Interview: What the Proposed Head Start Perfomance Standards Could Mean for DLLs

Blog Post
Oct. 19, 2015
In June, my colleague Abbie Lieberman wrote about five big proposed changes in the new Head Start Performance Standards, including: a ban on student expulsions and moving to a full-day, full-year program. But those weren’t the only big changes — the new performance standards also included multiple provisions for implementing research-based practices to better support DLLs’ home language development and English language acquisition. A few of the more notable provisions were:
  • Programs serving DLLs “must recognize bilingualism as a strength and implement research-based teaching practices that support its development.”
  • Programs serving infant and toddler DLLs must focus on teaching practices and teacher-child interactions that emphasize the development of the home language and provide exposure to English. Programs serving three-and-four-year-olds dual language learners should use teaching practices focused on both English language acquisition and continued development of students’ home languages.
  • Programs must “assess dual language learners in the language or languages that best capture their skill level and to assess their language development in both their home language and English, utilizing an interpreter as needed.”

To learn more about how these proposed changes could impact DLLs enrolled in Head Start, I interviewed DLL early education experts Dr. Lisa Lopez and Dr. Marlene Zepeda.

How are these new draft HS performance standards different than what’s currently in place?

Lopez: What really stood out to me was that in the old framework the only real reference to thinking about DLLs was that extra [English Language Development] ELD domain. Whereas in the new standards, I think they do a nice job of incorporating thinking about DLLs within each of the domains. The new standards include a more comprehensive understanding of the fact that DLLs develop similarly to other children, as opposed to thinking “Oh, if you have a DLL you have to do this extra stuff.” It’s not really extra, it’s about meeting the needs of a child.

Zepeda: When we saw the proposed language we were so thrilled. The [proposed language] is significant in that it acknowledges a more strength based approach in a very explicit way. I have been in this field for a long time and I’ll tell you the deficit perspective on children of color in the US has been so strong for so long, but this is a beginning. From a policy perspective, saying bilingualism is an asset and that we need to nurture that in our programs with these children is really bold.  

I’m really pleased they differentiated between the zero to three [year-olds] and four-to-five [year-olds] because the language trajectories of zero to three [year-olds] is [something] we don’t know as much about. The proposed language for the three-year-olds is wonderful in that they’re basically saying you have to support the child’s home language within this period of time. [This] opens up a window for us to start talking about language development in general for zero-to-three year olds. Kids need to have a strong foundation in their home language for social emotional and cognitive reasons. A strong foundation in the home language can [help children] transfer ideas to a second language more easily. When many of us who advocate for this saw this, we were thrilled. We can utilize this. If these regulations are officially adopted they can be used to leverage and provide justification for why we need to support the home language in various programs across the nation.

Can we talk about some of the specific components of the draft Head Start Performance Standards and their feasibility? Let’s start with “programs must recognize bilingualism as a strength and implement research-based teaching practices.”

Lopez: Research has shown the importance of the child’s home language in learning English. It’s absolutely ok for DLLs to show these [school readiness] skills in their home language. And DLLs have a benefit with regard to cognition and approaches to learning because of their need to multi-task across languages. They did a nice job of aligning what’s out there in the literature and these standards.

All centers should be using research based teaching practices regardless of having DLLs or not. That needs to be a broader statement across the board. Some HS programs do that better than others. We’ve moved a long way from babysitting and developing socialization skills to being a kindergarten readiness program. More professional development (PD) is needed. We have a manuscript we’re about to send out that shows that if teachers get the right type of PD you can really see a difference in children’s development of school readiness skills. Even if teachers don’t speak the home language they can be effective with DLLs. There are other strategies that you can use to be able to meet the needs of all the children.

And what about the requirement for “programs to assess dual language learners in the language or languages that best capture their skill level and to assess their language development in both their home language and English” — how would you advise a program to meet this requirement?

Lopez: I am happy to see this as a requirement in this framework. Understanding what the child is able to do in their home language is key to understanding if the child has that ability or not. It’s also important for determining if the child has developmental delays. There are ways to do it — you can give parents a survey to ask if the child can do something—as some programs are already doing. The CDI Inventory for language is available in lots of different languages and there are other assessments offered in other languages (and a ton of assessments in Spanish). If that assessment is not available in another language, that doesn’t preclude you from doing the assessment. There are non-verbal assessments and others that are still valid and reliable.

Zepeda: Number one it’s very important to assess in L1 because we know that children will develop (especially if they are getting input in both languages) some comprehension and vocabulary in one language and some in the other. Without knowing what they can do across both languages we may be apt to misidentify the child and we know this has happened repeatedly. For moral and equity reasons we need to figure out how to assess in the L1. With four- and five-year-olds we have assessments, but many of them have not been normed on bilingual children. So we clearly have limitations with assessment but that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and say we aren’t going to do this.

