middle school should be mandated, or simply encouraged, to continue their language studies in high school.
Superintendent Robert Tomback recommended classifying the high school credits earned in middle school as electives, meaning that they would count toward graduation but they would not offset the two foreign language credits generally required in high school.
As such, students who took one or two years of a foreign language in middle school would still have to take two more years in high school, if not for love of the subject, then to meet the high school requirement. Ideally, these students would rack up a total of six years of study by the time they graduated, plus college credit for passing the Advanced Placement exam.
In a rare, impassioned speech from the dais, Tomback championed his plan. Apparently referencing his tenure as superintendent, Tomback said that his recommendation was “consistent with the mission of the school system over the past four years”, which he said was to expand opportunities for more students to further their studies, including foreign language, math and science, leading to better opportunities in college and in the workplace.
However, several board members questioned whether mandating the additional foreign language study was appropriate, or even necessary.
Leading the charge, Board Member Bob Frisch opined that an eighth-grader who successfully completed the same foreign language coursework as a high school student deserved the same type of credit; much like high school students earn college credit for passing Advanced Placement exams. Frisch further explained: “The key word here is to ‘encourage’ students…I don’t think we should be mandating.”
Board Member Jim Thornton worried about the potential for a gap in foreign language studies between middle school and college. However, Frisch countered that foreign language classes were not required in all colleges nor were they part of all career paths. In any event, Frisch said, students and parents should be allowed to decide. That last point garnered agreement later on from Board President Rick Grambo.
Board Member Cassandra Beverley asked if other Maryland districts had found that the way the credits were classified made a difference in whether or not middle school students continued to take foreign language classes in high school. In other words, did students continue their studies without a mandate? According to the response provided by a member of Tomback’s World Language Task Force, limited data from three or four school districts indicated that students did continue, even when it was not required.
Board Member Alysson Krchnavy raised the specter of inequity, noting that not all county middle schools offer foreign language classes in the first place. Siding with Tomback in the debate, Krchnavy reasoned that giving some middle school students credit that satisfied the high school foreign language requirement would be inequitable in what she described as a “ a huge, huge way.”
In fact, the inequity is already striking. Among the eight county middle schools, only Aberdeen, Fallston and Southampton, offer high school level foreign language classes, with Fallston offering the greatest number of languages (three), and accounting for more than half of the 434 students currently enrolled in such classes at the three schools. Edgewood, Magnolia and Patterson Mill offer only “exploratory” classes; Bel Air and Havre de Grace middle schools offer none of the above.
Below is a chart from HCPS displaying the language offerings and enrollments at each school, provided in response to a request from The Dagger:
Responding to Krchnavy’s point about exacerbating inequities, Frisch shot back, “That’s our fault, the fact that we don’t have languages in all of our middle schools,” he said, “That’s on us. We shouldn’t punish students who by virtue of where they live have the opportunity to take a language in middle school…”
In September, Tomback’s task force recommended standardizing language offerings, and replacing exploratory classes with Level 1 and Level 2 language courses in middle school. In order to begin implementing these recommendations next year, the school system’s budget request for fiscal year 2014 includes $134,454 for three more middle school foreign language teachers.
Frisch clarified his comments after the meeting, telling The Dagger on Thursday that equalizing language offerings among county schools had not been made a priority soon enough, which he said was a matter of will and not necessarily a matter of money.
Back at the Monday meeting, Frisch proposed an amendment that would have allowed the credits earned in middle school to satisfy the high school foreign language requirement; Frisch’s amendment failed by a narrow margin in a 5 to 4 vote. Finally, Tomback’s recommendation passed in a vote of 6 to 3, with implementation planned for the 2013-14 school year.