California Aims to Make (Even) More Students Multilingual

By Brenda Iasevoli — June 28, 2018 3 min read
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California plans to triple the number of students proficient in a language other than English over the next 12 years.

Outgoing state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson described his new initiative, Global California 2030, as a “call to action” to increase opportunities for students to learn a second or third language at school and to train more bilingual teachers.

Torlakson said the plan will position young people for economic success in a state with a huge mix of cultures and languages.

California’s 6.2 million public school students already speak more than 60 languages including Spanish, Mandarin, and Vietnamese, as well as less common languages like Mixteco, an indigenous language of southern Mexico. All in all, 40 percent of the state’s students come to school speaking a language other than English.

The initiative builds on what the state sees as public support for expanding language courses in schools. In 2016, voters approved Proposition 58, a ballot measure eliminating barriers to dual language immersion programs. Since then, requests from parents for dual language programs has been on the rise, according to the Global California 2030 report.

Many California school districts have agreed to work toward the goal of increasing the number of dual immersion programs from about 400 to 1,600 in 2030, according to Robert Oakes, a spokesman for the state’s department of education.

Austin Beutner, the superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified district, has promised to exceed that goal. “Our diversity makes us strong and an example for the nation,” Beutner tweeted. “We currently have approximately 14,000 students in dual language programs who will be biliterate when they graduate. By 2025, our goal is to increase [that number] to 50,000 students.”

The number of bilingual teachers in California has been on the decline, from 1,800 in the 1994-95 school year to about 700 in the 2015-16 school year. But efforts are underway to push the numbers in a different direction. Through the Migrant Summer Binational Program, the state has increased the number of bilingual teachers from Mexico from 50 to 70, and anticipates even bigger increases in the near future. The goal for 2030 is to more than double the number of current bilingual teachers statewide to about 2,000.

Since the state’s Seal of Biliteracy program was established in December of 2011, the number of students earning the distinction has quadrupled from 10,685 in 2011-12 to 46,952 in 2016-17. The Global California plan seeks to more than triple that number by 2030. (Find out which states have followed suit with biliteracy seals of their own here.)

Earning the seal is no easy feat. Among other requirements, students must prove their proficiency in a language other than English in one of four ways: passing an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam in a foreign language with a score of 3 or higher; completing a four-year high school course in a foreign language with an overall grade-point average of at least 3.0; passing a district’s foreign-language exam at a proficient level or higher; or passing a foreign government’s approved language exam.

Torlakson’s call for more language learning comes on the heels of two reports on the state of foreign language education in K-12 schools, one from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the other from American Councils for International Education. The report from the Academy of Arts and Sciences recommends, for the sake of our country’s economic and military security, a “national strategy to improve access to as many languages as possible for people of every region, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background.”

Images: “Global California 2030"

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.