As they settled in for French and Spanish classes this semester, students at one Maine high school were greeted by an unusual teacher -- Rosetta Stone.
The software replaced a live human in the classroom not because it's better -- although Rosetta Stone is widely considered one of the best language-learning tools available -- but because the district couldn't find a foreign language teacher for the year, Madison Area Memorial High School Principal Jessica Ward told CentralMaine.com.
“It was coming down to the wire and school was starting,” Ward said. “Students were already scheduled for foreign language, and we can’t just not offer it.”
Turning to Rosetta Stone wasn't the result of lack of effort on the district's part. The district allocated a salary for a full-time teacher, reached out to colleges in the state, and officials at the Department of Education for help finding a teacher, but no one applied for the job, Central Maine reported.
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That's a common problem in rural school districts, according to the report. Not only are there more jobs than applicants, but potential teachers have their pick of school districts because they know schools are desperate to hire foreign language teachers.
Maine schools have faced a shortage of foreign language teachers for more than 20 years, since the mid-1990s, Maine Department of Education spokesman Jay Ketner told Central Maine.
“In the last two or three years we’ve had a particularly hard time trying to find French world language teachers,” Mt. Blue Regional School Unit Superintendent Tom Ward said.
In Madison, which has a population of 4,800, the absence of a formal foreign language teacher doesn't mean Spanish or French class turns into an hour of chaos or a free period. The district hired an "education technician" who will supervise and make sure students stay attentive and on-task. The technician will also deal with any problems encountered with the software.
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Unlike other states, Maine doesn't require high school students to take foreign language classes. That's in part due to the teacher shortage -- Central Maine reports that state education officials have delayed the requirement until 2025 because of the shortage.
Maine isn't the only state facing the problem. A 2010 report by Georgia State University, titled "The Shortage of America's Foreign Language Teachers," blames a range of factors for the shortage, including a general teacher shortage, attrition, large numbers of baby boomers retiring, and a lack of interest.
Foreign language "teaching positions appear to be the most difficult to fill, well above special education, math, and science," the report's authors wrote.
Franklin Moomaw, a Rosetta Stone regional sales director for education, told Central Maine that his company doesn't advocate replacing teachers with software. Ideally, he said, Rosetta Stone is a supplement to classroom instruction.
“We never want to replace someone’s job,” Moomaw said. “But when you have that problem of not being able to find a teacher, it’s a way for schools to still provide that high quality language instruction.”