Mandarin immersion capacity: Portland Public Schools annual decision has global impact

By Dave Porter of Portland, OR. Dave is a retired health administrator who advocates for Mandarin language education and study abroad programs in Oregon schools on his blog.

Sometimes seemingly small decisions have big repercussions. Such is Portland Public Schools annual decision not to expand its Mandarin immersion program at Woodstock Elementary School in SE Portland. Great powers can rise and fall on the accumulation of such seemingly small issues.

Each year for the past four years Portland Public Schools has been turning away at least another full class of kindergarten students whose parents want them to enter the Mandarin immersion program at Woodstock Elementary in SE Portland. The program currently takes only 60 new kindergarten students annually.

Here’s the data for the past four years:
2006-07: 60 openings, 109 applications;
2007-08: 60 openings, 106 applications;
2008-09: 60 openings, 89 applications;
2009-10: 60 openings, 84 applications meeting criteria, plus another 17 applications “criteria not met;” (which probably means the parents missed a required meeting).

Woodstock is the only public Mandarin immersion program in Oregon. Applications are in for next year. Lottery results to start kindergarten in 2010-11 will be mailed 4/30. The public does not yet know (and I’ve asked) how many application Woodstock received for its 2010-11 Mandarin immersion kindergarten.

For individual students turned away, it is a disappointment. But the issue is much, much more serious. Every student who is turned away is a strategic loss for Portland, for Oregon and for the US. With four times the US population and its current economy about one-third the size of the US economy, China has an economy that at current growth rates will becomes as large as the US economy somewhere between 2027 and 2035, when today kindergarteners will be 22 to 30 years old. One forecast has China economy at twice the size of the US economy in 2050. Not only is that a large potential market for our goods and services, but China’s economic rise poses potentially serious national security issue.

We need many more of our citizen to become fluent in Mandarin. Overall Oregon may have only one percent of its public school students studying Mandarin. Immersion programs are the best way to learn a foreign language (start as young as possible and immerse as much as possible). We are not going to require students to be in Mandarin immersion programs, so we should give priority to those students whose parents want them to be in one. We should make room or find a way for every student wanting to start a kindergarten Mandarin immersion program to do so. The costs are minimal.

Portland Public Schools should not send out on 4/30 any turn down letters to parents who want their child in a Mandarin immersion program. It not just about their child’s future, it’s about our common future.

Sometimes school boards make the most important national security decisions.

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    Oregon Trail School District based out of Sandy is hoping to start a Mandarin immersion charter school for next year. Hopefully it will be the first of many!

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    Dave, do you have any data on the percentage of children who enroll in this class who go on to achieve some level of basic fluency in Mandarin?

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      Jeff, I do not have such data, but I think it might be available. The current Woodstock Mandarin immersion program gets some support from a federal grant as a model K-20 immersion program (with support also going to Hosford Middle School, Cleveland and Franklin High Schools and the University of Oregon which are other components of the model). The U of O's Center for Applied Second Language Studies (CASLS) provides intellectual guidance for the program and probably collects the data you would like. I've not seen it.

      The Woodstock program is, I think (someone correct me if I'm wrong), a 50%-50% program - that is half the school day is taught in Mandarin and half in English. This contrast with the full immersion program (100% Mandarin in kindergarten) of the private International School. I have read of several fifth grade students at the International School passing the Mandarin test given by the Chinese government for admittance to Chinese Universities (Although from this, I have to think that standard is rather low. Perhaps because China has many minorities and Mandarin is a second language for many).

      Also, students do drop out of the program all along the way.

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    First, a disclaimer: I applied this spring to send my daughter to Richmond's Japanese immersion program. Similar, but perhaps less geopolitically important, to Woodstock's Mandarin program. I'm also a teacher in a public school (not PPS).

    I agree with your main points regarding the importance of second-language education at a young age. However, I really must question many of your assumptions.

    1) If, in 2008-2009, there were 89 apps for 60 slots, it would be somewhat unfeasible to add a third class (I assume we're talking class size of ~30.) You cannot assume that all 89 parents would definitely send their kids to Woodstock had they been accepted. (In my case, it is not guaranteed that we can make the transition to Richmond logistically should we get into the Japanese program there.)

    2) Supposing you had firm commitments from all 89 families, aren't you assuming a bit that PPS would be able to find adequate numbers of Mandarin-fluent staff? I'm guessing that certified teachers (public school -> everyone lives and dies by TSPC) fluent in mandarin aren't as plentiful as, say, high school English teachers. Moreover, can you get such a skilled person to take a job at a certified teacher's salary? It isn't poverty wages, to be sure, but it might pay much better for someone fluent in Mandarin to work in the private sector.

    3) These language immersion programs are very beneficial, but they also fall under the giant clusterf*** that is magnet/options schools. These schools serve (some would say primarily) as a gathering point for richer, more involved parents. (I'm convinced that the purpose of the mandatory meetings is exactly that, especially after having gone to one at Richmond.) Every such parent in a magnet school is one fewer involved parent in a neighborhood school. In some schools, that "loss" is minimal. In others, it could be devastating.

