In Macon schools, Mandarin is mandatory

With lots of poor students and low graduation rates, public schools in Macon, Georgia and surrounding Bibb County face lots of problems, reports NPR.  Haitian-born superintendent Romain Dallemand’s “Macon Miracle” has brought longer school days, year-round instruction and mandatory Mandarin Chinese instruction for every student, pre-K through 12th grade.

“Students who are in elementary school today, by 2050 they’ll be at the pinnacle of their career,” Dallemand says. “They will live in a world where China and India will have 50 percent of the world GDP. They will live in a world where, if they cannot function successfully in the Asian culture, they will pay a heavy price.”

This school year, Dallemand is rolling out Mandarin in stages, a few sessions a week, with the youngest kids starting first. In three years, it will be at every grade level.

A Mandarin teacher costs the district only $16,000 a year, because they’re subsidized by the Confucius Institute, which is partially funded by the Chinese government.

Some parents are dubious.

“Bibb County is not known for producing the highest-achieving graduates,” says Macon resident Dina McDonald. “You’ll see that many of them can’t even speak basic English.”

McDonald herself has a ninth-grader in the public schools and says she can imagine some students going into fields where Mandarin could be useful, like international business, technology or law. But with lower achievers, she says, “Do you want to teach them how to say, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ in Mandarin?”

The superintendent says children will rise to high expectations.

A friend of mine helped start a multilingual magnet school in Detroit in the ’80s. Black parents who worked in the auto industry lined up to get their kids into Japanese language classes, thinking that it was the language of the future.

Creativity isn’t learned in class

Japanese visitors asked Fordham’s Mike Petrilli how the U.S. produces innovative leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s not a school thing, he replies. It’s an after-school thing. While Japanese adolescents are going to cram school, American kids are doing “sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.”

If you are looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills, competitiveness, and creativity, aren’t these better candidates than math class?

Or course, some “are just hanging out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc.,” Petrilli writes. But “some of these young people end up creating successful start-ups too!”

And then there’s the American parenting style. U.S. parents don’t teach their children self-discipline and delayed gratification, asserts Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bebe.

This, she suggests, fosters out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed.

On the other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness. Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it’s possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders in the long run.

Certainly, Steve Jobs exemplified the brilliant brat, but I’m not sure that self-discipline and creativity are antithetical.