Opinion

Williams: As Washington, D.C., Considers Ramping Up Dual Language Programs, How the Nation’s Capital Can Use Multilingual Instruction as a Tool to Advance Equity

By Conor Williams | January 11, 2019

Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The article originally appeared on The Century Foundation’s website; see more at TCF.org

Earlier this week, Washington, D.C., councilmember Brandon Todd proposed legislation that would dramatically increase the number of dual language immersion (DLI) programs in the nation’s capital. This is hardly a surprise. In a city like D.C. — multicultural, progressive, cosmopolitan, rapidly gentrifying, full of highly educated parents — these programs are extremely popular. That’s why Todd’s bill was co-introduced by seven other councilmembers, giving it a majority on the 13-member council before public debate begins.

As a parent of two children attending one of D.C.’s public DLI elementary schools, I’m excited about the possibilities inherent in the bill. As a researcher who works on issues related to educational equity for English-learning students (ELs), I’m mindful that possibilities are not the same as certainties — particularly when efforts to advance the cause of educational equity encounter privileged communities.

D.C. should expand its DLI programming. But it should do so consciously, with an eye to linguistic equity.

The bill aims to ramp up DLI supply to match demand, and that’s good. D.C.’s current DLI programs have consistently ranked amongst the city’s most in-demand schools. Latin American Montessori Bilingual, a popular Spanish immersion charter school, had over 1,000 children on its waitlist last year — and that was just for its pre-K classes.

Moreover, increasing the number of DLI programs is potentially an ideal policy and pedagogical solution for the D.C. school system — and beyond. Many U.S. communities have seen years of growth in their populations of students who speak a non-English language at home. Meanwhile, a number of studies have shown that linguistically integrated “two-way” DLI programs — schools that enroll roughly equal proportions of native speakers of each of the languages of instruction — are uniquely beneficial for English learners. In these programs, ELs are able to learn academic content in both English and their native language. They’re also able to continue developing their proficiencies in both languages. What’s more, as native speakers of the DLI program’s other language, ELs can help their English-dominant peers become bilingual as well.

So far, so good. And yet, while DLI programs work optimally when linguistically integrated, their popularity can present challenges for educational equity. Washington, D.C., is one of the country’s fastest-gentrifying cities. Housing costs have risen dramatically in recent years, pricing many families out of their neighborhoods — and neighborhood schools. As I put it in an article published by The Atlantic in 2017: “One of the city’s oldest immersion programs, Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, has seen its surrounding neighborhood become so English-dominant (and white and wealthy) that the school is running short on native Spanish-speaking students. Neighborhood students get guaranteed slots at kindergarten, and these are now taken almost exclusively by English-speaking children, so the school has taken to overweighting its pre-K enrollment toward native Spanish speakers, reserving 30 of the 36 available pre-K seats for Spanish-dominant kids. Just 15 percent of the school’s students are classified as English learners. Not coincidentally, just 23 percent of students come from low-income families (across D.C. Public Schools, it’s 77 percent).”

D.C. has expanded DLI programming in several schools in recent years. But in doing so, it has not always focused on creating campuses that have a balance of native English-speaking and English-learning students. This inattention has left ELs out of citywide DLI programming. This sets up a worrying dynamic, wherein the city expands access to multilingual instruction for English-dominant children — while offering English-only instruction to native speakers of other languages (usually Spanish).

Indeed, the current draft of the newly proposed legislation would define “equitable expansion of DLI programs” as granting “greater access to and participation by students and residents from historically underrepresented and underserved groups regardless of language spoken at home [emphasis added].” This is misguided — particularly in a country that has frequently banned English-learning students from bilingual education. Why should D.C. schools expand multilingual programming without considering the languages that students already speak?

Fortunately, this is just a first draft, and these citywide dynamics aren’t beyond policymakers’ capacity to respond. D.C. leaders have ample resources and options that will support equitable expansion of these programs.

Here are several critical questions the council should consider as this debate moves forward, along with some possible equity-driven answers:

How will D.C. support careful program design and implementation?

High-quality implementation of DLI programs requires careful thinking about existing policies and practices related to testing, staffing, funding, curricula, scheduling, enrollment patterns, and more.

Staffing is perhaps the most difficult of these. When I interviewed District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) staff for a 2015 report on EL issues in the city, many told me that it was a constant struggle to staff the city’s existing DLI programs. If DCPS is instructed to open a slate of new DLI programs for the 2020–21 school year (while continuing to staff current programs), it needs a comprehensive strategy for hiring new teachers who can deliver academic instruction in non-English languages. It should also prepare for difficult conversations in these eight new schools, where many current English-only teachers will need to be moved into other positions or replaced.

DCPS cannot solve these puzzles with foreign teachers on temporary visas. It will need to explore a range of other options, such as adjusting its teacher licensure policies to accommodate multilingual teachers, credentialing programs that will support multilingual paraprofessionals seeking their teaching licenses, and much more. In Oregon, Portland Public Schools realized that its DLI programs were outgrowing its ability to staff them — administrators had to launch their own teacher training program. In addition, it will need to back these efforts with significant funding and additional staffing at DCPS’s central offices, since coordination of new multilingual staffing will require significant administrative staff support.

Note, again, that this is just one of the difficult issues involved in launching DLI programs at scale. To deliver effective DLI, D.C. can’t just launch new models and celebrate. It also needs to integrate these programs into existing testing, data, accountability, and funding systems. What’s more, it needs to prepare school leaders to build culturally and linguistically competent school climates.

How will D.C. support equitable access to DLI programming?

D.C. should avoid continuing its current pattern — extending access to multilingual instruction for English-dominant children while leaving many EL-heavy campuses as English-only. This challenge will get easier to meet as the number of DLI programs grows and more children gain access. In the meantime, DCPS should reserve a proportion of seats in all new Spanish-language immersion programs for ELs. This benefits all students, as ELs do uniquely well in DLI programs and native English speakers will benefit from ELs’ native proficiencies in their home languages.

Insofar as D.C. wishes to prioritize multilingual instruction for English-dominant children, it should consider opening programs in languages other than Spanish. Over 80 percent of D.C.’s ELs speak Spanish at home. Given the difficulty of recruiting credentialed, native Spanish-speaking teachers, any new DCPS Spanish-English DLI programs should follow linguistically integrated, two-way DLI instructional models.

Meanwhile, in schools with few ELs, D.C. should offer instruction in other languages (while anticipating that this will increase the implementation complexity of any DLI expansion). Given that there are few native French-, Mandarin-, or Arabic-speaking ELs in D.C., the city should open most of its new “one-way” DLI programs for English-dominant children in these (or other) languages.

In sum, given privileged families’ enthusiasm for DLI programs, D.C. should proceed cautiously. While it might be politically popular to provide more access to multilingual instruction for English-dominant children, that doesn’t mean that it’s automatically equitable education policymaking.

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