Thursday, February 19, 2004

Bringing Outsourcing into the Classroom

I can't imagine a better example of the potential benefits of outsourcing than that presented by this story. We all should be so lucky as to get foreign language instruction from instructors of the caliber hired by Berlitz.

At the Atlantis Preparatory School in Manasquan, N.J., it's just after 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. For nine third graders, that means Spanish class. Carolyn Bermeo, their teacher, introduces a song popular in Latin America. When she invites the class to join her in acting it out, her charges need little prodding.

Atlantis Prep is a private school in an upscale community on the Jersey Shore. A lesson like Ms. Bermeo's might take place in many schools across the United States, but with one notable difference: Ms. Bermeo, a native of Bogota, Colombia, is not on the school staff. She is an employee of Berlitz Jr., a division of Berlitz International, provider of personal and business language instruction.

In the last few years, more schools have turned to language instruction companies for teachers. Berlitz Jr., which started hiring out its instructors in 1987, now serves more than 100 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Two other language instruction companies have contracts with a number of Midwestern schools. Most of the schools that hire language instructors are private, and tuition covers the cost. The public schools that hire such instructors pay for them out of existing funds, or through grants or money raised by the PTA.

In the St. Louis area, the Brunetti Language School provides instructors of Spanish, French, German and Latin to several schools. Dede Brunetti, the company's vice president, said it had placed 28 instructors in classes ranging from preschool to 12th grade. In 1995, Christine Frantz, a former teacher, started World of Languages in Barrington, Ill. Her company offers preschool through eighth-grade programs in Spanish and French and has 13 instructors in 10 schools - one public and nine private - in the Chicago area.

Experts cite a dearth of foreign language teachers as one of the main reasons for these companies' success. According to a 1998 study financed by the Center for Applied Linguistics, the number of elementary schools offering foreign languages increased 10% from 1987 to 1997, and the supply of language teachers cannot meet the demand.


One of the selling points for the private companies is the ability to offer instructors who are native speakers, although the companies do make exceptions. For example, Berlitz Jr. also hires Americans who have studied abroad or who have been raised in bilingual families, the company's director, Susan Jacoby, said. (emphasis added)

Of course, as with any other category of workers faced with the prospect of increased competition, teachers have been quick to whine about the new development.

Tim Dedman, a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association, which represents teachers, said that hiring outside instructors "sets up an unfair playing field" when staff teachers are required to have special training. He also said he had "a problem with tax dollars going to for-profit companies for instruction in public schools," adding that while the federal No Child Left Behind law aims at tightening teacher qualifications, "outside instructors are circumventing state licensing requirements."
He also questioned whether outside instructors were fully investigated. "Who knows if a person wasn't released for cause in another state or has any training in teaching kids?" Mr. Dedman said.

"Unfair playing field" indeed; even the language used in whining is the same as that employed by other pleaders for special protection. As for that "tax dollars going to for-profit companies" bit, I presume Mr. Dedman would also be opposed to competitive private bidding for public contracts too? Then the old guild technique of using credentialism to restrict competition is trotted out, with mutterings about "circumventing state licensing requirements" (no doubt installed at the instigation of the teachers unions) and having "any training in teaching kids", as if children could only possibly learn anything of value from individuals with the right pieces of paper certification. The tightening of teacher qualifications complained about by Tim Dedman almost certainly was insisted upon by Ted Kennedy, at the prompting of the NEA, and it is laughable that such a blatantly pro-teacher initiative should now be proferred as an excuse to avoid the use of outside teaching staff. Would he really prefer the alternative in which the mostly nonsensical teacher qualifications were abolished as a requirement, and anyone with a solid degree in a real subject could try his hand at teaching? I know I would.

It ought to be clear enough that I find the concerns of people like Mr. Dedman utterly bogus. There is no better way to learn a language than to recieve instruction from those who have native levels of fluency in it, and who devote all of their working hours to teaching the subject to others. The importance of specialization is recognized in other fields, so why shouldn't it be in foreign language instruction? I can't even see a good reason not to extend this trend to all other subject fields. The current system under which a single individual with an education degree, and at best a mediocre understanding of one or two areas of the curriculum, is nevertheless obliged to teach multiple subjects to a broad range of students, strikes me as utterly ridiculous.