Programs have to recognize that they have to try to assess in L1. They should look for people that can translate, look for help from the families, and maybe do parental reports of children’s language, behavior and skills to get a more holistic sense of what’s going on in the home language. The first step is to recognize it’s important to do that, to the extent they can do it, because it will be a more equitable assessment of what’s going on. Programs can also use community resources and parental reports. Parents are pretty good reporters of children’s behavior. Part of the challenge in this arena is that the kinds of strategies and techniques that we’re suggesting are seen as add-ons, more burdensome work for the programs and so they will not engage in that. A lot of teachers would like to do these activities, but they need the support of their programs (which often means resources). These challenges are real, but do not absolve us from the responsibility of providing equitable learning opportunities for children whose home language is not English.

What have you seen across different Head Start programs in terms of the strategies and practices they have in place to support DLLs and their families?

Lopez: I think the best strategy is having open lines of communication with the families of DLLs and showing them that they’re respected. That includes welcoming families, even if you’re struggling in giving them some words in their home language, with open communication and telling them you’re there to help them and their child. It’s also important to ask families for some keywords in their home language or what their traditions are and then incorporate them into the curriculum. These strategies help make sure the family is respected and that they feel their culture is respected.

Zepeda: It depends on the program you’re looking at. We talk about the one parent, one language strategy and I’ve seen that in classrooms where one teacher will only use one language (1 teacher/1 language) and this has been very successful. Even second and third generation Latinos are thrilled that their children are learning Spanish. That’s a model I’ve seen more locally in Los Angeles.

I have also seen other models like NJ Abbott Preschool where they alternate classrooms (one day in English and one day in partner language). But these models depend on teacher characteristics. The one teacher/one language model requires that the teacher who will use the home language (L1) really know their L1 really well and function in their L1 all the time and are good language models for their L1. Teachers have to be very conscious of being good models for these children. You as a teacher have to be in your role [and use] academic Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, etc.

Let’s talk about the Head Start workforce — these draft performance standards place some emphasis on the need for teachers to have competency in the child’s home language — how many teachers and aides are bilingual and what training do they receive to help support home language instruction and administer assessments?

Lopez: There’s a rule that if a certain percentage of children your classroom that speaks a certain language there has to be a teacher that speaks that language. Head Start programs meet this need usually with an aide. The workforce is out there - it’s just tapping into that workforce that needs to happen. You don’t need to have both teachers being bilingual, you only need one of them. I’ve seen programs be created as well where they share teachers and students will flip between classrooms. There are creative ways for there to be enough bilingual assistants in a center without everyone having to be bilingual.

Zepeda: There is an interaction effect between the characteristics of the teaching force and the English-only policies of the state. There are about 31–32 English-only states and so teachers, even though they may have the language capability, will emphasize English over the home language because [children] are going into English-only kindergarten programs. Some Head Start programs use home languages in the beginning of the year to get kids acclimated [then] gradually reduce home language [usage] and introduce [more] English. I’ve worked with Spanish speaking teachers who won’t speak in Spanish to the children because they want to prepare them for kindergarten. Head Start may have work force potential, but that interacts with the policies of the program and with the policies of the state.

It’s a moral dilemma. We know we have to support their home language, but then parents come back to us and will complain that their child didn’t pick up enough English to be functioning well in kindergarten. Parents are very gung-ho for their children to learn English and perform well in school. There’s a lot of pressure to speak in English. We need to have a counter-narrative for that, which is focused the benefits of bilingualism and the length of time it takes to achieve it. But Head Start taking this position and being explicit about zero to three, preschool and [native language] assessments sends a clear message to the workforce and programs that this is what we want and is in best interest of children. Locally, they have to figure out how to begin to implement this within their own context.

What guidance/resources are available to programs to help them implement the practices emphasized in the Head Start Performance Standards?

Lopez: Head Start has technical and training assistance by region. Each site can request training from these sources. The local Head Start that I collaborate with has training and professional development training. I’ve done a number of cultural competence trainings for Head Start in my area and even as far away as Iowa on working with DLLs. As long as Head Start is interested and sees that it’s something they need to address, [programs] will seek it out. I think more Head Start programs will seek out assistance due to the new regulations.

Other resources include:

What can we do to ensure that the performance standards related to DLLs are not weakened?

Lopez: I am hoping they are approved the way they are. There are some areas where DLLs were not addressed. I would have liked to see the English Language Development (ELD) domain still in [the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework] because a lot of places don’t know how to help children develop English. I’m not sure how they’re going to [ensure] that these standards be met. [Maybe] through federal policy reviews by someone well-versed in these methods so that they aren’t watered down by programs? Some programs embrace the different languages and others don’t want any languages other than English spoken. This framework goes against the English-only ideologies, so what will Head Start do to enforce these practices?

Zepeda: From an advocacy standpoint, the [submitted] comments should make a difference. I think grassroots advocacy for these ideas can make a difference. My concern is that there are other things within the performance standards that are taking more attention (like suspension, full-day) and the DLL piece is just sort of there, but nobody’s really highlighting that. What are the internal politics within Head Start? And how are they seeing their support within the administration and within Congress? That’s a tough question to answer. There’s a lot of moving parts here.

If it comes to pass, it has very important implications for practice and the equitable treatment of DLLs.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”