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As More States Adopt Bilingualism Seal, Equity Concerns Arise

When the seal of biliteracy launched in California nearly a decade ago, its advocates envisioned an honor that would recognize English-language learners and native English speakers alike.

But the way the seal is promoted and implemented in schools may be shutting English-learners and low-income students out of the process, a new study from Georgetown University argues.

Interest in the sealwhich is affixed to high school diplomas or transcripts as official proof that students can speak, read, and write in more than one languagehas surged across the country, with nearly 40 states and the District of Columbia now offering special recognition for graduates who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages.

Some schools, especially whiter, wealthier schools with fewer English-learners, are more likely to offer the recognition than others, the Georgetown study, "Recognizing Whose Bilingualism? A Critical Policy Analysis of the Seal of Biliteracy," found.

While the researchers discovered that demographic information on students earning the seal is not tracked in many states, the work suggests that English-learners and students from low-income families may be on the wrong side of an equity gap, with their opportunities to demonstrate their bilingualism restricted by their circumstances.

The researchers also determined that, even when they have the opportunity, English-learners often face more hurdles to earn the honor: the criteria for earning the seal holds English-learners to higher standards in their second language (English) than native English-speakers are held to in theirs.

Education Week wrote about the then-unpublished study in January for an essay, "The Truth About Bilingualism: It's Only for Some Students," which was part of Education Week's "10 Big Ideas" special report. In the essay, several scholars posit that most statewide seal of biliteracy programs have neglected opportunities to support bilingualism for English-learners and English-fluent students who speak another language at home. 

To address the inequities that have emerged in programs, the authors of the Georgetown study offer three recommendations for educators and policymakers:

  • Avoid viewing the seal as a program solely for promoting foreign- or world-language education.
  • Create more pathways for non-native English-speaking students to demonstrate their proficiency in their home languages.
  • Administer the seal of biliteracy at the state level to: ensure all students have access to the seal; provide equitable funding; and monitor which students are earning the seal.

In light of their findings and recommendations, the researchers encourage educators and lawmakers to examine why they're offering the seal of biliteracy and which students have access to the special honor.

"If the seal becomes simply one more achievement in the already impressive portfolio of students whose elective multilingualism has always been recognized as an asset, it will forfeit its equity potential," the authors wrote.

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