    4) What gods have indicated that Mandarin will be THE language to know when the kids graduate in 12 years? I mean, it sure seems to me now that China is some sort of unstoppably rising force. Still, in the 70s we would have demanded more Russian for our kids. In the 80s, more Japanese. Those specific language choices seem quaintly geopolitically anachronistic now.

    5) Finally, saying that the district should not send a single rejection letter for lack of space is simply unrealistic and reflects an ignorance of how school systems operate. Second language fluency is greatly undervalued in our culture. So, apparently, are elementary school librarians - my understanding is that PPS currently funds .5 elementary librarians or so per school and the rest is to be made up by parent groups (either via volunteering or fundraising). Similar with PE and art and music. The whole system is barely breathing outside the NCLB-mandated subject areas.


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      Ben, good points. Let me reply to each.

      (1) Yes, 30 to a class. This year PPS permitted parents to make first, second and third choices. So for the 2008-09 data, not only do we not know how committed the parents were, we also do not know if the 89 reflects first choices. I don’t know what the options were that year.

      I think expanding Mandarin immersion programs is such a priority I would do it whatever the number of students required. Blended grade class or whatever.

      Regarding Japanese, I submitted a similar Richmond expansion proposal to PPS budget process. See

      (2) I know finding good Mandarin teachers is a problem. It’s not an issue I know well but can say the following. (a) I helped develop and supported bills in the 2007 and 2009 legislative session intended to develop an adequate supply of Mandarin teachers (hoping a consultant would get into the details of this issue). Both bills died in committees after hearings. (b) The 2010 legislative session passed a bill to facilitate the bringing of Mandarin teachers from China. I think such teachers may be more appropriate for high school than kindergarten students. But a possibility, and we will see. (c) We have a Confucius Institute at PSU to help adapt and train Mandarin teachers. (d) The TSPC rules probably need updating for immersion teachers. (e) In expanding Woodstock by one kindergarten class, we have about five months to find one additional Mandarin teacher.

      (3) Yes, there is the magnet/option school versus neighborhood school issue. I think the strategic importance of Mandarin programs trumps neighborhood school concerns. And also think that if PPS expanded immersion programs to meet parental demand then some of the exclusivity issue (and accompanying dynamics) would go away.

      (4) First, given changes in the global economy all foreign language skills are becoming more important. Second, we never did get that many students fluent in Russian and Japanese. I’d like to see us go from about one percent of public school studying Mandarin at all to five percent fluent (and having spent a high school year in China). Third, China’s rise is significant. It may be the major event of this century. India is also rising, but the current chances of war with India are much less. So I give a very high strategic priority to getting that five percent fluent.

      (5) Again, I give high strategic priority to Mandarin programs, to even partial classes. Immersion programs need not cost more than regular, English-based classes, so it is not a funding issue competing with librarians any more than regular classroom teachers. Art and PE can be taught in Mandarin as well as English. Why cannot school district make these changes? Educate my ignorance.

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    This sounds like all part of the effort to strip Cleveland HS down, and thereby eliminate any remnant of this program. At the District's meeting at Cleveland, about the HS "redesign," there was significant support for the immersion program, but the lackeys from the District gave little more than lip service to it. This post suggests an effort to kill the program from the ground up. Idiots.

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      Jonathan, I was at the Cleveland HS redesign meeting distributing my High School Study Abroad Program leaflets.

      PPS was then and is still unclear what is going to happen to the high school language immersion programs. We'll see soon when the specifics of Redesign are announced.

      So, I'm not clear how anything I wrote relates to stripping anything down at Cleveland HS.

      More elementary school Mandarin immersion programs are needed to build a stronger high school Mandarin immersion program - at Cleveland or wherever it ends up.

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    While I like the idea of increasing the language immersion availability, I would also like to see how successful the students have been before saying that we should increase the size of the program. I also find your statistics on the growth of the Chinese economy a little questionable.

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      Lance, in 2008 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace forecast that "China’s economic size will match that of the U.S. by 2035 and double it in total GDP by midcentury." See here or

      I've seen, but can't now find the link, of a more recent Carneige forecast that had an earlier data for China's economy being as large as the US economy but only 20% larger by 2050.

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        Thanks David for the information. I'm going to go give it a good look through.

        I would like to add that with all the cuts to programs within the schools, such as music and additional languages, we end up widdling away at our children's future.

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        All assuming we don't go to war, first.

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    Hello all - I am the marketing director at The International School (TIS) which someone mentioned above. We teach full immersion programs in Mandarin, Spanish & Japanese from prek through 5th grade.

    Is Chinese "the language to learn"? Many of our Chinese Track families feel that is the case, and of course there is no way to know for sure. However about 30% of families express interest in our program without knowing which language they want for their child. They are aware of the brain benefits of learning a second language at a young age, and they appreciate the world view that becomes innate when children grow up in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural environment, particularly with native-speaking teachers. Once parents have been here awhile, the "world citizen" aspect to their child's education often grows in importance to them. By that measure, Portland should grow all of its immersion programs and make them even more accessible.

