Confucius Classrooms Change the Face of Chinese Education in Minnesota

An interview with Joan A. Brzezinski, Director, Confucius Institute and the Office of International Programs, University of Minnesota
By Megan Conley, CAIS Institute

Please give a little background on K-12 Chinese language initiatives in Minnesota. Why is Chinese education so important?

Chinese language initiatives in Minnesota started over thirty years ago, largely led by one woman, Margaret Wong, who started Chinese programs at a number of schools and currently teaches at the Breck School. In 2005, Governor Tim Pawlenty went on a trade mission to China, his experiences there convinced him that all of Minnesota’s public school children should learn to speak Chinese. That decision was supported by a piece of legislation that provided money for the Minnesota Department of Education to study and find out what it would take to bring more Chinese programs to Minnesota public schools. The study was formed by a three part committee; one part focused on resources, the second part focused on curriculum, and the third part focused on legislative and financial issues. Those three committees convened and subsequently developed a report called the “Minnesota Chinese Language Project” which is still on the Minnesota Department of Education website today. It gives a rough guide to any school thinking about starting a Chinese program and includes information about proficiency levels, setting program benchmarks and expectations, and other issues to consider.

Why Chinese?

Minnesota has had a long history of trade and exchange with China; University of Minnesota hosted exchange students from China as early as 1914. I think China has always been a very important partner with the state of Minnesota; it is currently the second largest trader partner and export partner. Within that context, people in Minnesota are very much aware of the importance of learning Chinese for the future of our children.

Why did you apply for the "Confucius Classrooms" program? How does it work?

Hanban (The Chinese Language Council International) was encouraging Confucius Institutes (C.I.) across the country to look within their communities and determine whether or not Confucius Classrooms programs would be a good fit. We were fairly new to being a C.I., as well as to working with K-12 Chinese initiatives, and therefore decided to structure the proposal process a little differently. Instead of selecting programs, we opened the process up and invited schools to propose how this funding could make a strong and sustainable impact to a new or existing Chinese program in their school. We received a wonderful slate of proposals from about 27 different schools. In the end, there were 12 proposals that Hanban and our C.I. agreed have substantial impact and sustainability, as a result we agreed to fund those programs. The total amount of funding awarded was almost $500,000- $486,501 to be exact. The sum of the funding was given to our C.I., to disperse amongst the approved Confucius Classroom programs.

How will it affect/change Chinese programs in the schools receiving the grants?

Of the twelve approved Confucius Classroom programs, roughly six bring Chinese language initiatives to new students; those programs are creating enrollment where there hadn’t been any before. The other six awards went to schools with existing Chinese programs to enhance their curriculum through the addition of arts, culture, technology, and more. In 2008, Minnesota had approximately 5,500 students enrolled in K-12 Chinese programs. With the addition of these six new Confucius Classrooms programs, we are estimating an increase of 5,000 students now learning Chinese. As a result, we’ve effectively doubled the enrollment for the state of Minnesota for Chinese language programs.

How will you measure the long-term progress of these programs?

The Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota and the Confucius Classrooms’ agreement with Hanban is for a five-year period. Every year each Confucius Classroom must reapply to renew their funding. The idea behind this is to encourage programs to think about sustainability and how they would grow these programs over a five-year period; we believe they are doing that. In the meantime, we are working with them to develop different criteria for evaluation; keeping track of student numbers, teacher development programs, community engagement, cultural events, etc. We survey each Confucius Classroom at mid-year and request status reports at the end of each school year. Program visits are conducted twice a year to observe progress and personally touch base with the teachers and administrators to find out how things are going, what kinds of support they need, and to discuss the growth and sustainability of each program.

How will you define success?

In our case, a large part of the success of the program was asking the schools what they needed and giving them the freedom to structure a program that best fits their community. The second component of success relates to providing a comprehensive support system. Confucius Institute’s play an important role in helping Chinese programs meet their needs and accomplish their goals. I do think that the Confucius Classroom program is hugely successful and I see it making a tremendous impact on Chinese education in Minnesota. I hope that this program will continue to grow and that we’ll be able to increase the number of Confucius classrooms to other schools. It’s a great opportunity and I encourage schools and Confucius Institutes to look into it.