Dual Immersion Programs: Expanding and Endangered

Blog Post
Dec. 10, 2015

Right now, somewhere in Delaware, young elementary school students are greeting each other in Mandarin. In Utah, students are learning subtraction in Portuguese. In a California school, elementary science is being conducted in Vietnamese. In Virginia, a second grade class is using its Spanish skills and Skype to discuss migratory birds with another class in Nicaragua.

Experiences like these are becoming more common as states and localities continue to expand their dual immersion programs in response to research documenting the multiple benefits of bilingualism. But, paradoxically, the popularity of starting these programs isn’t always enough to sustain them in tough budget fights.

First: the popularity of dual immersion programs has grown with strong research support. The benefits of bilingualism are countless and lifelong. Students who speak two languages have a longer attention span and stronger executive functioning. Increasing evidence suggests that bilingualism permanently alters neurological structures and slows down the decline in cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning as we age. Dual immersion programs also offer a host of non-academic benefits to all students. Finally, learning another language can increase tolerance, respect, and appreciation for other people and cultures.

Dual immersion programs, when designed and implemented correctly, are also the most effective way to teach English language learners (ELLs). Multiple studies have confirmed the findings of Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas’s “The Astounding Effectiveness of Dual Language Education for All,” which found that dual immersion programs were most effective at closing the achievement gap between native English speakers and non-native speakers by eighth grade. Building home language proficiency in the early grades while simultaneously learning English can lead to higher academic success, especially when it comes to literacy. In immersion programs, ELLs’ native language is treated as a strength, not a deficit to overcome, which can positively affect student confidence and long-term socioemotional well-being.

Partly in response to these encouraging findings, dual immersion programs are growing all over the country. In Portland, Oregon, where dual immersion programs now reach almost ten percent of the student population, a new study just found that students enrolled in dual immersion outscored their peers in reading by an entire school year in eighth grade. In California, where Proposition 227 eliminated bilingual instruction options for most schools, there is continuing growth in dual immersion programs under a waiver program. Cities like San Francisco are now educating over 5,000 students in Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, and Korean, and demand exceeds the number of seats in the programs. In New York City, council member Mark Levine and Chancellor Carmen Fariña are teaming up to rapidly expand dual immersion programs, with 39 new programs this school year. They hope to eventually provide second-language instruction to all NYC students, and use dual immersion programs as an integration tool.

Yet, despite the nationwide trend toward expansion of dual immersion and the plethora of research showing the cognitive and academic benefits of these programs, districts forced to overcome budget shortfalls tend to look at dual immersion programs as luxuries they can afford to cut.

Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, has seen massive shifts in demographics over the past twenty years. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the state of Virginia’s ELL population is now the ninth-largest in the U.S., with approximately 100,000 ELLs as of 2012-13. Out of this number, about 36,500 live in Fairfax County, making its ELL population the eighth-largest among all US school districts. The linguistic diversity among Fairfax ELLs is also unique: about 20,600 speak Spanish at home, 3,100 speak Arabic, 2,900 speak Vietnamese, 2,800 speak Korean, 2,300 speak Chinese, 1,800 speak Urdu, 1,200 speak Amharic, 1,100 speak Telugu, and about 1,000 speak Farsi or Persian.

In recent years, Fairfax County Public Schools has embraced its growing diversity by advocating for language programs, most notably at the elementary level (when languages are more easily learned). It has 16 dual immersion programs where students spend half of their day learning science and math in one of five target languages: Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, and German. Just this past April, First Lady Michelle Obama visited Great Falls Elementary, one site of two Japanese immersion programs, with the wife of the Japanese Prime Minister, Akie Abe. About four hundred students learn Japanese through math and science instruction, in an immersion program that is over twenty-five years old.

But money is tight in Fairfax County. Even though it has the second-highest per capita household income of any county in the United States, the public school system is facing a $60 million deficit next year. Student enrollment has outpaced funding from both the county and the state, which uses a local composite index (LCI) to determine what percentage of funding the county should provide. Virginia’s LCI determines how much state funding it will distribute to each county’s education system, based solely on the property value, retail sales, and gross income of the county, rather than a county’s unique educational needs. Given the shortfall in state and county funding, a county budget task force has recommended at the top of its list of potential cuts that all dual immersion programs be eliminated entirely from the county next year, in order to save an estimated $1.9 million.

With its growing ethnic and linguistic diversity — and considerable local resources — Fairfax County should be a model for dual immersion education. These programs provide the best education possible for ELLs, can attract upper- and middle- class parents in order to support socioeconomic diversity in the schools, and provide all students the cognitive and socioemotional benefits inherent in the ‘bilingual advantage’. Instead, there is a very real possibility that students will see their access to multilingualism cut short in June 2016. As districts across the country embrace dual immersion to promote academic achievement and equity, it’s an embarrassment that a county as diverse as Fairfax would even consider eliminating them. Dual immersion programs should not be considered luxury programs we can afford to lose, but the ideal way to educate children for the challenges of the twenty-first century.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner 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.”"