AIR Researchers: States, Districts Increasingly Embrace Dual-Language Programs, But Face Implementation Challenges

Washington, D.C. – School districts in most states employ at least one dual-language program, in which students receive instruction in English and a partner language to help them acquire both, according to a study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) for the U.S. Department of Education.

States are offering guidance and resources to expand the use of these programs. Nonetheless, officials report such challenges as shortages of qualified teachers, limited funding, and a lack of language-appropriate textbooks and other instructional materials.

The study comes amid a surge in the popularity of such programs. During the 2012-13 school year, 39 states and the District of Columbia reported that at least one of their school districts offered a dual-language program, according to the report, with Spanish topping the list of partner languages (35 states and the District of Columbia.) Other frequently reported partner languages were Chinese (14 states), Native American languages (12 states) and French (seven states and the District of Columbia).

“Bilingualism offers clear benefits to students and is important for our nation’s security and global competitiveness,” said Diane August, a managing researcher at AIR and co-author of the report. “Research shows that dual-language programs not only promote bilingualism and biliteracy, but also support high levels of academic achievement.”

AIR researchers examined recently published research and reports on dual-language programs, along with information collected from state education agency websites and state and federal databases. The authors also interviewed officials in six states: Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina and Utah.

Dual-language programs differ from other bilingual education programs. In some programs, teachers use the students’ native tongue to help teach academic content, aiming to move students quickly into an English-only classroom.

Major models include two-way dual-language programs, in which English learners who speak the partner language are integrated with English-speaking peers to receive instruction in both English and the partner language, and one-way dual-language programs, in which students predominantly from one language group (e.g., English learners, native English speakers, or students with a family background or cultural connection to the partner language) are instructed in both English and a partner language.

Several states are working to increase students’ access to dual-language programs. Six states—Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and Utah—have provided funds that specifically support the development of dual-language programs. As of spring 2015, 11 states and the District of Columbia had adopted policies to recognize students who acquire proficiency in two languages with a Seal of Biliteracy—a gold insignia that appears on high school graduates’ diplomas or transcripts. Another 15 states were considering such policies, the report found.

“Some states are paying a lot of attention to the benefits of dual-language programs,” said Andrea Boyle, an AIR researcher and the report’s lead author. “At the same time, the expansion has come with some growing pains. It’s not always easy to find teachers with the right qualifications, and some states report trouble finding the funding they need.”

Teachers of dual-language programs are expected to possess the same credentials and core competencies required of all teachers in their grade level and/or subject matter, as well as such skills as proficiency in the program language and strategies to help second-language learners access academic content. To help identify such teachers, 20 states and the District of Columbia issue teaching certificates in bilingual education, and one—Utah—has developed credentials specifically for teachers in dual-language programs. In interviews, officials from North Carolina said they were also developing such credentials.

However, officials from all six states in the case study identified a shortage of qualified teachers as a barrier to implementing dual-language programs. This corroborates a 2015 Department of Education report showing a shortage of bilingual education teachers in 16 states for the 2015-16 school year. To deal with the problem, states are beefing up recruitment efforts and developing alternative certification pathways and partnerships with other countries.

In 2014-15, 46 states provided additional funding for English learners that could be used for dual-language programs. Yet, officials from Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico and North Carolina said their programs faced insufficient funding. For example, textbooks and other materials in the partner language can be expensive and hard to find, according to the report. An official from Illinois said fully funding two-way dual-language programs that include fluent English speakers is hard because such students do not receive language program funding targeted to English learners.

The full report can be found on AIR's website: “Dual Language Education Programs: Current State Policies and Practices."

About AIR

Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education and workforce productivity. For more information, visit


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