    In Montreal in the late 60's (where most of the early immersion research was done - I was an early immersion student there at the time), only selected students participated in what were considered pilot immersion programs. Within 10 years, ALL students did immersion unless they had some learning disability.

    To me it feels like Portland is still in the pilot phase of immersion - that there isn't a strong enough belief in the benefits & importance to roll it out. Perhaps proponents need to work on communicating and strengthening the underlying belief in immersion as a basis for education for the district to fully embrace it. Once the concept becomes an underlying part of our educational system, we could have math magnets, art magnets etc all taught in an immersion environment.

    With respect to achievable fluency: As the research shows, fluency attained is directly related to how much time the student spends in the second language. Our fifth graders do pass the Chinese HSK fluency test (and the Spanish & Japanese equivalents for students in those tracks). They also go to China (or Japan or a Spanish-speaking country) and live in a dorm or with a host family, attend school, sightsee, etc. Most of our students find themselves to be very conversant, able to talk to people in the park, able to bargain in the markets (they love that), able to make friends, etc.

    That's not to say that immersion students are indistinguishable from native-speakers, not at all. But their reading, writing, speaking and level of comfort with the culture is strong enough to truly participate in life in those countries.

    • Linda
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      "Fluency". Jeff's question was very interesting. I was going to ask, "has it ever happened?". Then, I saw Linda's response. That's amazing!

      But, it makes me even more interested in Jeff's question. I would be interested in seeing as much data is out there. I'm sure it's pretty hard to say x% go on to fluency, but I would be interested at your various takes on a guesstimate. I think that if the point were more widely known that there would more enthusiasm for this.

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        This data isn't all about fluency, but try this link for a sampling of 3rd party research on how/why children do become bilingual:

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      Linda, thanks for coming by. Great thoughts.

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    Dave, a couple of questions:

    • How much non-immersion Mandarin instruction is going on in Portland and/or Oregon? Obviously, most of the language instruction in schools comes in the form of non-immersion classes.

    • And how does that compare to other languages taught in the state? There are folks who talk about this as a funding issue, but it seems to me that part of what we could/should be doing is rethinking our language priorities. A lot less French and German, for example, in exchange for more Mandarin (and, perhaps, Arabic.)

    Perhaps fodder for a future guest column.

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      Kari, again, sorry but I don’t have the actual data on all foreign languages taught in Oregon. But I can make a few comments.

      (1) You are right this is not primarily a funding issue. There are the issues, as Ben mentioned above, of neighborhood schools vs. immersion and teacher supply and the general inertia of large systems resistance to change that slow change down. Neither adding more immersion programs or paying for students to study abroad need cost any more than students in regular classrooms.

      (2) Periodically the Oregon Department of Education publishes a list of schools that have some kind of Mandarin program – elementary, middle and high schools. There is a variety of non-immersion offerings. The DOE report does not indicate the number of students involved at each. My best estimate is that somewhere between 1% and 2% of Oregon public school students take some Mandarin. Mandarin is hard. The only ones with a chance at functional fluency are the 60 starting the immersion program at PPS’ Woodstock. Both Eugene and Lake Oswego school districts have recently considered starting Mandarin immersion program but have not done so.

      I’m for getting to 5%, but a 5% who are functionally fluent and who have spent a high school year in China. It seems doable to me.

      (2) A few year ago the U of O’s Center for Applied Second Language Studies published a “Language Roadmap for the 21st Century: Oregon” (here) in which they said of all foreign languages: “only an estimated 5% of non-heritage high school graduates and 20% of college graduates – about 6000 per year – reach functional proficiency.” And: “Oregon annually spends approximately $80 million for K-16 foreign language education in order to produce fewer than 6000 functionally proficient students. At a cost of $13,600 per proficient student, Oregonians are clearly not getting a good return on their investment.”

      (3) My impression is that Spanish immersion programs clearly have been growing.

      (4) Online education, especially at the high school level, could open foreign language learning opportunities all across Oregon, both in terms of reaching rural schools that had few foreign language teaching resources as well as permitting a long list of infrequently taught languages (Arabic, Hindi, Brazilian Portuguese, Indonesia, Pasto, Urdu etc) to be taught. But the state and school districts need to get moving to develop online education’s potential (this needs a guest column. There may be some interesting testimony at this Friday’s (4/23) Board of Education meeting. They are wrestling with the general issue of online education – what should Oregon do).

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        One advantage I would mention to learning Hindi (India being a close follow-up to China in future world China credit) is that a large percentage of Indians don't speak it! Many of the IT professionals working in the US that are learning ESL only speak Telegu or Urdu. I think this is a real opportunity, if you're using future economic potential as a major criterion.

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    All students should be exposed to the Mandarin language. Learning the characters is great for brain development and the such language skills will be increasingly needed. We can't remain ignorant of foreign countries and their cultures forever.

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