Fluency in a Second Language: Should it Be Part of College and Career Readiness?

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 11, 2014 2 min read
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Among a slew of ideas tucked into a new proposal about what the next generation of federal school accountability should be (courtesy of 15 large-district superintendents), was this morsel:

“Ability and fluency in more than one language.”

Sí, es cierto. You read that correctly.

A group of school leaders from 15 large, countywide or suburban school systems have made it clear that they believe any revamped federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act should broaden the notion of what constitutes college- and career-ready expectations to include the acquisition of a second language.

That group—known as the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium—has outlined its vision for a “federal accountability framework” with principles that they believe a new version of the ESEA should incorporate. Of course, last we knew, there was little to no momentum in Congress to reauthorize the long overdue federal K-12 law.

The school chiefs’ framework does not dwell at all on the bilingual/biliterate idea, but it’s clear that it came straight from the brain of José Torres, the superintendent of the 40,000-student U-46 district in Elgin, Ill. Torres is part of the group of superintendents who wrote the ESEA framework.

Under Torres’ leadership, the U-46 district—where 58 percent of students are Hispanic and 25 percent are English-language learners—is going all in on two-way, dual-language immersion. Eighteen of U-46’s 20 elementary schools have fully implemented dual-language programs in which native English and native Spanish speakers are taught together, in both languages, in all subjects.

Illinois mandates transitional bilingual education in public schools where there are 20 or more students with limited English proficiency who speak the same home language. But that model of teaching students academic content in their home language while teaching them the English language had done little to boost achievement for U-46’s English-learners, Torres said.

“I really do think that a 21st century skill is to not only speak another language, but to look at things from multiple perspectives,” Torres told me. “We are also moving in this direction because we see it as a great opportunity to close the achievement gaps between our Hispanic and non-Hispanic students because these programs have high, high expectations.”

The rise in popularity of dual-language programs in public schools has been well documented in recent years—I did a story about it two years ago—and there’s even been a small, but growing policy push to encourage students to become bilingual and biliterate. (There are now official state seals of biliteracy given to high school graduates who qualify in California, New York, Illinois, and, most recently, Texas.)

I have no doubt that dual-language programs will continue to proliferate, especially as they continue to gain favor with middle class families. But whether they can expand on the kind of scale that Torres is pursuing in his district hinges on answers to many questions, key among them:

  • How can districts cultivate enough teachers with the rigorous bilingual and biliteracy skills that are necessary to teach in these environments?
  • How can educators convince reluctant parents—particularly those with children who need to learn English—that learning in both languages is best?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.