Dual Language SchoolsThings I’ve Heard Lately

Author Photo: Dr. Bill Rivers

By: Dr. Bill Rivers

Executive Director of Joint National Committee for Languages

Photo for: Things I’ve Heard Lately

It’s been a while since I wrote a column for DualLanguageSchools.org; I suppose I could make some excuses about how busy it’s been in D.C., but the key word in the last clause was “excuses,” so there you go. So instead, indulge me as I relate some of the things I’ve heard over the past few months.

1. “It’s off the table,” spoken by the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education and the Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition, the Honorable José A. Viana, at the annual meeting of the National Council of State Title III Directors, in February of this year. He was referring to the proposed reorganization of the Department of Education, which would have eliminated the Office of English Language Acquisition as an independent entity. This was first raised last spring, and I wrote about it in this column. In the following months, and through the fall of last year, an informal coalition of advocacy and teacher organizations worked in a courteous but firm and dedicated way to put a stop to this, and in the end, we succeeded. So, hearing that from Mr. Viana, who has been a thoughtful and dedicated public servant, fully engaged with the cause of bilingualism and biliteracy, was a balm .

2. “The effectiveness debate is over,” asserted by Dr. Esther De Jong, Past President of TESOL, at the Second Multiliteracy Symposium, hosted by the Secretary of Education, on May 6. Dr. De Jong gave us a lively intervention on the history of bilingual education in the United States, going back to pre-1968 and taking us to the present day. She elaborated to the effect that the evidence is in, and Dual Language Immersion, in its many flavors, actually works. More substantively, extended sequences of content and subject instruction in the student’s L1, coupled with instruction in English, over the course of a K-12 Education, reliably leads to meaningful bilingualism and biliteracy. A side-effect is the integration of classrooms, if the program is properly managed.

3. “We’re confused” by the State Seal and the Global Seal of Biliteracy. And that’s a problem, but in my view, not a huge one. The State Seals vary tremendously, thanks to our federal system, the 10th Amendment to the Constitution (which guarantees that states have a great degree of autonomy), and the maximum nature of our decentralization in how we administer schools. 56 state and territorial education departments, 18,000+ local school districts, and 30,000+ private and parochial schools, each one with a real degree of choice as to whether the State Seal is implemented (states and districts) or offered (schools). In other words, it’s a mess—which makes changing educational policies and practices in America very difficult indeed (my family wonders why I like rolling big rocks up the hill every day). On the other hand, as a country we believe in the marketplace of ideas, so something like the Global Seal kind of makes sense, for kids outside of the formal educational system, in districts where the State Seal hasn’t been implemented, in schools where it can’t be implemented, and so on. The bottom line is that if you want something on your diploma, get the State Seal, and if that isn’t available, go for the Global Seal.

To return to my excuses for not writing, it has been crazy here in D.C. and throughout the country. It’s easy to feel that linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and other minorities are under attack, because they are. It can be terrifying, but we should all “look for the helpers,” from wherever they come, and we should take comfort that in fact we are not in a minority if we stand together.

America values bilingualism, for economic and security reasons, for the Nation and the individua, to be sure; but the vast majority of our fellow citizens also recognize the inherent value of being bilingual, and the empathy and understanding that it brings. And the things I’ve heard in the past few months, as messy and complex as they are, reflect the ways that we are evolving to bring biliteracy to all students.