[lg policy] Research on Making Policy Reforms Work for Dual Language Learners

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 27 16:18:23 UTC 2014

  Research on Making Policy Reforms Work for Dual Language Learners on
Making Policy Reforms Work for  Language Learners

If there’s any unifying thread in the story of the last several years of
education debates, it’s that policy changes are education reform’s *first*,
not final, steps. Given American education’s unwieldy, chaotic governing
institutions, legal and regulatory changes are almost always susceptible to
being watered down—or even reversed
For instance, while it seemed like a settled victory when the Common Core
State Standards were adopted by 46 states, recent  implementation (and
political) challenges have sapped that effort of much of its substance
Policy design and policy implementation require different skill sets (as
does political mobilization
<http://www.edcentral.org/tensions-pre-k-politics-research/>). But they all
matter, and the education policy community needs to think much harder about
what  its proposals will look like in the classroom.

Efforts to reform how U.S. schools educate dual language learners (DLLs)
often run into this challenge. Many advocates concerned with DLLs’
linguistic and academic development have focused their attention on getting
lawmakers to enshrine the importance of native language instruction for
these students.

New research <http://ecl.sagepub.com/content/14/3/367.abstract?etoc>,
published in this month’s issue of the *Journal of Early Childhood
<http://www.edcentral.org/edcyclopedia/early-childhood/> Literacy*,
spotlights the issue. The study explores a “two-way dual language” program
in a first grade Texas classroom. This model enrolls DLLs and native
English-speaking students together in a classroom where instruction is
delivered both in English and in the DLLs’ home language. Ideally, the
model supports bilingualism for both groups of students.

How did it go? Authors Leah Durán and Deborah Palmer found that the program
created a considerably different educational experience for students than
models that instruct only in English. Dual language learners in the class
expressed themselves in both Spanish and English—and found both languages
celebrated by their peers and teachers.

As is often the case, DLLs in the class frequently used “code-switching,”
transitioning from English to Spanish (and back) in mid-sentence. Teachers
welcomed this form of expression, which the authors cheered as proof that
it “was a normalized and non-stigmatized classroom practice.” Indeed,
teachers themselves swapped back and forth between languages in a
conscious, intentional way, regardless of whether it was officially an
“English Day” or “Spanish Day.” This squares with other research
<http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ906337> suggesting that young DLLs who
code-switch are actually demonstrating critical growth in their language
competencies. Native English-speaking students followed their teachers’
lead and expressed enthusiasm for DLLs’ home language; one admired a DLL
peer as “a Spanish expert.”

However, the researchers noted that the program was not quite fully
balanced: “[A]t no point did we observe an English-dominant speaker
initiate or respond in Spanish during the unstructured pair time.” In other
words, while DLLs were being supported in both languages, English’s
linguistic dominance (in the United States) was still creeping into the
classroom. That is, it wasn’t clear that the program was living up to its
“two-way” billing.

As far as DLLs are concerned, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Except that
the authors note that two-way dual language programs can upend traditional
monolingual expectations in American schools *for all students*. If these
programs are ineffective at supporting bilingualism for native English
speakers, it robs them of one of the selling points that makes them “a
popular and politically feasible alternative to transitional bilingual
education.” If these programs do not live up to their two-way bilingual
promise, it will be harder to keep them in place. Two-way language programs
are sometimes an easier sell with the public because they purport to make
bilingualism accessible to all students—not just DLLs.

That is, even in this relatively faithful, high-quality implementation of
the two-way dual language model, there are considerable areas for
improvement (For instance, the authors suggested that teachers consider
restructuring the day to make it more likely that native English speakers
practice their Spanish). As hard as it can be to get states, districts, and
schools to change policies around DLLs’ native language use, it’s even more
challenging to make sure that these policies are implemented effectively.
This research suggests that policy reforms are only one of several critical
levers for supporting these students.

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