Federal Opinion

California Can Lead the Country in English-Learner Education

By Contributing Blogger — May 17, 2017 6 min read
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While the leadership in Washington D.C. has focused on divisive nationalist rhetoric and fear-based anti-immigrant policies, Californians have chosen a path forward that builds on the state’s assets found in its diverse population. One of these assets is a language other than English. Rather than treating this as a deficit, families, schools and policymakers are increasingly seeing the value in biliteracy as a way to prepare all California’s students for today’s interconnected, interdependent global economy.

California is home to the nation’s largest population of English Learners: children learning English in addition to their home language, roughly 1.4-million of them. While these students bring the assets of their home language, they are too often seen as a liability: children who lower test scores. But research over the past two decades has provided strong evidence that the human brain is capable of successfully learning two or more languages from birth and that bilingual language development confers cognitive and social benefits to children.

Neuroscience shows that the brain is most receptive to language learning in the earliest years of life and that a child’s home language is central to socio-emotional development, the development of English proficiency, and overall academic achievement. Moreover, research shows that students in dual language programs outperform their monolingual peers—whether they are native English speakers, African American students, students of low socioeconomic status, or English Learners—and can help to close the achievement gap.

In February 2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released their report, Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. The report verified previous research on dual language learner education and provided recommendations that can help strengthen the education system, beginning with early childhood. The research confirms that California is on the right track.

California’s Policy Leadership

In 2012, California established a Seal of Biliteracy, official recognition of the value of bilingualism and biliteracy, and a reward for the hard work of high school students who graduate with proficiency in English and a second language. The seal is awarded regardless of whether a student’s home language is English or another language. Following this lead, 25 other states across the country now have a Seal of Biliteracy, and 14 other states are beginning to develop one. States are recognizing the increasing economic advantages of bilingualism. Research by Rebecca Callahan and Patricia Gándara confirms that bilingual candidates have an advantage in the job market. They found, “Over about 66% of [California] employers responded that they would prefer a bilingual employee over a monolingual English speaker if they were comparable in other respects.” This was the case across industries with some variation by job sector.

In 2015, First 5 California announced its plans to invest $20 million in a Dual Language Learner Pilot. The pilot aims to build on existing research and best practices in culturally and linguistically responsive strategies. It is designed to evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of existing strategies implemented in early learning settings with dual language learners and their families. The findings are intended to inform local and national policy and practice.

More recently, in November 2016, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 58, a state ballot initiative that creates more opportunities for students to become bilingual and biliterate. The wide support of the initiative reflects the great value that families, business leaders and the public at large hold for the educational, cognitive and economic advantage of bilingualism for its citizenry. School districts statewide are currently in the process of working with their communities to develop their implementation plans to begin, or expand language programs. The science shows us it is imperative that implementation begin with early care and education, such as the Early Childhood DLL pilot at Los Angeles Unified School District.

Currently, under the leadership of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, California leaders are also in the process of developing the California English Learner Roadmap: Strengthening Comprehensive Educational Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Learners (EL Roadmap). The EL Roadmap, which is supported by the Sobrato Family Foundation, will inform English Learner policy in California, and is an example of where philanthropy is playing an important role to advance English Learner education. The Heising-Simons Foundation is also leading this effort in California, and both foundations are working to move this issue from the periphery of education, to core policy and practice, including an important focus on early childhood education.

California Can Lead the Nation in English Learner Education

Because English Learners comprise 9% of the public school population in the United States, their education is an important issue for every school system in the country. California’s leadership in this area is critical. In fact, California is uniquely positioned to lead the nation on English Learner education as nearly a quarter (22%) of the state’s public school students are English Learners, and nearly 60% of children birth to age five live in a home where English is not their primary language.

While the achievement gap persists for far too many of our English Learners, we can turn the tide if we apply the peer-reviewed research and the neuroscience findings on language development and early childhood education and move away from practices and policies rooted in myths and misinformation. The National Academies study makes it clear that supporting a student’s home language is foundational and doing otherwise can hinder overall language development and academic success. While the steps California has already taken will provide important direction for the state in the future, there are also promising models here in California such as the Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) model, which was highlighted in the National Academies study. This comprehensive model offers a preschool-to-third grade approach with enriched language and literacy education designed for English Learners that offers a rich, joyful, yet rigorous education for all children.

Imagine a classroom with confident and curious learners speaking, reading and writing in two languages. Where new and complex concepts like “incubation,” are taught in the home language, and intentional English language development builds on that learning. Where comprehension is boosted as children engage with rich and complex language, with visuals, and with hands-on activities that bring concepts to life. Where children learn through a variety of books, graphic organizers, language frame charts, and exemplary writing samples in both languages to spark their curiosity and build their knowledge of the world around them. Imagine a classroom of English Learners, who, in time, become fully bilingual and biliterate, and are thriving.

In continuing in this direction, California will serve as an important model for English Learner education and an education system that is designed to build on our country’s racial, cultural, and linguistic strengths in a way that is aligned with science, and is simply good for all children in our nation.

Vickie Ramos Harris is the Associate Director of Education Policy at Advancement Project California, where she leads early childhood policy and advocacy in Los Angeles and across California, and works to increase education equity in the public education system, including supporting the diverse needs of dual language learners and communities of color. She is also a Fellow with the English Learner Leadership & Legacy Initiative, a Californians Together project in collaboration with the California Association of Bilingual Education.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.