Expanding World Language Opportunities for All

Expanding World Language Opportunities for All

A unique partnership delivers the benefits of language learning to more students

May 28, 2014

Last week, the faculty at Middlebury College voted to instruct the college to “sever its ties to K12, Inc.” Since K12, Inc. and Middlebury College are partners in the joint venture that oversees Middlebury Interactive Languages, some might wonder what this vote means for Middlebury Interactive and our future growth. Specifically, I wanted to discuss what it means for our most important constituents: the students and teachers using our world language courses.

First off, it is important to note that this vote is non-binding, and Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz has come out strongly in public support of Middlebury Interactive numerous times over the past couple of weeks. In a recent opinion piece in the Middlebury Campus, the college’s student newspaper, President Liebowitz did an excellent job in outlining all of Middlebury Interactive’s accomplishments and why the college chose to create the joint venture in the first place.  

President Liebowitz wrote that one key goal for the college in spearheading this initiative back in 2010 was to help “expand access to language education for pre-college students.” Taking a look at our accomplishments over the past few years, he writes:

“Today, approximately 170,000 students learn languages through MIL courses in elementary and secondary schools across the country. For many of these students, these courses provide the only opportunity they have to study a language other than English.”

While our overall growth has been strong, the last part of that quote is really the point worth emphasizing – and should be a point of pride for Middlebury College as a whole. Elementary and secondary school language programs across the country have been cut significantly in recent years. For example, a recent study showed that from 1997 to 2008, the number of U.S. middle school students taking a world language dropped from 75 percent to 59 percent. In elementary school, the ages where language learning can have enhanced benefits, the number dropped from 31 percent to an anemic 25 percent.  Since 2008, this downward trend has only continued.

Our ongoing analysis of the K-12 language market reinforces what you would expect: the wealthiest districts and private schools are maintaining language programs while low-income districts – mostly in urban and rural areas – are dropping programs or continuing to go without. This means huge portions of the U.S. student population misses out on the many benefits of language learning and are less competitive in the global economic marketplace – just because of where they live or how much money their parents earn.

We are very proud to say that Middlebury Interactive is beginning to reverse that trend. For example, our Vermont World Language Initiative, for which we partnered with Middlebury College, has allowed many Vermont schools, like tiny Coventry Village School, to offer language programs for the first time. Next year, we will partner with the Baltimore County School District to create world language programs at 10-15 diverse elementary schools.  

Another important factor in this partnership is academic quality. Access alone wasn’t enough: all of us – the Middlebury College, K12, Inc. and Middlebury Interactive – wanted students in Coventry and Baltimore to have an equal or better learning experience to students at top private schools. In this case, technology would be the great equalizer. And, we are happy to say that, according to a third-party assessment of our courses, we are delivering on that goal as well. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University conducted a comprehensive evaluation of our 2012-2013 programs and found, through data generated by educators and students, that our programs are very successful in promoting cultural awareness and increasing language proficiency.

This isn’t to say that all of our courses are perfect. No learning experience is flawless, whether it’s online or in a traditional classroom. However, when errors in our courses are discovered, whether it’s by an outside party or through our regular internal course audits, we are able to nimbly address these issues and create a better experience for students and teachers. By contrast, when there are errors in a traditional print textbook, students and teachers generally must wait for the next printing to address these deficiencies.

Because public school teachers are so pivotal to our success, we have made a deep commitment to teacher professional development. We are launching new PD programs for teachers this summer and continue to make PD a critical element in any district or statewide relationships we have. Our goal is to ensure that the public school teachers we work with – some of whom have been hired by districts to support the partnership with Middlebury Interactive – have significant support, often more than they receive under a traditional teaching model. 

We believe that we have been good stewards of Middlebury’s pedagogy and that our partnership with Middlebury College has enabled our team of language experts at Middlebury Interactive to create the best world language curriculum and products available to K-12 schools. Maintaining Middlebury College’s reputation for excellence in language learning is extremely important to us. In fact, we are working to extend that reputation into the K-12 marketplace.

We knew there would be bumps in the road since this partnership is among the first of its kind. Middlebury Interactive wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all of the above in such a short time without the support and expertise of both partners. We value the distinct and significant contributions that both partners deliver to Middlebury Interactive Languages. K12, Inc.’s understanding of education technology has helped drive our significant growth over the past few years. And because of our relationship with Middlebury College, we have the most academically rigorous courses available for elementary and secondary schools.

We believe that our structure, despite not being the “way things have always been done” in education, is our strength. We are not succeeding in spite of this structure; we are succeeding because of it.

We look forward to continuing this partnership as we work toward our shared goal of making quality world language educational resources accessible to all students and teachers.

Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comment section, and we will do our best to respond quickly.

Jane Swift
In addition to leading our company, Jane is the mother of three teenage girls, a Williams College lecturer and a perennial contender to win the company’s March Madness pool. Jane was MA’s first woman Governor and first one in the U.S. to give birth (to twins) while in office. Jane made education her priority during her decade-plus public service career and helped MA become the nation’s top education state.
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