Back to School, Back to What?

Schools start soon – our son is off to college in two weeks, our daughter back to 5th grade a week later. We aren’t sure – none of us, really – what exactly that means. Masks, social distancing, frequent COVID testing in college, a new variant roaming the land. Our nerves are frayed – sending our flesh and blood to school has never seemed so risky. But send them we will. We are all balancing the COVID risks with the genuine need for real contact and time with friends, peers, teachers, in person. So, a deep breath, another of the endless discussions with eye-rolling offspring about masks, hand-washing, and social distancing.


This return to in-person schooling also feels like a renewal, after a long phase of academically incomplete, emotionally challenging virtual schooling. On a national scale, we know that there’s a learning gap, for all students, because of the pandemic. We know that the learning gap is more severe for kids from minoritized groups. We know it’s more severe for our 5 million Emerging Bilingual learners. And, we know that the schools and districts have been stressed in ways never foreseen. While the three COVID relief bills have poured almost $180 billion in funding under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program (ESSER), we still don’t know how Dual Language programs have fared. Just anecdotal evidence, a new program here or there, another closed somewhere else.


Although we all want a return to normalcy, I don’t think we will get that entirely. There will be some changes to adjust to, such as masking requirements and the ever-present COVID threat. There will be some changes that, I hope, are improvements – the past eighteen months has brought a recognition that teachers are front-line personnel, that their work really does matter, that it’s hard, that it takes dedication and compassion. All of us parents ended up as involuntary paraprofessionals – especially for those of us with grade-school age children.


Another change that we’d like to see is a better discussion of what equity means for Dual Language programs, and what it means for our Emerging Bilingual leaners. We have a new Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, who is himself bilingual, a former English Learner, and who has publicly committed to supporting multilingualism and biliteracy. We’d like to see more Dual Language programs, better access to them, and at the same time, better language access for parents who don’t have the proficiency in English to interact with the school system. On this last point, the House of Representatives recently called on the Department of Education to support language access efforts at the school district level. We know that an important part of the inequitable access to Dual Language programs is the way that they are advertised to parents – too often in “Educational Bureaucratic English,” too often with technically accurate but hard to understand translations of that same obscure dialect (which is closely related to Legalese). All humor aside, clear communications about educational opportunities would help make existing programs more accessible and equitable.


Finally, another change that many of us have been pushing for a long time: labels, and the deep-set attitudes they can represent. You’ll notice I said “Emerging Bilinguals” in this post. I’m trying to avoid “English Learners,” even though that’s the term used in the No Child Left Behind Act and its successor (and the current federal law governing K-12 education), the Every Student Succeeds Act. Whether “Emerging Bilingual Learners” emerges as the new label, or “Emerging Multilingual Learners” or some other label, we’re striving to eliminate an outdated, racist, xenophobic label that defines more than 5 million children as deficient, as “other” – they don’t have English, and English proficiency is the only desired outcome. Even though the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t treat these 5 million kids this way, it’s far too easy for teachers, principals, and district leadership to fall into the trap of a deficit mindset. Part of that is enabled by the label; part of it by the ways that school personnel are trained, and part of it, no doubt, from the broader culture, however ethnically and linguistically diverse America actually is. I know that changing labels, and then changing professional training and development, won’t change cultural attitudes, but it’s a start, and we’re working hard on that start.

Bill Rivers
Author: Bill Rivers

Dr. Bill Rivers has more than 25 years of leadership experience in culture and language for economic development and national security, with expertise in the private, public, and non-profits sectors, in research, assessment, program evaluation, policy development and advocacy. Before joining JNCL-NCLIS, he served as Chief Scientist at Integrated Training Solutions, Inc., a small business in Arlington, Virginia. While at ITS, he served in a contractor role as the Chief Linguist of the National Language Service Corps. Prior to working at ITS, he was co-founder of the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland.

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