Why We Need to Keep an Eye on Equity in Bilingual Education
By Martha I. Martinez, Ph.D., SEAL Director of Research & Evaluation
On March 8, 2022 the NABE Journal of Research and Practice published, “Keeping an Eye on Equity in Bilingual Education”. This journal article was co-authored by several SEAL staff members, including Martha I. Martinez, Joanna Meadvin, Corina Sapien, Heather Skibbins, Adriana Diaz, and Anya Hurwitz, Ed.D.
In a recent EdSource commentary, SEAL’s Executive Director, Anya Hurwitz, shared a few key points from the journal article and challenged policymakers, education leaders, teacher education programs, communities, and advocates to keep an eye on equity as we move towards bilingual (also known as dual language) program expansion. This blog provides additional insights into how SEAL’s work with teachers is rooted in social justice and antiracist work.
The passage of Proposition 58 in 2016 opened new doors for California’s English Learners – a group representing roughly 1 in 4 California public school students. The landmark proposition repealed an almost 20-year ban on bilingual education for English Learners and paved the way for students to be taught in their native language. Prop 58’s approval also reflects a national trend of promoting bilingualism and expanding dual language programs for all students, not just English Learners. These programs are now flourishing across the country. In fact, a recent study found that over 3600 such programs exist nationally (compared to less than 300 twenty years ago), with five states, including California, accounting for about 60% of these programs.
Despite program expansion, we’re also seeing that English Learners and their families experience marginalization in three specific ways that continue to fuel inequities in bilingual education:
- At the Program level: especially as it relates to which families have access to these programs.
- At the Teacher level: when a teacher’s pedagogical approach (which is based on their background, training, and beliefs) can widen inequities among the groups of students in their classrooms.
- Between Students in the Classroom: when the needs and experiences of dominant English speakers are prioritized over English Learner students.
In our NABE journal article, we outline two key ways SEAL works to address these inequities through our work with bilingual educators and the families of English Learner students.
Fostering antiracist mindsets through ideological clarity
Teachers are highly influential in creating inclusive bilingual classrooms so it’s critical they understand how their own beliefs and practices affect their students. Nevertheless, many lack the professional support, resources and structures to be as effective as possible.
We all hold explicit and implicit biases that are shaped by our life experiences. For those individuals living in California, this includes being subjected to the anti-immigrant and racist sentiment that fueled the passage of Proposition 227. Teachers are no exception. Moreover, our behaviors are influenced by these beliefs. For this reason, and according to research by Dr. Cristina Alfaro and Dr. Lilia Bartolomé, bilingual teachers need ideological clarity. They need to be able to identify deficit-based perspectives of emergent bilinguals and to develop asset-based frameworks and instructional approaches that help them teach in culturally responsive ways and that allow all students to thrive.
However, many teachers don’t receive the training needed to create inclusive classrooms and support culturally and linguistically diverse students. Many educators also lack a deep understanding of how their beliefs impact their teaching methods inside the classroom. This is why SEAL’s work is crucial. SEAL creates a space for teachers to explore their understanding of the relationship between equity issues and effective instruction, to reflect on their beliefs and practices, and to learn new practices that build on their students’ cultural and linguistic wealth.
Our two-year teacher training cycle provides structured opportunities for self-reflection, which is central to antiracism work. In one activity SEAL utilizes, we ask teachers to write their own stories, or bilingual autobiographies, that articulate the connection between their language and their personas in the classroom. Afterward, they dive into discussions about English dominance and share stories about individuals who have experienced language loss.
Another activity models the writing of a bilingual poem. Teachers are asked to share a poem written from the perspective of a native Spanish speaker learning English at school and have a discussion with the class about the value of bilingualism and cultural pride. Teachers are then encouraged to help their students write their bilingual poems.
Through these activities, teachers explore the relationship between language and power. The strength of this process is that it is not ‘one and done’ but rather ongoing and collaborative, where teachers regularly connect with colleagues about these topics and report back to the group with insights and learnings.
Ensuring meaningful and authentic engagement with Spanish-speaking families
Along with fostering equity-centered teacher mindsets about their students, it’s also critical that teachers apply these mindsets to the communities in which these learners live and belong. Strong partnerships between schools and families of English Learners are rare yet they are essential for creating equitable bilingual programs and school systems for English Learners. Families play a critical role in the development and learning process of all children, and for ELs, they can also help prevent the loss of the home language and support students to become biliterate. The schools we partner with find ongoing and creative ways to extend bilingual learning experiences into the family, community and home, as well as welcome the histories and cultures of their students’ families into the classroom throughout the school year.
Research shows that many linguistically diverse families often have conflicting feelings and misconceptions about bilingual education, in some cases because of racist policies, like California’s Proposition 227, and the sociopolitical context in which these policies were created and enforced. For example, some adults who speak languages other than English recall the hostile messages and treatment they received from school personnel, law enforcement officials, and community members when speaking their native language or displaying cultural pride. This leads many English Learner families to opt-out of bilingual education programs, despite space to accommodate them. In addition, some families of ELs have expressed concerns that if their children are in a bilingual program, their English development will suffer.
SEAL has seen these attitudes in our work and diligently addresses these issues by providing ways for educators to strengthen family-school partnerships, including with Spanish-speaking families. In 2019, we started offering workshops to families who attend the California Association for Bilingual Education’s (CABE) annual conference. These workshops are delivered bilingually to predominantly Spanish-speaking parents and present families with research on the benefits of speaking two languages and about the effectiveness of various bilingual program models. In addition, the workshops provide families with tools and resources to help them advocate for their children and build support for these programs within their communities. These include templates for meetings with administrators and teachers, and another template for a formal parent request to the school district for the creation of a bilingual program — as authorized by Proposition 58.
Our work at the core is antiracist work. We recognize the relationship between language, race, and power and the ways in which many English Learners have been denied access to a quality education because of their language status, their racial/ethnic backgrounds, and limited access to power. Thus, in addition to providing professional development on effective instructional practices for English Learners, SEAL strives to combat deficit-based frames of English Learners’ and their families, to elevate English Learners’ status as equally intelligent, capable, and resourceful as their native English-speaking peers, and to position linguistically diverse families as equal partners in their children’s education. Our NABE article highlights some of our work in these areas. However, there is much work to do when it comes to centering equity in bilingual education. More equity-focused individuals and organizations situated at all levels of the education system are needed if we want to not only keep an eye on equity in bilingual education but to advance it.