English-Language Learners

Secretary Cardona Shows Off Dual-Language School to International Education Leaders

By Libby Stanford — April 25, 2023 5 min read
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Tuesday morning was a busy one for Escuela Key Elementary School in Arlington, Va.

As students filed into their classrooms, teachers and school leaders prepared to host a group of important visitors, including Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and education leaders from South Africa, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Their visit was a precursor to the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, a three-day-long event for education leaders from across the world to discuss educational issues and strategies for student improvement. Throughout the week, education leaders will focus on elevating and enhancing the teaching profession, educating for global and cultural competence and civic engagement, and ensuring equitable access to technology so it enhances learning.

The education secretary invited Education Week to follow him throughout the conference as he meets with education leaders from around the globe.

Cardona wanted to start a handful of school visits with Escuela Key because of its dual-language program, in which kindergarten through 5th grade students spend half the day learning in English and half learning in Spanish.

Escuela Key “is a great model to develop a strong second language,” Cardona said. “It’s showing our international colleagues that we also recognize the importance of language development and the role that has.”

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Students showcase bilingual skills

The students’ bilingual skills were on full display throughout the day. As the international visitors entered the school, a group of 3rd grade students sang a medley of songs in Spanish ending with “Los Niños del Mundo Queremos Cantar,” or, “The Children of the World Want to Sing.”

Later, during visits to 1st grade, 4th grade, and art classrooms, students showed off their language skills, swiftly transitioning from English to Spanish and back to English again.

The elementary school, in which 61 percent of students are English learners, has offered a full immersion dual-language program since the mid-1990s. The idea is to start off all students, including native Spanish and English speakers and students who speak other languages, with strong linguistic skills so they can easily pick up more languages as they move through middle and high school, Escuela Key Principal Marleny Perdomo said.

“For kids who are developing their English language, they’re not losing their home language,” Perdomo said. “If they are speakers of another language, of which we have many, now they’re adding [a third language]. It’s a win-win no matter how you’re looking at it.”

The program also equips students with social-emotional skills as they learn about cultures other than their own. For example, students learn about El Ratoncito Pérez, Spain’s version of the tooth fairy that takes the form of a mouse, Perdomo said.

“For kids who are learning Spanish for the first time, they’re really able to learn how to learn a language, which, cognitively speaking, is really difficult,” she said. “And then they have the opportunity to learn about the cultures because every time we’re talking about language there’s always a cultural aspect.”

The education leaders from other countries were impressed. Jan Tinetti, New Zealand’s minister of education, described the school’s classrooms as “vibrant.”

“Every young person … knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing and what the purpose of it was,” Tinetti said. “They were genuinely excited, and they’re learning as well.”

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Goal is for U.S. students to excel internationally

Cardona has anchored the Education Department’s work over the past year in its “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” initiative, an effort to raise America’s rankings in educational achievement.

U.S. students ranked lower than 30 regions and countries in math performance on the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment, the most recent international assessment of student academic performance, out of 78 that participated. American students fared better in reading, falling behind only eight of 76 education systems. But the education secretary feels that there’s a lot of room to grow, especially as the pandemic caused record drops in national student achievement in both math and reading.

During a debrief session following the visitors’ tour of classrooms at Escuela Key, a delegate from South Africa spoke about how his country has students learning seven to nine languages. That stuck out to Cardona, as students in the U.S. are largely limited to learning Spanish or French.

Nearly 80 percent of the U.S. population speaks only English, according to the U.S. Census.

There were about 3,600 dual-language immersion programs like Escuela Key’s in the U.S. as of the 2021-22 school year, according to the American Councils for International Education. But 60 percent were located in just five states—California, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Utah—and 80 percent are in Spanish.

“While this is a model program, it demonstrates how far behind we are internationally,” Cardona said.

Cardona has made multilingual education a priority for his department. During the visit to Escuela Key, he spoke to teachers who told him about how it can be a struggle to ensure students have equitable access to programs like the one at Escuela Key, and that having a fully multilingual workforce presents challenges. For example, some teachers who are fluent in Spanish might not be as strong in English.

The secretary said the Education Department is working to improve its Title III programming, which provides federal funding for the instruction of English learners and immigrant students. He specifically pointed to his proposal to move management of Title III from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to the Office of English Language Acquisition, which has more experience working with English learners and immigrant students.

The Biden administration is also looking to grow funding for the Title III program to $1.2 billion in its proposed 2024 budget, which would be an increase of $305 million. That’s in addition to $100 million in proposed funding to help schools hire more multilingual teachers and other staff and grow the pipeline of multilingual educators.

“It’s one thing to say we’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Cardona said. “It’s another thing to say we’re going to make sure the dollars go to what we’re hearing from teachers that they need, what we’re hearing from principals that they need, to make programs like this more successful.”

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