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My elementary school had a separate classroom for students who were non-native speakers of English. As far as my friends and I were concerned, it was another planet. Though it was located immediately next door to my third grade classroom, we knew almost nothing about the students or their teachers. Even at the tiny school (approximately eight classrooms across K–3), the room’s inhabitants were somehow invisible to us. Insofar as we acknowledged the arrangement at all, it was in the racist jokes of children just old enough to recognize the existence of ethnic differences but not yet old enough to know their actual, appropriate meaning.

In my town — largely split between black and white — these kids floated in and out with the seasons. They lived by a schedule that did not fit the academic calendar. They were there, but were scarcely present to those of us in the rest of the school. We had the run of the place. They had one classroom. This has been the case in schools all over the country for many years–both before and since. And it has had serious consequences: achievement gaps between language learning students and native English speakers are wide and growing. That has major implications for the U.S. economy — since the number and percentage of DLLs in American schools is rising steadily, these students stand to make up a large percentage of our future labor force. That is, they will be such a large part of our tax base that the United States really cannot afford to educate them poorly.

In a new report published this week at New America, Chaos for Dual Language Learners, we found enormous variety in how states are serving these students – and came up with a few ideas about how to make the dual language learning system less uneven, and more effective.

One reason why the system has become so chaotic: Language education is a devilish challenge, and raises many a complicated question. How much support should schools provide in students’ home language(s)? How much should they prioritize the acquisition of English? How can they ensure that language isn’t a barrier to students’ academic development?

The related pedagogical questions are particularly tough (and heavily contested), especially in the early years. Through the first eight to ten years of these dual language learners’ (DLLs) lives, they are often beginning the process of learning English even as they work to complete the process of fully developing their home language.

Through the first eight to ten years of these dual language learners’ (DLLs) lives, they are often beginning the process of learning English even as they work to complete the process of fully developing their home language.

So, how should schools serve these students during the crucial period when they’re developing their bilingualism? In an ideal world, effective translation would be widely available to all students. Or hey, even in our own imperfect world, our schools could better resemble those in many other countries, where schools are (at least) bilingual institutions. There is strong research suggesting that DLLs who receive instruction in their home language do better in schooland actually learn English faster compared with DLLs who are immersed wholesale in English. What’s more, home language supports at school also help DLLs become fully bilingual — which carries a host of cognitive and economic benefits.

Here’s the problem: American public schools are overwhelmingly designed to instruct solely in English. So schools need to provide language learners with programs that help them learn that language while (hopefully) also helping them access challenging academic content. Sometimes this means bilingual education, but often it’s some form of structured English-as-a-second-language program.

The fights over the specifics of these programs obscure a related problem: since these language supports frequently take DLLs away from core academic instruction for large parts of the day, they make it difficult for these students to keep pace linguistically and academically. States need a way of determining when young DLLs are ready to leave these programs and join their monolingual English-speaking peers. The process of monitoring these students’ progress towards English proficiency is known as “reclassification.” That is, states set rules to define when a DLL is “reclassified” as a former DLL and incorporated fully into the education system.

These rules may be arcane and wonky, but they can have an enormous impact on how these students experience American public education. In part, this is because state reclassification rules are all over the place.

This policy diversity doesn’t appear to be serving these students particularly well. To be blunt, it mostly means that states have managed to make a number of different, and sometimes opposing, errors when it comes to their DLLs. California’s reclassification rules (and some of their language support programs) are so badly designed that a significant percentage of DLLs go through their entire PreK-12 schooling without being reclassified into mainstream education. In Illinois and other states, many DLLs are reclassified after less than a year of language supports; research suggests that it takes at least four years to acquire full, academic-grade English proficiency. Students who are reclassified before they’re ready face a brutal cycle: they usually struggle mightily with the language demands of mainstream courses, which means that they fall further behind, which undermines their language development and their motivation at school.

While the current picture of these rules is chaotic, our report notes reasons for hope. Several groups of states are cooperating to develop common assessments for testing DLLs’ English language proficiency. They’re also aiming to bringing their rules closer together so that students who move to a new state do not suddenly find that the goalposts for entering mainstream classes are suddenly much more distant than in their old home.

But this is simply a first step. It remains unclear how committed states are to developing common reclassification standards. And solving this puzzle would not address our schools’ broader challenge of supporting DLLs’ home language development. But just like standardized math and reading assessments influence how teachers instruct throughout the year, clear, fair, and research-based reclassification standards can help put pressure on ineffective parts of states’ approaches to supporting these students.

In other words: changes to reclassification policy aren’t as powerful as, say, a national effort to train a large corps of bilingual teachers. But in the meantime, it’s one available way to make a meaningful difference. Given our aging population and falling birth rates, the United States can scarcely afford to keep subjecting its young dual language learners to a chaotic education. It’s time to stop hiding — and ignoring — these students down a distant hallway in our public education debates.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Wonk.