guest post: confucius say... don't hate

I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Jay Chen on the recent controversy over Confucius Classroom.

In the midst of the worst economy since the Great Depression, in which the only things that seem poised for growth are budget cuts, layoffs, and achievement gaps, who could have imagined that the most controversial issue to hit our school district would be the acceptance of free funding and books to expand a Chinese language class?

That's the twilight zone I have been experiencing for the last eight months, ever since our board approved an agreement with the non-profit Hanban to create a Confucius Classroom at Cedarlane, a predominately Latino middle school in Hacienda Heights.

For the last year, Cedarlane has been offering a popular Chinese language and culture class to 7th grade students. This agreement will help the school expand the existing program to more students by providing additional books (nearly 1000 to choose from) and up to $30,000 in support to purchase computers or to fund field trips.

Like any donation received by the school, the books will be screened for appropriateness and the classes will be taught by certificated teachers based on a curriculum that is board-approved. Essentially the program itself will be unchanged; it will just become available to more students.

The opposition

Instead of seeing this as an innovative opportunity to educate students at no cost to taxpayers during a recession, ever since the decision was made our board meetings have been graced by an outspoken cadre of vocal opponents, including former Superintendent John Kramar, retirees such as Bobby Fraker, and a disgruntled ex-Chinese basketball player. What they all share in common, besides not having any children in the district, are steadfast accusations that we are trying to import Communism into the classroom.

It is not just this class that they are critical of; practically everything related to China has become a target for them, including training opportunities for teachers and administrators, study abroad opportunities for students, and unrelated personal trips made to China by board members. One of the more foam-prone opponents has even taken to calling me a Marxist, which is actually pretty ridiculous if you saw the grade I got on my Das Kapital paper for Social Studies 10. The meetings have become so contentious that extra security has been called and one board member has retained legal counsel to protect himself from slander.

Ironically, our district has already been forced to spend more than $30,000 (and rising) in legal and administrative fees to respond to frivolous Public Records Act requests that have been lodged by opponents, including a request for all of the emails that have ever been exchanged between any board members who voted yes on the Confucius Classroom (that would be 4 out of the 5). If their modus operandi was to eliminate the financial benefit we were getting from the program, they arguably have achieved it.

The opponents to the program have found a staunch ally in the local newspaper, which has covered the controversy zealously. One editorial breathlessly compared the Chinese government's promotion of Chinese language and culture to the Venezuelan government teaching economics. That Chinese language and culture actually originated in China, and that most students want to study Chinese so that they can eventually work in or visit China, was apparently beside the point for the editorial board.

The most recent editorial went so far as to state that Chinese classes should only be taught by American citizens of primarily Taiwanese background. That our laws allow anyone with legal working status to be employed, including immigrants with a work visa or green card, is apparently irrelevant, as is the fact that discrimination in hiring based on race and national origin is a crime under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Indeed, stepping into one of our board meetings during rancorous public comments, in which reason, civility, and civil rights seem to have been thrown out the window, or reading the sensationalized local news can feel like a step back in time to the McCarthy era of the 1950s; I don't think a Cold War enthusiast could find a more authentic experience anywhere else.

This is not to say that we have not had our share of supporters as well. The parents of Cedarlane have expressed nothing but enthusiasm for the new Chinese elective, the arrival of which happened to coincide with a whopping 56 point improvement in the school's API score, among the highest gains of any school in Los Angeles County. Current students, parents and community members have voiced their support for the program during public comment (that is, when opponents have not shouted them down) and have refuted the claims to the point that they feel numb from repeating themselves.


Ostensibly at the center of all this unease is Hanban, a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education whose purpose is to provide Chinese language and cultural resources around the world, the same way the U.S. encourages a better understanding of itself through the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Peace Corps. Alliance Frances and the Goethe Institute accomplish similar goals for France and Germany.

While relatively unknown to most Americans, Hanban is already quite established and respected among educators and policymakers. In 2006 the College Board, which administers the SAT and AP tests de rigueur for admission to selective U.S. colleges, began a partnership with Hanban to provide AP Chinese classes and training for U.S. Chinese teachers.

The Asia Society, upon whose board sit leading U.S. industrialists and policymakers including John Negroponte (our nation's first Director of National Intelligence), agreed in 2009 to help Hanban create 100 Confucius Classrooms over the next three years in the United States.

While our school does not plan to bring a free teaching assistant from China, the Confucius Classroom does make that possible, bringing it in line with the goals established by President George W. Bush's 2005 National Security Language Initiative, which named Chinese a strategic language and encouraged the recruitment of foreign students to teach at U.S. colleges to make up for the shortage of qualified U.S. language teachers.

Dozens of schools across the country have already taken advantage of these programs and to date there are more than 60 Confucius Classrooms across the United States and hundreds more around the globe. None of them have reported any of the Communist brainwashing fervently predicted by our opponents, which makes sense since it seems rather difficult to be brainwashed in a language that you are still trying to learn. And besides, students will have plenty of opportunities to learn about Communism in Social Studies, World History and U.S. History.

Learning Chinese... everyone is doing it

The need for Americans to learn Chinese is probably obvious to readers of this blog. At the least, it will help prevent people from getting stupid and embarrassing tattoos. Chinese is already the most widely spoken first language in the world and this year China overtook Japan as the world's second largest economy. It is only a matter of time before China overtakes the United States as producer and consumer in chief.

If the United States wants to secure its foothold in the world that China is rapidly remaking, we will have to begin committing at least a fraction of the energy to studying China as she has committed to studying us; in 2009 nearly 100,000 Chinese graduate and undergraduates filled U.S. campuses, and that number is growing each year. The failure of Internet behemoths such as Google and Yahoo in the world's largest Internet market indicate that China will not be a passive consumer of U.S. product, but will be a producer, innovator, and strong competitor; we ignore the language and culture of the society at our own economic peril.

You and I already know this, and actually, so do most of the opponents of the Confucius Classroom. Ironically many of the strongest opponents of the program have initiated and personally benefited from similar programs in the past. It was Superintendent John Kramar who created our district's first sister-school partnership with a Communist Chinese school back in 1997, when China was a far more Communist state. Prior to retiring he made two trips to China as part of an official school district delegation, in 1997 and 1999.

Bobby Fraker is the founder of the student exchange program World Experience, which not only hosts students from countries like the Czech Republic in Hacienda Heights, but sends American students to places like (drumroll please…) the People's Republic of China. Obviously, there is a disconnect somewhere. If these individuals have initiated similar education programs in the past, what were they really protesting?

So what's the real problem?

While I do not doubt that some of the opponents are sincerely confused about the purpose of this Chinese class, and that some actually believe there are Communist messages hidden in the flash cards and picture books, I also suspect that what made our community the sole flashpoint for dissent in the world was not just what was being taught, but who was making the decision for it to be taught.

At first glance, Hacienda Heights would not seem a likely candidate for cultural strife. Decades ago this was the quintessential Leave it to Beaver town, and in the 1980's it was still All-American enough for Back to the Future to use it as a backdrop. Good schools plus a lift on immigration quotas kicked off a steady influx of Taiwanese families in the 70's, and while generally welcomed by preceding residents, some tensions and fissures eventually took shape.

In the mid-80's protests erupted over a plan to build a Taiwanese Buddhist temple in the hills of Hacienda Heights over fears of gong-banging and animal sacrifices. The temple was completed (and remains the largest in North America), but in 1996 Hacienda Heights found itself at the heart of another controversy when a visit from Al Gore to the temple prompted investigations of political donors with Asian sounding names, casting a pall over Asian American political participation nationwide for many years.

Multiple efforts for cityhood went down in flames at the ballot box over the decades, with the latest occurring in 2003 in part after fears were raised of Asian American candidates dominating the council.

Nevertheless, in 2007 after a vigorous campaign I won an election to the school board and became the third Asian American on a board of five, pushing our district into the rarified realm of majority Asian governing boards overseeing minority Asian communities (Hacienda Heights is roughly 40% Asian, 40% Hispanic, and 20% Caucasian). It was new territory that some people have not been entirely comfortable with, as evidenced by accusations from some that the Confucius Classroom was created to cater to the Asian community, even though nearly all students enrolled are Hispanic.

Thankfully, the ethnic makeup of our board is irrelevant to the vast majority of voters, who are more concerned with what we have accomplished during these difficult economic times, such as avoiding any layoffs in grades K-12 and increasing API scores dramatically across the entire district.

However, that our district is the first in the United States with a majority Asian board to adopt a Confucius Classroom, and is also the first to receive any racially tinged blowback from opponents who have supported and initiated similar programs in the past, is more than just happenstance. It speaks to a latent xenophobia still lurking beneath the surface of our communities, in which innocent motivations can be too eagerly questioned and unfairly clouded merely because of the color of one's skin.

Hacienda Heights is but the tip of the iceberg; the inability of New York City to build a peaceful house of worship and the suspicions some still have regarding our President's faith and birthplace reveals what can happen when small biases are left to grow unchecked, or worse still, are cultivated. That is why I am proud of our district's effort to bring a mind-broadening program such as the Confucius Classroom to our schools and why I am determined to see it succeed.

Jay Chen is the Vice-President of the Board of Education for the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, from which he graduated in 1996 under the proud tutelage of Superintendent John Kramar. More importantly, he is the recently engaged fiance to Karen Chang, who was kind enough to act surprised even though she found the ring in the suitcase earlier. You can learn more about him at www.electjaychen.com.

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