Why Doesn’t English Language Learning Have The Same Cachet As Pre-K?

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Once, during my sophomore year in college, a French-speaking classmate told me that he thought it was odd that my Spanish sounded so beautiful—since it sounded so ugly coming from the American Hispanics he knew. It wasn’t true in any objective sense, of course. I’d taken Spanish classes for seven years at that point, but my accent (and vocabulary, grammar, etc.) was more function than form. My Spanish was not more beautiful.

But I am white. And I carry Spanish along as a second language, as an ornament that was one of the best parts of my liberal arts education. My relationship to Spanish has little to do with native speakers’ relationship to the language.

I share this vignette because it provides a useful prism for thinking about how we view language in American education. The politics of this space are extraordinarily difficult to predict. It’s something I think about daily, since my work often intersects with two advocacy crowds that currently enjoy very different political fortunes: 1) those backing expanded pre-K, and 2) those supporting English language learners (ELL).

Over the last five years—and especially in the last two—pre-K advocates have built broad awareness of their cause. They have researchers, business leaders, law enforcement, military leaders and teachers unions pushing a unified message. The payoff: early education has featured in President Obama’s last two State of the Union addresses, and Congress recently introduced a bipartisan bill to expand pre-K access nationwide. In his budget proposal yesterday, Obama proposed multiple new early education investments.

ELLs haven’t fared nearly as well. It’s not that they have no advocates. There are many: the National Council of La Raza, numerous researchers, think tanks and other education groups are all pushing on ELL-related issues. But there’s nothing resembling a unified effort. And that’s why pre-K is a hot political issue—and ELLs haven’t had a significant political win since 2001, when No Child Left Behind required states to collect their achievement data.

This awareness gap is odd, since the ELL community’s message sounds a lot like the pre-K community’s. They talk about bilingualism as an asset for our national security and economic competitiveness. Just like pre-K advocates, they warn about the importance of investing in ELL children now … or prisons later. There’s no question that a failure to support these children now will have dire long-term consequences. For example, Latino ELLs (who make up at least 80 percent of the nation’s ELLs) who are still struggling with English in high school have only a 40 percent chance of graduating on time. That’s half the national high school graduation rate. Here’s the real kicker: three out of every four crimes in the United States are committed by high school dropouts.

Both ELL and early education advocates speak in terms of equity, civil rights, public investments in human capital, and national economic growth. Why is pre-K such an easier sell?

In part, it’s because pre-K benefits from universality. Every parent understands the importance of the early years of a child’s life. Americans love their kids—and they generally love policies that are good for children-in-general. It’s easy to imagine how universal pre-K programs benefit everyone, from students to families to schools to businesses.

The subset of parents who understand the challenges of learning English on the fly while at school is much smaller. Right now, we’re already talking about one in ten American students, and their numbers are growing rapidly (by over 50 percent from 1995 to 2005). Sure, many American parents recognize bilingualism as an advantage for their children, but most native English-speaking families think of it as a high school enrichment project.

Of course, that view is scarcely relevant to families speaking a language other than English at home. For them, language acquisition is not an enrichment activity—it’s essentially important. These families generally understand bilingualism’s value, but they also know that English is the language of power in the United States. In other words, their priorities bear little resemblance to those of many native English-speaking families.

Think about it: world language programs (usually in high school) that give native English-speaking students access to other languages are wildly popular. As for bilingual education programs that aim to preserve ELLs’ native tongue while helping them learn English? Well, relatively recent referenda in California (1998), Arizona (2000) and Massachusetts (2002) made them illegal.

While it might seem wise to replace bilingual education with English-only instruction for ELLs, research suggests that that’s not a good idea. Here’s what we know about what these students need: supporting ELLs in their native language leads to faster and better English acquisition. It also leads to better academic outcomes over time. In New York City, ELLs that complete bilingual education programs are actually more likely to graduate high school than non-ELL students. Bilingual education generally outperforms English-only programs on the metrics that count.

Even better, recent research is giving ELLs’ advocates a useful way to bridge the gap between native and non-native English speaking students’ interests. It shows that “two-way, dual-immersion” programs that bring native and non-native English language learners together in a structured, two-language environment to be especially effective. These programs support bilingualism for all students and actually help ELLs acquire English faster than English-only programs.

And since dual-immersion programs fill the needs of ELLs and non-ELLs alike, they make for better politics than narrowly-targeted language programs. I know whereof I speak: my family is waiting with bated breath for the results of Washington, D.C.’s public pre-K lottery at the end of this month. When we ranked our choices for our native English-speaking toddler, we loaded the list with every dual-immersion program we could find.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

“Stock Photo: Asian Boy Thinking In Classroom.” on Shutterstock.

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