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For much of the last year and a half (and to a degree, even before then), New America has been working to provide a sustained, policy-driven focus on dual language learners. We’ve written a steady stream of blog posts and columns on DLL-related issues, published policy papers and briefs focused on policies that influence these students’ education, and incorporated these students into our broader early education policy work.

Starting this month, New America’s Early Education Initiative will be building on that strong foundation with the launch of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group. This effort, generously funded by the Heising-Simons and McKnight Foundations, will serve as a dedicated hub for analysis of policies related to DLLs and their families.

The guiding objective should be clear from New America’s previous writing on the topic. We’re seeking research-based reforms that can improve access, quality, and alignment in early education programs for DLLs.  While the DLL National Work Group is officially housed at New America, we’ll be working with as many organizations and individuals as we can to improve the conversation around dual language learners.

And goodness knows that conversation is pretty shabby at the moment. Too often, DLLs’ needs are considered solely as afterthoughts in other education policy discussions; for instance: public pre-K programs, new standardized assessments, and school accountability systems are generally designed for monolingual English speakers and later adapted to accommodate DLLs. These students need—and deserve—to have their linguistic and academic development considered in all stages of policy formation and implementation.

New America’s DLL National Work Group will: 1) conduct case studies of districts implementing innovative policies for supporting DLLs; 2) convene meetings of leading DLL advocates, researchers, and policy thinkers; and 3) provide a steady stream of coverage around how education reforms affect language learners in the PreK-3rd years.

Perhaps worse, when DLLs make it into public education discourse, they often get treated as a problem, as students who are difficult to educate. Here at the Work Group, we reject that as a concept and as a substantive claim. That is, we think that it’s the wrong way for educators and policymakers to approach any student, and furthermore, we think it’s flatly false as far as DLLs are concerned.

Finally, DLLs are often treated as though they are a homogeneous group. Yet this group of students is enormously diverse in terms of age, immigration status, linguistic profile, socioeconomic status, and much, much more. This usually means that—when consciously designed at all—the rules that shape young DLLs’ education are often designed for older students, or for students who speak a different home language, or for students who have different needs entirely.

So: there’s a lot to do. In 2015, New America’s DLL National Work Group will: 1) conduct case studies of districts implementing innovative policies for supporting DLLs; 2) convene meetings of leading DLL advocates, researchers, and policy thinkers; and 3) provide a steady stream of coverage around how education reforms affect language learners in the PreK-3rd years.

Our theory of action is simple: we aim to be translators, spotlighters, and conveners.

What do we mean by “translation?” Consider: the research community has advanced our understanding of DLLs’ needs in recent years. But policies haven’t changed much. There are a number of reasons for this, of course, but it’s partly due to ignorance on the part of policymakers. So the Work Group will translate important research related to these students—and the schools that serve them. And we’ll gladly head to the Capitol—and statehouses across the country—to explain what we’re writing.

How about “spotlighting?” While DLL policies haven’t been moving much, that hasn’t stopped some states and districts from building innovative strategies to serve these students better. But those stories aren’t being shared across state or district lines. The Work Group will serve as a policy-minded place for spotlighting promising new efforts to do better by DLLs, beginning with San Antonio’s efforts to support DLLs’ literacy in the PreK–3rd years.

Doing this—translating and spotlighting—well will require an open-door policy on our part. We can’t bring things to policymakers’ attention if they never come to our attention. We can’t share great stories of educators’ new ideas for serving DLLs if we don’t hear them. So we’re also building a convener role into the Work Group.

I should stress that we’re thinking of “convening” in a broad sense. We’re planning to hold events to strategically bring folks together to share their expertise with us and one another. But we’re also going to be thinking of creative ways to build a community of DLL stakeholders that connects more regularly—even when we can’t all be in the same place.

This work couldn’t be more urgent. The federal government will spend $737 million on Title III this year. When NCLB was written, Title III’s budget was intended to be $750 million (though Congress only came up with $665 million). That is, we’ll spend less on DLLs in 2015 than we thought was necessary to serve this population in 2002. This is despite the fact that there are many more DLLs in US schools now than there were in 2003.

The United States can do better, both in terms of finding adequate resources to support DLLs’ success and in terms of using those resources well. In 2015 and beyond, the DLL National Work Group will explore ways that the country can do just that. Stay tuned here at EdCentral for more DLLs coverage and new developments throughout the year!

Click here to read the DLL National Work Group’s launch brief.