Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Proof of the Pudding...

Is in the Eating.

That is the traditional text of the proverb that you may have heard shortened into, "The proof is in the pudding."

But either way, you probably could have figured out that what it means is that:

Results Matter.

And in the same way that one might try to improve pudding, we should be working to evaluate our school programs with an aim toward improving them.

Seriously, people DO work to improve their puddings! Just today I was reading the blog Kitchen Sin Carne, which has this little gem (no, we did not coordinate. . . and I even thought of the proverb before I saw the post!):
I've had various attempts this week on making vegan pudding. That's right. So first I tried chocolate pudding...FAIL. I tried it again, even more of a fail! Today I tried pumpkin pudding, and the first time it was so runny, and I tried to reduce it more and little pearls formed of like, cornstarch. I was really confused. Now in the fridge I have a little pumpkin 'pudding' but its more of a weird custard. Whatever. I'll try again!! I know I can do this!!
 So...where am I going with this? This is not really a food post. No, it's about language learning.

A couple of years ago, with big fanfare, the Ann Arbor schools announced that they would be working with U of M to get some Spanish language lessons into all of the third and fourth grade elementary school classes. To be specific, UM would provide the students to teach two 30-minute lessons a week to the third and fourth grades. Here is an article about the program launch. Here is the UM web site about the Ann Arbor Languages Partnership

At the time, I didn't say anything about this. I sort of thought it was a dumb idea because there is plenty of evidence that 60-minutes a week of a language, in isolation, is not going to teach anyone a language. Other countries actually teach kids languages by using daily instruction. On the other hand, I understood that the Burns Park PTO (a powerhouse fundraising group) was raising money to pay a foreign language teacher, which made some of the other schools want some foreign language lessons as well. So there was some internal pressure. I also thought that maybe any step forward in promoting second language acquisition could be a good thing.

Side note: the way second languages are taught in the Ann Arbor middle schools (6th-8th grade) has not been at all consistent from school to school, and it hasn't consistently promoted language learning either. In some schools, a program that gives you a "taste" of several languages has been promoted. How many languages can you count in, or say "pencil," "desk," and "teacher?" In others, it is "pick a language and stick with it."

Well, now this program has been in existence for a year. It is time to evaluate the program publicly.
"The proof of the pudding..."
Did the students learn a lot of Spanish? My guess is "no."
Did the UM students learn a lot? My guess is "yes."
Were parents satisfied?
I can't speak for all parents, but I do know that some parents were very satisfied...very happy...that their kids were getting some lessons in a second language. And guess what? NOW, they are pissed!

Q: What happens to Spanish language learning in fifth grade?
A: Nothing.

I don't know why 3d and 4th grade were chosen, but we have now instituted a program where students learn Spanish in 3d and 4th grade, nothing (second-language related) in 5th grade, and then in 6th grade either get some kind of exploratory language program or start taking a language which may or may not be Spanish. Does that make any sense at all? Not to me.

So let's look back now: why are we doing this? What outcomes would constitute success? Cui bono? Who benefits?

I don't know, because I haven't done or seen an evaluation (has one been done?), but I will conjecture that the beneficiaries, in this case, are the UM students--not the AAPS students.
It's not bad, by the way, for UM students to benefit. They just cannot be the only ones.
If in fact that is the case, then we [by "we" I mean AAPS parents, students, and taxpayers] need to be extra careful, in considering a "lab school" partnership, to make sure that the AAPS students benefit.


  1. Ruth,
    My understanding was that they were starting with 3rd grade last year, adding 4th this year (so now it's 3 and 4), and then 5th grade next year, so it will be 3-5. So the kids who started in 3rd will keep having it till 5th. Is that not your experience of it?

  2. Maybe that is the plan (and that would be good), but I haven't seen that written down anywhere. I do know that some fourth graders had it last year, and don't have it this year.

  3. Certainly the kinks have to be worked out, but I think you point out the bigger problem, Spanish isn't consistently taught across middle school. My son was telling me he mostly learned nouns.
    No such thing as a free lunch, and it seems like the administrators are scrambling most of the time.

  4. The plan has always been and has been communicate as such, that each year the district adds a year. So next year 5th grade will be added. The middle school language curriculum is being reviewed as well. Here is the link to the World Language Program partnership with AAPS and U of M.

    You will see that it clearly describes the program, the goals and the adding of grades. It is in constant assessment via the U of M and the district.

  5. Liz,
    I'm glad to hear that the plan is to scale up to fifth grade next year. Obviously, some fourth graders got the program last year though...perhaps kids in multi-age classrooms, such as those at Ann Arbor Open? So is there any solution for them?

    I would love it if you would share the district's evaluation of the program--I'll be happy to post it on this blog, or to post a link if you put it on the AAPS web site.

    Last--who does the assessment of the world languages curriculum? Is there a committee? As far as I'm concerned, the exploratory in sixth grade is a huge point of weakness, and I would like to see that replaced with something that actually leads to real second language learning.