English Learners

The Equity Question of Dual Language Programs

A new report highlights tensions and solutions around equitable access to dual language programs.
By Ileana Najarro — May 19, 2023 7 min read
A group of fourth grade students complete lessons in Spanish in the Global Immersion Academy program at Mountain View Elementary School, on Sept. 18, 2022, in Morganton, N.C. With the inaugural class of the Global Immersion Academy (GIA) at at the school entering fourth grade this year, Burke County Public Schools is seeing more signs of success for its dual language program.
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As interest in establishing dual language programs grows across the country, a new report lays out some policy decisions needed to ensure equitable access to these programs, especially when it comes to the nation’s growing English learner population.

In light of limited national datasets on who is enrolled in dual language programs, researchers from The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, and the multi-university initiative Children’s Equity Project, reviewed enrollment data of 1,600 dual language immersion programs offered across 13 states and the District of Columbia. In their new report published in May, they assessed local demographic contexts in determining what role federal, state, and local policies could play so English learners have access to instructional models that would best support their academic success.

Growing research has pointed to the benefits of dual language programs for all students, and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has been promoting the idea of multilingual education. But English learners by classification must master the English language, and dual language programs offer a means to that end while also allowing them to develop academic skills in their home languages.

Despite their promise, dual language programs remain rare. There were about 3,600 dual language immersion programs in the country in the 2021-22 school year, with a majority concentrated in California, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Utah, according to the American Councils for International Education, though other datasets vary. Yet there are almost 129,000 public and private K-12 schools across the country, according to federal data from 2019-20.

Researchers said they are concerned that other students are enrolling in dual language programs at the expense of English learners who uniquely benefit from them.

That could be due to local enrollment policies that have led to the establishment of dual language programs in neighborhoods from where English learners and their families have been priced out, or motivations to establish dual language programs more so for a more affluent, white population than for English learners.

“If we are seeing patterns where the kids who have the most to gain are getting pushed out by the kids for whom it’s an enrichment, like an add-on, but it isn’t fundamentally impacting their access to education, then that is a hugely profound inequity,” said Shantel E. Meek, the executive director of the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University.

The issue with enrollment in dual language programs

There are various types of dual language programs in the country.

One-way dual language immersion programs can either offer academic instruction in two languages to mostly students speaking the non-English language used in instruction, or mostly native English speakers.

Two-way programs, meanwhile, often have roughly equal shares of each type of student and can often serve as the best kind of dual language immersion program for English learners, researchers said.

Even with research backing the benefits of two-way immersion programs in particular, the report authors pointed to staffing challenges that have largely prevented a scaling-up of these programs nationwide.

Just one in eight American teachers speaks a non-English language at home, and many of those are not trained or credentialed to teach in non-English languages, the report found. That leaves some districts to rely on visa programs to staff their dual language programs.

These staffing issues, along with clashing priorities of English language instruction over bilingualism, have left a majority of the nation’s English learners in English-only instructional models, according to the report’s data analysis.

Long term, issues of access to dual language programs will persist without enough seats to meet demand, said Conor P. Williams, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and lead author of the new report. But in the short term, various school districts offer some hope in terms of enrollment policies.

In Gwinnett County, Ga. for instance, Williams suggested that the district’s offering of both a two-way dual language program in Spanish and a one-way program in French could help address demand from both English learner families in need of this instructional approach, and native English-speaking families’ desire for developing their children’s bilingualism.

Meanwhile, in Texas, statewide policies make it so whenever there is a certain number of Spanish-speaking students at a school, a dual language program is automatically offered, said Margaret S. Marcus, a fellow at The Century Foundation and co-founder of the English Learners Pandemic Recovery Forum.

But in the District of Columbia, public schools that have dual language programs are for the most part in communities that historically have had lots of Spanish-speaking English learners, and there hasn’t been a lot of effort to expand those programs to neighborhoods where an emerging English learner population is now located, said Amaya Garcia, deputy director of PreK–12 education with the education policy program at the left-leaning think tank New America.

Garcia added that there’s tension around political framing for dual language programs, with some states prioritizing the benefit for all students at the possible expense of English learners’ access to the programs.

“When you use that kind of framing, it’s more politically popular, but it also kind of undermines the message about whether or not these programs are to promote equity and better outcomes for English learners, or are they to promote multilingualism for every kid because it’s better economically for a city or a state to have a multilingual workforce,” Garcia said.

The other wrinkle to the conversation around who dual language programs are for is what happens with heritage speakers. Garcia’s parents, for instance, speak Spanish though she never got an opportunity to attend a dual language program to strengthen her own Spanish language skills. She now wants her children to develop their Spanish alongside English.

“There’s a whole generation of people who were not provided access to these kinds of programs and so we lost our language in a way,” she said.

What policymakers can do

The various tensions at play regarding the expansion of dual language programs, and various local demographic contexts, is why Williams and his co-authors don’t see a viable national standard for equitable enrollment in these programs.

However, their analysis of these programs offers the following takeaways for the country as a whole.

First, English learners should be prioritized for dual language immersion seats, but leaders must weigh local context with that priority, the report said.

For instance, schools must avoid a scenario in which the students enrolled in a dual language program are strictly Latino and white students at the expense of Afro-Latino and African American students. Ideally, at least 30 percent of seats for dual language programming should be reserved for English learners, said Marcus, with The Century Foundation.

Equitable access to dual language immersion, then, must be measured in various local contexts. For instance, states shouldn’t invest in building out dual language programs in English-dominant communities while communities with large shares of English learners have no such programs, the report said.

Information should also be readily available and accessible to English learner families so they understand how to enroll in dual language programs as well as the benefits of such programming. There are scenarios in which families have erroneously worried that dual language programming will prioritize instruction in a home language and not English, which students are required to master.

There also needs to be buy-in from school leadership to not only implement equitable enrollment policies but also ensure quality control of dual language programming, said Garcia with New America.

Given how dual language programs are already scarce, and don’t necessarily work in districts where English learners speak multiple languages, districts should also be putting resources into developing and promoting other strong language development programs.

The researchers also pointed to the following recommendations at the federal and state levels:

  • Invest in new funding to expand the number of two-way dual language immersion programs available in U.S. schools;
  • Reform teacher training, credentialing, and hiring policies to eliminate obstacles for bilingual teacher candidates; and
  • Invest in expanding and/or establishing new bilingual teacher training pathways.

The researchers are working on a follow-up study assessing the quality of dual language immersion programs across the country.

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