Five Ways States Can Support Dual Language Programs

In a global economy, knowledge of multiple languages and cultures is a hot commodity. More and more schools across the country recognize the importance of bilingualism, offering both English learners and native English speakers opportunities to become proficient in more than one language.

Unlike transitional bilingual programs that mainly seek to prepare English learners for general education classrooms, dual language programs aim to develop students’ literacy and content area knowledge in both English and a partner language, such as Spanish or Chinese. The goal is lasting bilingualism, along with high levels of academic achievement and an appreciation of multiple cultures.

Many decisions about language instruction are made by districts and schools. But a new AIR report, Dual Language Education Programs: Current State Policies and Practices, released by the U.S. Department of Education, shows that, despite some challenges, states can also play an important role in developing and sustaining dual language programs.

A growing body of research supports the dual language approach. Studies have found that by the time English learners reach middle school, those in dual language programs tend to outperform their peers in English language arts/reading while performing as well as or better than their counterparts in math and science.

Our research found a number of ways that states can help expand and sustain dual language programs:

Make expansion of dual language programs a statewide priority. In some states, government, education, and business leaders have come together to develop a strategic plan for scaling up dual language programs. Utah, for example, established a goal of creating 100 programs enrolling 30,000 students by 2015. And they succeeded: By July 2015, 138 Utah schools were implementing dual language programs in various languages.

Help districts and schools secure the funds to develop and sustain dual language programs. At least six states—Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon, and Utah—have offered dual language start-up grants. Meanwhile, such states as Connecticut, Michigan, and New Mexico fund dual language and other types of bilingual education programs. States can also provide guidance on how districts and schools can use other federal and state funding sources to support dual language programs.

Offer outreach and incentives to recruit and retain students. Some states provide technical assistance and materials to facilitate parent outreach. Eighteen states offer a Seal of Biliteracy upon graduation to students who attain proficiency in two languages—a feather in the cap that may help with future college and job applications. And five more states are about to follow suit. Utah allows students who continue their dual language studies in high school to earn credit from state universities for higher-level language courses; Delaware is working on a similar arrangement.

Build the supply of teachers qualified to teach in dual language programs. Finding teachers proficient in the languages of instruction who also know how to embed language development in content lessons can be a challenge. Some states address it by partnering with colleges to develop teacher preparation programs, developing alternative certification routes, establishing teacher exchange programs with other countries, or offering financial incentives. Six states host or encourage practicing teachers to attend summer institutes focused on dual language education.

Provide resources to guide instruction and measure student progress. Dual language teachers in states with Spanish or world language proficiency standards can use these standards, along with those for English language proficiency, to inform instruction and ensure that students are making sufficient progress. Five states require dual language programs to regularly assess students’ partner language skills, and at least 11 states recommend or provide assessment tools. States also can help dual language programs locate quality academic materials in the partner language. These can be difficult to find.

Our study revealed that although states face some common challenges to supporting dual language education, they are developing creative solutions. Interstate collaboration to share knowledge and overcome barriers could ease the process.

Andrea Boyle is a researcher focusing on school turnaround, English learners, state systems of support for low-performing schools, and teacher quality and effectiveness.

Lisa Tabaku is a principal researcher responsible for overseeing and providing professional development and technical assistance to improve educational outcomes for English learners.