English-Language Learners

Will Every State Offer Special Recognition for Its Bilingual Graduates?

By Corey Mitchell — July 26, 2018 4 min read
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Since the seal of biliteracy was introduced in California earlier this decade, its popularity has surged across the country, with nearly every state scrambling to offer special recognition for high school graduates who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages.

Just six years later, students in 43 states and the District of Columbia can earn statewide or district-level recognition noting their skills in more than one language.

Heading into the 2018-19 school year, just six mostly rural states with small populations of English-learners—Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming—have yet to be swept up in the movement.

But that number will soon shrink to four. North Dakota Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said the state will offer the seal of biliteracy to Class of 2019 graduates. In Wyoming, the Jackson-based Teton County school district plans to honor its next class of graduates as well, a spokeswoman said.

Among the remaining states, there are efforts afoot to find a way to honor multilingual graduates, but things may not be easy.

“If you look at California, they have a strong bilingual culture. South Dakota doesn’t have that dynamic,” said Ann Smith, the curriculum director for the Sioux Falls, S.D., schools.

Smith has a point.

Affluent Parents Drive Demand for Biliteracy

In California, the birthplace of the biliteracy seal, nearly 47,000 high school graduates earned the recognition in 2017. The total could top 50,000 for the class of 2018, state department of education officials estimate.

Across the nation, about 10 percent of K-12 students are classified as English-learners. In the states that don’t currently offer the seal of biliteracy, the latest federal data show that less than 5 percent of students in those places are English-learners.

Interest in the seal of biliteracy has flourished in states with large English-learners populations, such as California, and struggled to take off in states with smaller populations.

Overall, 32 states and the District of Columbia affix the seal to diplomas or transcripts as official proof that students can speak, read, and write in more than one language.

In another 11 states, local school districts have established their own seals. Alabama, Kentucky, and West Virginia, states with smaller-than-average percentages of English-learners, are among those with no statewide seal.

Most states with local-only or no biliteracy seals at all tend to have smaller state-level English-learner and foreign language departments. People who work in similar departments in other states have been essential to advocating for the statewide recognition.

“They don’t have the resources on the state level. That tends to be the challenge,” said Arthur Chou, the founder of sealofbiliteracy.org, a site that tracks seal of biliteracy developments across the country.

“But everybody is getting behind this,” Chou said. “Nobody wants to be the last one.”

Various hurdles exist for the remaining states.

In South Dakota, “there hasn’t been a great deal of demand,” said Smith, the Sioux Falls schools’ curriculum director.

Parents from South Dakota’s only public language-immersion school—Sonia Sotomayor Elementary School in Sioux Falls—hope to change that.

Building Political Support for Bilingual Skills

While the seal of biliteracy was originally introduced to promote educational equity for English-language learners, the honor has become a sought-after accolade for native English speakers proficient in another language and the Sioux Falls parents want a piece of the action.

“Even if our state doesn’t adopt it, we’d like to be able to include it on [our diplomas],” Smith said. “The parents see it opening opportunities for their children.”

In Idaho, a statewide advisory committee could tackle the issue this fall.

With a growing English-learner and migrant student population, educators there want to find a way to motivate students to maintain their heritage languages and become proficient in English, said Christina Nava, the director of Idaho’s English-learner and migrant education program.

“We’re a state that’s supportive,” Nava said. “But with competing priorities, everybody has something that they want the legislature to hear and so timing would be our biggest obstable.”

In neighborhing Montana, the state education department has no plans for a seal of biliteracy, but the state’s foreign language teachers do.

The Montana Association for Language Teachers, MALT, wants to launch pilot programs in districts across the state, but expect to face some opposition, said Megan Hambrick, a French teacher at Bozeman High School in Bozeman.

“I could see in some of the smaller, more rural conservative areas where it could be a problem,” Hambrick said.

“From talking to people who have launched the seal of biliteracy in some more conservative states, they have to approach it in a way that’s less about students and more about industry and how this is going to help economically,” Hambrick said.

“In California, where it’s not as conservative, they really focus on honoring speakers of Spanish and other languages. You really have to just read your audience in terms of who you’re trying to convince.”

The Mississippi Foreign Language Association hopes to mount a similar campaign in the Magnolia state, but the discussions have just begun, said group president Edgar Serrano, a Spanish instructor at the University of Mississippi.

“We’ll do everything possible to get this seal,” Serrano said.

A spokeswoman said the Mississippi education department said the state is “currently researching” the idea before deciding its next steps.

Related Reading

More States and Districts Embrace Biliteracy

California Aims to Make Even More Students Multilingual

Catching Up on Statewide Efforts to Promote Bilingualism

Schools Are Ill-Prepared to Educate ‘Superdiverse” English-Learners

Image Credit: sealofbiliteracy.org

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.