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Dual-Language Learning: How Schools Can Invest in Cultural and Linguistic Diversity


There's a strong and growing demand for schools to provide instruction across grade levels and subjects that leads to students who are bilingual and biliterate. In this fourth installment on the growth in dual-language learning, one expert explores how his district recruits and retains teachers who are fluent in two or more languages. 

 Education Week has talked with several regional and national dual-language education experts, who offer insights into what it takes to launch dual-language programs and strengthen existing ones. If you haven't already, read the first three installments of our reporting on dual-language learning. There's our explainer on dual-language learning, our chat about how to start planning for new dual-language programs, and an interview with an expert talking about how all students benefit from dual-language learning.

Now, you can dive into our conversation with Michael Bacon, the director of dual-language education in the Portland, Ore., schools. The district offers dual-language programs in five languages—Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese—and is considering adding Arabic.

Bacon, the president of the dual-language immersion special interest group of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages, has more than two decades of teaching and administrative experience in language immersion education.

Education Week edited the questions and responses for clarity and length.

Question: You say that school districts must know why they want to offer dual-language programs, with the emphasis on the why. What is the why in Portland?

Answer: We've been in dual-language immersion well over 30 years. Initially, the why was an innovative program that also helped a local neighborhood school gain enrollment and not be shut down for declining enrollment, and attract families in. But that's certainly not our why now.

We've expanded significantly since we really established that dual-language immersion is a game-changer, especially for our emergent bilingual children whose first language is not English. From an equity lens, it's about valuing those kids' linguistic and cultural assets, and leveraging them for their academic [benefits], but also just in terms of their own self-identity, and who they are, and being proud of that. It helps flip the table, flips the table that is out in the general society that is very dominated by English and monolingualism.

That's definitely what our why is. We changed ours from being the classic three goals of bilingualism, academic achievement, and cross-cultural communication to really, for us, it's about the closing the opportunity gap.

Immersion is not a cure-all ... just because you have the model, it means that it's an automatic win. It has to be done with integrity and it has to be done with quality, and I think that's what districts have to commit to.

Politically right now, there's lots of sensitivity, on the national level, around immigration and all kinds of things. I'm excited that we're really trying to work to close the opportunity gap and invest in the linguistic and cultural diversity that's in our community. That to me is the greatest investment we're trying to make, in building strength in our community, strength in our world.

Q: How do you recruit and retain teachers of some of the less commonly taught languages?

A: We get real focused on recruitment, when actually it's sort of a leaky bucket. One out of three teachers leave the profession in two years. So, if you don't work on retention, then the recruitment is not enough.

Believe it or not, Spanish is our hardest one. You would think that would be the easiest, but it's high, high demand. Anybody who speaks Spanish and has a teaching license is a very coveted employee. So, Spanish is what I think a lot of places struggles with, although the less commonly taught languages do provide some challenges.

There are people right under our noses who are working as paraprofessionals or educational assistants who actually are highly educated, at least have a bachelor's degree, are highly bilingual ... We developed a program to break down those barriers and bring those folks in on a restricted license. They have a regular teacher salary, they have access to the professional-development fund, and we pay for all the entrance fees, the application fees, the testing fees, to break down that financial barrier to get them there.

We're trying to grow our own, and if their families are here, and this is where they live, they're most likely to stay long-term.

Photo Credit: Haitian Creole books on display at the Toussaint L'Ouverture Academy, a Haitian Creole dual-language program at Mattahunt Elementary school in Boston. -Gretchen Ertl for Education Week

Related Reading on Dual-Language Learning

Dual-Language Learning: 6 Key Insights for Schools

Will Every State Offer Special Recognition for Its Bilingual Graduates?

Dual-Language Programs Boost Student Achievement in English, Study Finds


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