You Can’t DO Dual Language to Schools: It Takes Time

It’s 8:30 pm, and I am on the phone with a district leader who I now consider a colleague and dear friend. “Dual language is not something we can do to our schools”.  It’s the final truth stemming from a plan to expand dual language in the district.  It’s a powerful day of honest conversation, productive struggle, and the realization that there is much to do before the program expansion can take place in August 2018.

I am humbled and ever-inspired by the educators here who remain willing fighters in this work (despite a skepticism that comes years of policies that forced them to silence and devalue the use of any language other than English). They believe in the benefits of being bilingual. But more importantly, they know that dual language (DL) education has the ability to close the achievement gap while honoring, tapping into, and elevating students’ cultural identities that create new possibilities for the future.

Yet, even after such an amazing day, I have to sit back and wonder.  No… if I am honest, I sit with great worry and fear.  Because with the vast number of DL programs being implemented across the country at a record-breaking pace, do these educators who are willing to do the work, know what the work is? What’s more, is I have to wonder how many programs are trying to work with critical decisions and policies being created in isolation of that work and without an assessment of the current need? I’m one of the fiercest advocates of DL, and the waves of districts rushing to implement DL programs in under 6 months, has me cautious of the larger consequence of starting programs without enough training, without buy-in and commitment in schools, and without a strategic plan fully developed.  How will neigh Sayers recognize the difference between programs that were set up to struggle from their inception? And if something doesn’t change, will all dual language programs be deemed part of a run-away train that needs to be “fixed” with more policies that further devalue the needs of our learners?

That remains unknown.  But what I do know is that time is needed to comprehensively evaluate needs.  Time is needed to plan for those needs.  Time is needed for all educators to learn and apply the practices that will serve their students’ needs.  And time is needed to create quality programs that reflect the rigorous expectations worthy of our own children.  For budding DL programs, time is not a gift, but a right that lays the structure for accomplishing the many obligations including the cornerstones that follow.

  1. Don’t Do Dual Language to Schools:

Yes, district support and belief is critical.  It’s just not enough to overcome a lack of belief at the school level. District, regional, and state-level leaders must accept that they cannot “lead” dual language programs; building leaders must lead them. Because once everyone goes back to the regular tasks that define their role at the district level or above, the real work is just beginning in the building.  Buildings with principals who will have to observe instruction, teacher teams that will need to engage in data-driven conversations across both languages, staff that will have to schedule students and services in both program languages, community members with fears of how to help their children in a language they don’t speak.  Even more is that this challenging work will happen in a building that will need to redefine how individual and school culture are structured for equity in order to achieve success. Districts cannot take on these day-to-day realities and abandon the full scope of their responsibilities. However, they can take the time to engage potential DL sites through shared ownership, visioning, ongoing collaboration, and evaluation/appreciation of each site’s context.  Without it, fidelity and success will be hard to achieve once the challenging work of DL is seen as something that was “done” to schools as part of a mandate or top-down act of coercion.

  1. There is no such thing as a strategic plan without a needs assessment:

Dual language gets its strength, in part, from its intentional focus on justice, equity, identity, and respect.  Yet, I’m saddened by the number of students who find themselves in classrooms that are dictated by a curriculum and a set practices that really don’t have space for the actual kids. Time is needed to analyze language and achievement data, to learn about the unique identities and needs of student in the program, and to create communication loops between all stakeholders who can provide school context or potential challenges that may impact program decisions. Having this depth of knowledge through the analysis of multiple data sources (including staff and community feedback), allows for meaningful and strategic planning with goals and resources that support schools’ ability to stay focus on those actions that will lead to greater student success. Without this understanding DL buildings are likely to need fit their students into a box that wasn’t necessarily designed for them.

III. Invest in capacity if you REALLY want to close the achievement gap:

Ideally, no less than 1 full academic year, is needed to fully assess, plan, engage, and prepare a school to implement an effective dual language program.  And preparation includes a comprehensive professional development plan that builds the skills necessary to bring the program to life for their students. I say comprehensive in that every stakeholder from district leaders, to office staff, and family & community stakeholders should be included. I also mean that there should be learning before the first day of school so that people have time to process and reflect on new learning.

Additional support should also be layered throughout the year to support educators when they are practicing these ideas in the classroom.  The first time a principal goes in to observe a lesson in a language they don’t speak – that’s when they need coaching and support.  The first time a teacher tries a new metalinguistic strategy and it doesn’t go as planned – that’s when they need ongoing coaching and support.  By affirming and encouraging on-going professional learning, educators can move beyond the uncertainty of these new practices and expectations. And they will need this time to learn how to effectively and consistently make decisions that further create the conditions of successes that can close the achievement gap.

Taking the time to justly plan for the “big rocks” like these, can drastically improve the quality and sustainability of a dual language program. Great dual language programs live the mission of advocacy, of moving beyond the current realities of low achievement, and of providing a pathway back to students’ cultural identities and brilliance.  The energy of these schools’ is contagious with a buzz of language and curiosity about the windows and mirrors to the world that were made possible by these two linguistic systems.  They are places that make me stop to think, “I hope my children to know the immense power of that experience”.  On the other hand, reacting to the pressure to open a program now, rarely yields brilliance – usually just growing disparity in the size of the achievement gap, and an inevitable, but false counter-narrative that claims that dual language doesn’t work.  So which type of dual language program are you building?  One that is set up for success?  Or not?