Teaching Arabic in Our Schools: Globalizing Education for Chicago’s Next Generation

June 22, 2015

By: Roseanna Ander, Brian T. Edwards, and Sarah Herda

To enhance Chicago’s reputation as a global city, create opportunities for young Chicagoans, and set an example for other US cities on how to inspire a diverse generation of children to become globally aware, tolerant, and educated in other cultures, access to Arabic language instruction for students in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) needs to be significantly expanded. This initiative would symbolize Chicago’s vision for the global citizenship of our next generation, bring together students from diverse populations, and be an important step in preparing Chicago’s youth for the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Currently, seven elementary schools and five high schools in CPS offer Arabic as a world language, reaching a total of 3,127 students. While this is an impressive number, it is less than 1 percent of the 400,000 students in the CPS system. In some cases, particularly in high schools, a full curriculum in Arabic is offered, while in elementary schools Arabic instruction tends to be limited to an hour or two per week. While several schools where Arabic is offered include students of Arab heritage, for most of the 3,127 students Arabic is an entirely new language.

We propose a plan to triple the number of public schools teaching Arabic over the next five years to reach 10,000 students in primary and secondary levels and to double that number again in the following decade. Overall, the goal is to reach 20,000 students, or 5 percent of total CPS enrollment across all socioeconomic groups and throughout the entire city.

By doing so Chicago will establish itself as a national leader in globally minded public education and set a standard other cities will seek to follow. Moreover, Chicago will make a resounding statement about the promise of the next generation of Chicagoans and promote dialogue over distrust as we work together to address the challenges future generations will confront.

The success of the city’s initiative to develop a Mandarin Chinese program 11 years ago is a model for expanding the teaching of Arabic. Both languages are listed as critical languages by the US Department of State. The US Defense Department’s Defense Language Institute lists both as Category Four in difficulty, among the five most difficult languages for English-speakers to master. A 2015 Modern Language Association (MLA) report notes that both languages have seen a dramatic rise in popularity since 1998,3 while competency in either language offers similar benefits to job seekers in the financial, political, academic, and military sectors, among others. Indeed, the combination of an enhanced Arabic program and the city’s already strong Mandarin program will establish Chicago’s reputation in teaching critical world languages to our youth.


About the Authors

Roseanna Ander

Founding Executive Director, University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Urban Education Lab

Roseanna Ander is the founding executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Urban Education Lab and serves as senior director for University of Chicago Urban Labs, launched in March 2015.

Brian T. Edwards

Crown Professor, Middle East Studies; Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies, Northwestern University

Brian T. Edwards is Crown Professor in Middle East Studies and professor of English and comparative literary studies at Northwestern University, where he is also founding director of the Program in Middle East and North African Studies.

Sarah Herda

Executive Director, Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; Artistic Director, Chicago Architecture Biennial

Sarah Herda is the executive director of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and artistic director of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial—the largest global platform for contemporary architecture in North America, which will run from October 2015 to January 2016.

Teaching Arabic in Our Schools: Globalizing Education for Chicago’s Next Generation