As highlighted in the Cambio Center’s November 2015 e-brief, dual language (DL) education programs are growing exponentially in the United States. By some accounts, DL programs – especially two-way immersion models that integrate students from two different language backgrounds – are the “astounding” answer to desegregating our schools, preparing children for a transnational world, and developing smarter thinkers. However, scholars like Nelson Flores remind us that the politics of language education and histories of racism in U.S. schools make it very difficult to realize the “rich promise” of DL education for all students, especially those from minoritized* groups. In this longer blog post, I want to briefly review research that documents the outstanding opportunities of dual language programs to enhance students’ academic and linguistic capacities, as well as introduce some of their persistent challenges.
*I sometimes use the word “minoritized” in my writing. I do this when referring to groups that have been called “minority” in comparison to dominant cultural groups, such as students who speak a minority language (i.e., language other than English in the US) or come from a minority background (e.g., someone who identifies as Black/African American in the US). Using this term, however, suggests that the referenced group of people is somehow smaller, less than, or subordinate, but this is not correct and it is not how individuals who live with these categories see themselves. By using the word “minoritized” instead, I aim to highlight that others have placed this suggestion upon particular groups, who are by no means “minor.”
The Dual Language Promise
Dual language education programs use at least two different languages during regular instruction of core subject areas like math, reading, social studies, and science. Such programs typically begin in kindergarten and have three goals: (a) the development of bilingualism and biliteracy, (b) high academic achievement, and (c) cross-cultural competency. A popular model often called “two-way immersion” (TWI) tries to integrate equal numbers of students from two different language groups, for example, native English and native Spanish speakers.
A growing body of research has concluded that DL programs result in strong academic and linguistic outcomes for all students. Many come to this conclusion by comparing the academic assessment results of students in different kinds of language programs to each other. Over many studies, Kathryn Lindholm-Leary has found that TWI programs, in comparison to other educational models, result in better academic outcomes for native Spanish speakers who are classified as English Learners (ELs). For example, Spanish-speaking students in California TWI programs outperformed “EL” peers in traditional, transitional bilingual education programs on English tests by Grade 6 (2001). In addition, English-speaking students in TWI outperformed their peers in English-only, general education programs by about 10 points on California assessments of reading and math. Moreover, TWI students in this study revealed positive attitudes towards their programs, teachers, classroom environment, and the learning process.
Research on DL programs in other contexts suggests similar positive outcomes for many kinds of students, from two-way immersion programs in North Carolina studied by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, to one-way immersion programs in Canada and French immersion programs in the southern U.S., which include many African-American children.
However, too few of these studies examined students over long periods of time, and they did not control for “selection effects.” Specifically, most research has not examined whether students who already have higher academic abilities or whose families have greater resources are the ones that choose DL programs. In turn, it may be that such prior experiences are shaping their academic and linguistic success, not the DL programs themselves. Most recently, researchers in Oregon have examined a “randomized experiment” across different DL programs in Portland Public Schools (including Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish and Russian languages). In this district, some students were put randomly by lottery into one-way and two-way immersion models, while others who did not “win” the lottery were placed in general education programs in only English. Comparing students in this sort of research design helps to take care of the “selection effects” named above. Among other positive results, they found that DL students’ reading achievement was higher than their peers in English-only education programs by fifth and eighth grade. This is one of the most convincing and well-designed studies studying academic and linguistic outcomes to date in DL.
Nonetheless, besides needing additional research to provide stronger evidence of effectiveness, another large body of research demonstrates that there are persistent and serious challenges in DL education, especially when we question whether such programs are equitably serving children across racial, linguistic, and cultural groups. I know from prior work that well-implemented two-way immersion programs are difficult to implement given the politics surrounding language education and identity in the US. Recently, Claudia Cervantes-Soon, Deb Palmer, and I worked with colleagues to review research on the experiences of minoritized children in two-way immersion programs. (Our results will be published in the Review of Research in Education in 2017). We found that there are persistent inequities in many areas of TWI. Here are just a few examples:
- Student access and experiences: Not all children have equal access to DL programs.
- Classroom pedagogy, curriculum, and linguistic choices: Within DL classrooms, the experiences and languages of minoritized children are not recognized or rewarded to the degree of their White, English-speaking peers.
- Teachers’ preparation, background, and orientations: Many states and school districts do not have certification or effective training for DL teachers.
- Parents and community engagement. Minoritized families report feeling marginalized at their children’s DL schools, and many districts lack structures to equitably engage all of their families.
- District and state-level policies, economic contexts, and politics: The pressures of accountability require testing and a focus on English development, rather than fully appreciating and preparing students’ bilingualism.
In summary, future research needs to continuing examining DL education and how it could become an “astounding” success for all, across all contexts. With continued support from the Cambio Center, I am working with the Missouri Dual Language Network to examine these very areas across our state: (1) Empirically, we need longitudinal research on DL student achievement that examines how different program components lead to enhanced academic and linguistic outcomes for diverse sets of students over time. (2) Theoretically, we need to better understand the links between bilingualism and children’s and their families’ experiences, including DL programs. (3) Politically, we need to question whether DL programs are meeting their goals for all youth, and understand how DL programs are implemented in a variety of diverse contexts, like those found in Missouri. In my next blog posts and e-briefs, I will present more about the challenges that face us, as well as concrete ideas for moving us forward.