If there’s any unifying thread in the story of the last several years of education debates, it’s that policy changes are education reform’s first, not final, steps. Given American education’s unwieldy, chaotic governing institutions, legal and regulatory changes are almost always susceptible to being watered down—or even reversed. For instance, while it seemed like a settled victory when the Common Core State Standards were adopted by 46 states, recent  implementation (and political) challenges have sapped that effort of much of its substance. Policy design and policy implementation require different skill sets (as does political mobilization). But they all matter, and the education policy community needs to think much harder about what  its proposals will look like in the classroom.

Efforts to reform how U.S. schools educate dual language learners (DLLs) often run into this challenge. Many advocates concerned with DLLs’ linguistic and academic development have focused their attention on getting lawmakers to enshrine the importance of native language instruction for these students.

New research, published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, spotlights the issue. The study explores a “two-way dual language” program in a first grade Texas classroom. This model enrolls DLLs and native English-speaking students together in a classroom where instruction is delivered both in English and in the DLLs’ home language. Ideally, the model supports bilingualism for both groups of students.

How did it go? Authors Leah Durán and Deborah Palmer found that the program created a considerably different educational experience for students than models that instruct only in English. Dual language learners in the class expressed themselves in both Spanish and English—and found both languages celebrated by their peers and teachers.

Two-way dual language programs enroll DLLs and native English-speaking students together in a classroom where instruction is delivered both in English and in the DLLs’ home language. Ideally, the model supports bilingualism for both groups of students.

As is often the case, DLLs in the class frequently used “code-switching,” transitioning from English to Spanish (and back) in mid-sentence. Teachers welcomed this form of expression, which the authors cheered as proof that it “was a normalized and non-stigmatized classroom practice.” Indeed, teachers themselves swapped back and forth between languages in a conscious, intentional way, regardless of whether it was officially an “English Day” or “Spanish Day.” This squares with other research suggesting that young DLLs who code-switch are actually demonstrating critical growth in their language competencies. Native English-speaking students followed their teachers’ lead and expressed enthusiasm for DLLs’ home language; one admired a DLL peer as “a Spanish expert.”

However, the researchers noted that the program was not quite fully balanced: “[A]t no point did we observe an English-dominant speaker initiate or respond in Spanish during the unstructured pair time.” In other words, while DLLs were being supported in both languages, English’s linguistic dominance (in the United States) was still creeping into the classroom. That is, it wasn’t clear that the program was living up to its “two-way” billing.

As far as DLLs are concerned, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Except that the authors note that two-way dual language programs can upend traditional monolingual expectations in American schools for all students. If these programs are ineffective at supporting bilingualism for native English speakers, it robs them of one of the selling points that makes them “a popular and politically feasible alternative to transitional bilingual education.” If these programs do not live up to their two-way bilingual promise, it will be harder to keep them in place. Two-way language programs are sometimes an easier sell with the public because they purport to make bilingualism accessible to all students—not just DLLs.

That is, even in this relatively faithful, high-quality implementation of the two-way dual language model, there are considerable areas for improvement (For instance, the authors suggested that teachers consider restructuring the day to make it more likely that native English speakers practice their Spanish). As hard as it can be to get states, districts, and schools to change policies around DLLs’ native language use, it’s even more challenging to make sure that these policies are implemented effectively. This research suggests that policy reforms are only one of several critical levers for supporting these students.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams