Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described a funding request from the state board of education in Washington state. The $250,000 request, if awarded, would pay for low-income students’ testing fees.
Editor’s Note: Staff Writer Corey Mitchell covers English-learners and civil rights in education. This analysis is part of a special report exploring pressing trends in education. Read the full report:
Schools in the United States are embracing bilingualism like never before.
Shifting demographics and political dynamics have transformed views on multilingual education in many parts of the country, paving the way for a focused examination of educating the nation’s 5 million K-12 English-language learners and the importance of foreign-language instruction.
The spread of the “seal of biliteracy"—a seal affixed to the diplomas or transcripts as official proof that students can speak, read, and write in more than one language—raises a question: Bilingualism for whom?
When the seal of biliteracy launched in California nearly a decade ago, its advocates envisioned an honor that would recognize multilingual English-language learners and native English speakers alike.
Bilingual education has an equity problem, says researcher Nelson Flores. Scroll down for his explanation on how to upend elite bilingualism.
Now, with more than 30 states offering the seal, some students are being shut out of the process: English-learners and students from low-income families may be on the wrong side of an opportunity gap, with their chances to demonstrate their bilingualism restricted by their circumstances.
Recent research out of Georgetown University suggests that whiter, wealthier schools with fewer English-learners were more likely to offer the seal of biliteracy.
The study highlights a host of disparities in how schools and governments determine when bilingualism is a benefit and when it’s a burden.
The researchers also determined that, in most states offering the seal, English-learners must climb a higher bar to earn the honor: The criteria for earning the seal holds English-learners to a higher standard in their second language (English) than native English speakers are held in theirs.
The standards are so uneven that Nicholas Subtirelu, an assistant professor at Georgetown, and his colleagues argue that, in most cases, native English-speaking students studying a world language in high school could not pass a proficiency test in their second language to qualify for the seal, which is exactly what ELLs must do in order to be reclassified as “English proficient.” Even when given the opportunity to demonstrate fluency in their native languages, some non-native English speaking students hit another roadblock. Formal exams are often limited to languages studied in U.S. high school world-language classes: AP and the College Board offer tests in fewer than 10 languages. The American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages has exams in a dozen languages.
So, students fluent in languages such as Haitian Creole and Vietnamese, both among the top five home languages for the nation’s K-12 English-learners, don’t always have a clear path to show what they know.
Amy Heineke, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago, is among a small, yet growing number of researchers concerned that states are prioritizing “elite bilingualism,” the language learning of middle- and upper-middle class students, as an achievement while the potential bilingualism of Latinx and other students is more of an afterthought.
In her view, the seal of biliteracy has the power to support bilingualism for English-learners and English-fluent students who speak another language at home, but only if states want that outcome.
Right now, the argument can be made that many don’t.
In their review of biliteracy seal legislation or policies in 30 states, Heineke and co-author Kristin Davin found that two-thirds explicitly avoided mentioning English-learners when framing its purpose.
Among those states is Florida, which is promoting bilingualism by offering the seal of biliteracy.
And yet, the state’s education department has refused to give English-learner students exams in language arts, math, or science in the students’ native languages, because English is the official state language.
English-learner advocates argue that the approach is shameful and creates a double-standard—allowing for foreign-language assessment to prove biliteracy, but not allowing English-learners to show what they know in their native languages.
In nearly every state that offers the seal, no one is tracking who earns them—so there’s no way to know how many English-learners are reaping potential benefits, such as earning college credits or a boost in the job market.
The state of Washington is an exception—and its approach may offer a path forward for states looking to push for equity.
The state’s education department has launched a campaign, and a $250,000 funding request, to cover language-proficiency testing fees for low-income students—opening an avenue for all students to demonstrate their fluency in their home languages. The state legislature could take up the issue early in 2019.
Washington already offers competency tests in languages such as Vietnamese, Somali, Punjabi, Tagalog, Romanian, and Amharic. The availability of those tests is already paying off.
Washington is also one of the few states that tracks the demographics of students who earn the seal of biliteracy. To date, roughly 20 percent of the 7,000 students who’ve earned the state seal of biliteracy there were current or former English-learners, said Angela Dávila, the state’s world languages program supervisor.
Dávila said Washington state has a goal for recognizing multilingual students: Propping open the door open to accept all comers.
If states are serious about providing equal opportunities for all bilingual students, perhaps they should do the same.
How to Dismantle Elite Bilingualism
By Nelson Flores
Recent years have witnessed the expansion of dual-language programs, alongside increasing support for the Seal of Biliteracy. These developments bring increased attention to the challenge of ensuring that racialized bilingualism (when students of color speak a non-dominant language at home and learn English at school) is placed on an equal playing field as elite bilingualism (when white students speak English at home and learn a second language in school).
One way of addressing this challenge is by ensuring that students in all ZIP codes have the opportunity to formally study languages other than English through the more-equitable distribution of dual-language programs. The disproportionate concentration of dual-language programs in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods denies dual-language education to many racialized bilinguals, as well as other students of color who often attend schools in segregated, low-income communities.
Efforts to integrate elite and racialized bilingualism in dual-language programs also pose challenges to schools. These programs often include families from vastly different racial and socioeconomic statuses who have different norms of interaction with schools. Schools can confront this challenge by partnering with local organizations with strong connections to the communities being served by these programs.
These organizations can support schools in identifying existing community resources and help bring them into the classroom. They can also support schools in ensuring equitable participation of all parents in school decisions.
The challenge of equitable participation also trickles down to the classroom, where elite bilingual students often dominate interactions both because of the dominance of English and because they are more comfortable advocating for themselves. Teachers can resist this tendency by becoming more aware of who they call on in class, incorporating culturally relevant materials that build on the experiences of racialized bilinguals, and structuring group work to ensure both elite and racialized bilinguals have the opportunity to be positioned as experts.
State, district, and school leaders can further ensure that the expertise of racialized bilinguals is recognized by reconsidering the overreliance on standardized assessments in determining language proficiency. These assessments emphasize language practices that are disconnected from the lived experiences of racialized bilinguals. They therefore often indicate that these students are not fully proficient in any language. The result can be classrooms where elite bilinguals are framed as gifted and racialized bilinguals are framed as in need of remediation.
A more holistic understanding of the linguistic knowledge of racialized bilinguals can facilitate treating their bilingualism as a resource for learning rather than a deficit in need of remediation. In my research, I have mapped the complex language practices of young racialized bilinguals on to state standards, illustrating the ways that their lived experiences already provide an important foundation for meeting the standards.
Schools cannot solely dismantle hierarchies between elite and racialized bilinguals. Yet, by ensuring the equitable distribution of bilingual education, promoting community participation, and developing mechanisms for valuing the home language and literacy practices of all bilingual students, they can work to develop the foundation for broader efforts to promote racial equity.
Nelson Flores is an associate professor of educational linguistics in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as Bilingualism for Whom?