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dual-language education
Luis Antonio Hernandez reads a story about Cinco de Mayo to students in Christy Crotwell’s first grade class at Morton Elementary School. He reads each page twice — once in English, once in Spanish. Credit: Ben Stocking

Nearly 12 million children in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home. Across the country, public schools play a critical role in integrating them into American society and setting them up for long-term success: by equipping them with English mastery.

As public leaders seek to educate these students equitably, a lively debate has ensued over how to best instruct them.

Much of the disagreement centers on whether to fully immerse students in English in school or to supplement English with instruction in their home language. Forward-thinking reform for English learners increasingly goes hand-in-hand with a push for the latter approach: expanding bilingual education.

Related: Dual-language programs benefit disadvantaged black kids, too, experts say

States and communities are embracing and re-branding a bilingual strategy in promising ways with policymakers showing particular interest in the dual immersion model. In this model, English learners and native English speakers integrate and learn core content in two languages. New York City, Portland, Houston and Washington D.C. have expanded dual immersion offerings in recent years, and districts across California are now poised to take advantage of the model after voters overturned the state’s bilingual education ban late last year.

Valuing bilingualism in the abstract is great. But half-baked, poorly executed bilingual programs will be no better for kids than half-baked, poorly executed English-only programs.

Leaders behind these initiatives draw on research that suggests, somewhat counterintuitively, that bilingual education models can boost English learners’ academic performance in English over time. Two recent studies in particular, one in San Francisco and the other in Portland, are the more methodologically rigorous of the frequently cited research on this question. Together, they are generally used to support the claim that learning transfers across languages and that bilingualism fosters unique cognitive, socioemotional and intercultural advantages.

But, as with most things in American education — indeed, in American politics — great policy ideas are only as good as they can be if implemented where the kids are: at the local level. Bilingual education is no different.

Related: English one day, Español the next: Dual-language learning expands with a South Bronx school as a model

As with any instructional model, bilingual instruction’s promised effects hinge on high-caliber design and faithful delivery. To close English achievement gaps, quality instruction — regardless of languages used — will likely matter most. It’s a point that Princeton University researchers underscore convincingly in a recent report. “As a whole, the research evidence is still inconclusive regarding the overall effectiveness of different forms of instruction for English learners,” write authors Lisa Barrow and Lisa Markman-Pithers. “If districts can’t provide a high-quality bilingual program, schools may be better off working to increase classroom quality generally,” they add.

Valuing bilingualism in the abstract is great. But half-baked, poorly executed bilingual programs will be no better for kids than half-baked, poorly executed English-only programs. And here’s the sticking point: bilingual education may be uniquely complex to implement well, especially in districts starting from scratch. Expansion is hard, complex work that requires thoughtful program design, bilingual curricular materials and a pool of qualified bilingual teachers, who are already in short supply.

Given the scarcity of multilingual teachers and the critical expertise needed to launch quality bilingual programming, it’s simply a fact that expanding and sustaining quality bilingual models will be constrained, even under the best of circumstances. If Spanish-speaking teachers are difficult to find in California, what are the prospects for expanding bilingual instruction in, say, North Dakota? Beyond Spanish, what are the prospects to roll out instruction in, for example, Somali?

To have a real chance of success, any bilingual education expansion will require making several locally-calculated policy decisions based on differing levels of feasibility. In particular, a bilingual educational strategy is a better fit for bilingual communities rather than multilingual ones.

Related: Should an urban school serving black and Hispanic students look like schools for affluent white kids?

For example, the expansion of dual language programs makes more sense in a district or school with a predominance of two high-incidence languages (like Spanish and English). In contrast, those with English learners speaking dozens of less common languages would likely be better off systematically increasing the quality of their English-only models.

Quality English-only models will need to tailor services to best support diverse learners at different levels of English. In some districts, this could mean converting pull-out ESL models into “push-in” co-teaching ones to better integrate language support with mainstream learning. In others, it could mean creating a special English language block in the school day that gets all students talking — English learners and native English speakers — through structured, oral language activities. In others, it could mean expanding access to early English exposure through increased early childhood education programming. In others, it could mean creating a newcomer program targeted for students with limited or interrupted formal education.

The point is that there is not one, well-lit checklist on how to meet English learners’ needs. Rather, local variances in system capacity, resources and student demographics make different reforms more or less urgent — and plausible — in some places than in others.

To be sure, where a district can reasonably execute bilingual and English-only models with equal efficacy, there are many merits to buckling down and pursuing bilingual education as goal in and of itself. It can give biliterate Americans an economic advantage in multilingual job markets. It can shape a culture where home languages are valued as assets. The dual-immersion model can help integrate schools with wealthier, native English-speaking families who want to raise their children bilingually. And certainly, if we are going to use it to grow monolingual English speakers’ bilingualism, than we should at least equally invest in the emerging bilingualism of English learners, as The Hechinger Report has pointed out previously.

But, ultimately, policy leaders across the country need a diversified strategy for English learners that takes a range of local capacities into account. Well-designed, well-implemented bilingual education is exciting but has limits as a universal prescription. Pursuing equity for the most English learners across the country means that high-quality bilingual education must be an essential, but not exclusive, tool in the English learner reform toolbox.

Janie Carnock is a policy analyst with the education policy program at New America. She is a member of the Dual Language Learner National Work Group.

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