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The State of Dual-Language Education Initiatives in U.S. Classrooms

As of 2015, there are 41 million native-Spanish speakers or roughly 13 percent of the population in the United States. To put that in perspective, there are more people, including second-language speakers, in the United States who speak Spanish than in Spain. Spanish is the second-most natively spoken language in the world, with around 400 million. Mandarin Chinese takes the top spot at nearly a billion native speakers, while English comes in third place. With business being more global now than any other point in human history, the need for more bilingual education is on the minds of many education experts.

School districts around the country are starting to rethink old mandates that restricted school systems from teaching courses to students in their native language. “It’s a one-size-fits-all system that is failing too many students,” said Massachusetts State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (Democrat). Just last month the state approved a vote to start the process of changing a 15-year-old voter referendum that restricted classes to English only. Other states are following suit as well.

Indiana is considering making the change to allow native Spanish speakers to take tests in the language to comply with requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The state has over 50,000 English learners speaking 270 different languages with Spanish being the most prevalent.

Educators supporting the move like Trish Morita-Mullaney, a researcher specializing in English language learning at Purdue University, point out that it’s about helping students transition from learning in Spanish to English in a way that is beneficial rather than counterproductive. “We don’t want you [students] sitting blankly in front of an English test, we want you to at least have an opportunity to do well,” Morita-Mullaney said.

Incorporating more dual-language education into U.S. classrooms also brings up the issue of having the right teaching materials and hiring enough adequate teachers to fill those positions. Out of 111 California school districts surveyed for a study by Californians Together, 86 percent of schools were short on staffed bilingual teachers. The report goes on to say that while there are 7,000 bilingual teachers ready to teach in dual-language programs, they just need legislative support to professionally transition into bilingual classrooms.

With the push to have more dual-language classrooms comes the need to ensure quality teaching materials are available. Morita-Mullaney emphasized this need if Indiana is going to have effective dual-language classrooms. “Are we testing the language, are we testing the content or both?” Morita-Mullaney asked. “There’s so much we don’t know, and there’s so many states that have done this the wrong way.”

One rather unique conundrum to the bilingual classroom is the growing trend of spots in dual-language classes being snatched up by native English speakers.

Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, a dual-language program in Washington D.C. is seeing a shift in its students from immigrants to native English-speaking children. A growing number (29 percent) of the school's students are now enrolled by their white parents so that they can learn a second language as early as possible. The waitlist to get in is incredibly long, but families who own a home within the school’s attendance boundary get a spot.

The shift has spurred concern that the popularity could be pushing out the immigrant population that the classes were created to serve. Beatriz Otero, founder of D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School, is worried immigrant students could get left behind. “You have very loud voices and, especially right now, given what’s going on with immigration and the fear that families have, the likelihood that you would see any of our immigrant families beating down the doors for any of these services — they’re scared to death,” Otero told The Hechinger Report. “They’re not going out anywhere, so their voices aren’t heard.”


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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