Starting Early, Starting Right with Dual Language Learners

We talk a lot about how the the number and percentage of young, multilingual students are growing rapidly in American schools — particularly in the early years. These dual language learners (DLLs) make up nearly one-third of Head Start participants nationwide, and in many communities that ratio is even higher.

Here’s another way of getting at that trend: at least 75 percent of these young students are second- or third-generation immigrants. That is, they are native-born American citizens, but their parents and/or grandparents are immigrants to the United States. And, according to the Urban Institute, children of immigrants “accounted for the entire growth in the number of young children in the United States between 1990 and 2008.” So while not all children of immigrants are DLLs and not all DLLs are children of immigrants, there is considerable overlap — and both populations are growing. 

We also talk a lot about how the best way to support young DLLs is to provide them with multilingual instruction (usually dual-immersion or other forms of bilingual education) that exposes them to English while supporting their ongoing development in their home languages.

Cool? Cool. But there's a problem here. We rarely talk about how the combination of these facts suggests a major problem for reforming education policies to support DLLs.

Consider: expanding this growing group of students' access to multilingual instruction requires hiring more multilingual teachers, and 11.2 percent of U.S. teachers — and 15 percent of early educators (pre-K and K) — speak a non-English language at home. Linguistically diverse children of immigrants are diversifying U.S. student enrollment faster than linguistically diverse adults are diversifying the U.S. teaching force. In other words, immigration skews young. The growth in the number and percentage of multilingual students is moving faster than growth patterns for multilingual teachers. Better instructional programs for DLLs will require developing more — and better — career pathways for linguistically diverse early educators.

Any effort to improve these pathways will occur in the context of broader forces shaping the early education profession. Indeed, the early education space in the United States is disjointed enough to make it difficult to speak of early education as a unitary field. In a National Academy of Sciences/Institute of Medicine report last year, Transforming the Workforce, researchers wrote,

Educators who work with children from birth through age 8 encompass a variety of professional roles, there are a variety of entry points to the field, and individuals may follow a variety of pathways to an ultimate professional role in caring for and educating young children…There are large variations in the quantity, quality, and types of professional learning experiences across professional roles. (358)

This is the background against which policymakers will develop new career pathways for multilingual early educators. And believe it or not, the variance sketched above undersells the complexity involved in reforming the early education workforce. Many early educators, whatever their language profile, come to the field with limited education and low literacy skills. In that sense, efforts to attract, train, and retain more linguistically diverse early educators face a sadly familiar early education workforce challenge: many potential multilingual candidates are recent immigrants who have limited formal education of their own (see Table 27 here).

Research repeatedly suggests that DLLs uniquely benefit from pre-K. Transforming the Workforce suggests that “targeted, intensive language-building opportunities” are key to delivering those gains (286). Those sorts of opportunities are likely to be rare in classrooms with instructors who have limited literacy and language skills of their own. But, again, this is a case where broader workforce challenges frame efforts to better serve DLLs. These students need exposure to rich, meaningful usage of English, but also — and just as importantly — of their home languages (see also p. 5 here). At the very least, then, whichever language teachers are using, they need to speak and read it well.

Unfortunately, according to experts like the University of Massachusetts’ Elizabeth A. Gilbert, a considerable share of American early educators are at risk for “functional illiteracy.” How, these experts ask, can early educators with limited language and literacy skills help DLLs advance their own language development to a degree that will meaningfully close early word gaps?

This challenge is partly a function of what the country spends on early education. The Transforming the Workforce report found that the 2012 mean wage of Head Start educators with a bachelor’s degree was just $18.20/hour. This is far below the mean for elementary school teachers, who make around $32.63/hour.This pay discrepancy contributes to the challenge of raising the bar for early educators (and, by extension, raising the quality of instruction that young children receive). That's why educators working in pre-K or other early education settings who improve their professional skills are always at risk to leave for elementary school classrooms. This challenge holds, of course, no matter which language(s) a teacher can speak. If we want to attract skilled professionals with strong literacy skills to work in early education classrooms, we need to offer salaries that will be competitive with these adults' other career options. 

As such, any effort to reform, improve, expand, or — indeed — transform the early education workforce must grapple with a few key questions:

1) How will the new effort increase the linguistic diversity of the early education workforce to better support DLLs in their home languages and English alike? 

2) How will the new effort raise the quality of language used in early education settings? Will it target a new field of teacher candidates with higher initial language abilities — or seek to improve how current candidates are trained?

3) What funding and incentives will the effort use to attract, train, and retain linguistically diverse teacher candidates?

These are tough challenges, and solving them requires swimming So: while we have good evidence that early education investments are particularly powerful for DLLs and children of immigrants, we’re a long way from making big workforce policy changes that would shift the needle for these students. Small policy tweaks simply won’t do.

To that end, in the coming two years, New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group will conduct a series of projects exploring local, state, and national ideas for diversifying America’s early education workforce. We’ll be exploring existing efforts at building alternative career pathways for multilingual educators, talking to linguistically diverse educators, and suggesting new policies to help address the challenge. Have ideas — or examples of innovative policy solutions? Drop us a line at dllworkgroup@newamerica.org.

(For EdCentral coverage of Transforming the Workforce’s publication in April 2015, click here.)

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”"

Author:

Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the Dual Language Learner National Work Group at New America. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, and school choice.

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