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What Happened in Palo Alto?

You’d think that a Mandarin immersion program in an elementary school would take off and even flourish in a place like Palo Alto, where people live in a politically progressive, multicultural community that’s attuned to what it takes to be competitive in a global economy and has the resources to make the necessary changes. That’s not what happened this week, when the school board voted down (3-2) a proposal to create 2 Mandarin classes for about 20 kindergarteners and first graders.

What the hell happened in Palo Alto?

News reports listed a couple reasons. The Associated Press reported that people didn’t like how it took resources away from more pressing issues like getting test scores up in reading and math, and The New York Times made vague intimations of racism against Asians. One board member was also quoted as saying that “Unless we have a language opportunity for all elementary kids, this is a problem.”

I still want to know more about the politics on the ground, but is it really that bad for foreign language programs elsewhere? It sounds like Palo Alto’s schools are very competitive, and that non-Asian parents resent the growing Asian population (17%), who they think will have an advantage in the classes. So rather than creating a Mandarin elite in Palo Alto, the school board decided to deny it for everyone. Maybe this is why Chinese classes could fly in the Chicago schools I visited last year – no one was exactly dying to get into them otherwise. And this story in the San Francisco

Chronicle showed how a dual immersion Mandarin-English program was moved to this school in order to diversify schools via parent choice.

That’s a rich irony: underperforming schools will get language resources that the overperforming schools don’t. It’s probably not repeatable, though, particularly since politics on the ground will allocate resources away from language education. Still, with all the media fervor about the popularity of Chinese classes, action by the College Board, and action at the federal level to promote language learning, there’s no predicting what politics on the ground will yield — even in the places where you’d predict it to go in your favor.


Here’s a discussion thread on a Palo Alto forum, with postings from parents, some of whom are both undereducated about language acquisition and — it seems to me — micromanaging their kids’ education. Fortunately, there are also some strong advocates of the Mandarin program taking questions and handing out websites.


According to a contact who’s in the language acquisition business, the immersion plan wasn’t going to work, anyway. The little kids should at least get 40-minute classes; save the immersion for later, if you develop it at all — he pointed out that the Chinese immersion program in Portland kept only a few students by the time they were in 8th grade. So Mandarin immersion in Palo Alto was doomed as much by its zealous supporters as well as zealous parents?