Multilingualism and American Schools: Sensible Policies, Senseless Politics

Hello, and thanks for inviting me to be with you today! It’s not just good to be here: it’s a relief. See, I live in Washington, D.C., and make my living trying to get Congress to do things — to change policies. Yeah, I know, I know. Hilarious — and doomed. What's more, I'm specifically working to get policies changed to benefit multilingual students. I don’t know how carefully any of you follow national politics, but I’ll bet most of you know that congressional gridlock has largely made “changing policies” a thing of the past. This adds another layer of frustration to the always-difficult work of advocating for underserved children.

So: I realized long ago that I could only keep doing this work if I built in periodic opportunities to get out into schools, talk to educators, and see students who need us to keep pushing the powerful and privileged back in DC. There’s an old, semi-famous quote from German political philosopher Max Weber: “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It requires passion as well as perspective.” That is, the hard work of arguing and maneuvering and persuading and all the other tedious parts of politics...all of that is about perspective, about keeping your head down and pushing for little, incremental changes. But it’s impossible to drill through the boards, to put up with the tedium without the passion, without an inspired view of what it’s all for.

There’s an old line from German intellectual Max Weber: 'Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It requires passion as well as perspective.'

That’s why trips like this are the best parts of my work. They remind me that congressional inactivity isn’t the only thing shaping dual language learners’ educational opportunities. Your work is powerful. It’s important. It inspires me — and much more importantly, it's life-changing for your students.

Today I want to try to repay you for that inspiration by sharing you some news from the dull front of advocating for DLLs at the national policy level. It’s not a fair trade — you inspire me and I see if I can put you to sleep — but it’s all that I have to offer. Well, actually, I also want to share a few strategic thoughts about the times when you move from your work in schools and classrooms to the world of politics.

But first of all — before boring you — I’d like to talk a bit about why our collective work on DLL issues matters. Of course you all know this on a personal level, that is, on the most important level. Multilingual instruction helps bring equity and enrichment to American education. It helps children who speak a non-English language at home to maintain and grow that language while developing a strong foundation in English. It also helps native speakers of English become multilingual. In the best of these programs, the two groups develop their multilingualism together. It’s a strategy for improving education, for improving DLLs’ academic achievement and language capacities, for integrating communities, and for building a more just and plural society. This is as powerful as it is beautiful.

Policies that bring more languages into American schools are profoundly sensible, but (of course) they’re much better than that. They’re representative of what’s best in a plural country like the United States. When we commit to multilingualism for our children, we’re committing to a fuller, more interesting culture. We’re investing in a richer economy. But most important of all, we’re building a better country. That is, we’re fulfilling promises that are core to the United States’ creed. We are a nation of immigrants, and we’re at our best when we take that line seriously.

But if the policies are sensible, the politics are just senseless. In part, this is because the beautiful words at the core of the American creed are just that: words. We are a country of immigrants...that’s also periodically seized by years — even decades — of xenophobia. We are a plural society premised on equality of opportunity...but educational segregation by race, class, and language is at least as common as integration in our history.

So, let's consider how we should think about these contradictions at the core of our national self-understanding. Let's all take a step back together from the daily work of multilingual education, and consider why this work is just as important as it can be frustrating — why it's sensible work in a senseless context. 

I submit to you that the United States is not actually one, but two countries. I don’t mean this in the usual way — one red America and one blue or one "Real America" and one bicoastal. No. This is a nation that is simultaneously the country we dream it to be and the country that we actually are.

Successful change movements in the United States always call the country to live up to its core beliefs. This is a tough balance to strike: it requires these heroes to be critical of a country in the name of improving it, moving it closer to a more perfect version of itself.

Here’s another way of putting this: our political practice frequently perjures our cosmopolitan, universal values. We claim to be a country where diversity isn’t just tolerated, but celebrated. We claim to be a country that offers educational equity to all children. We claim to be a country that offers opportunity to all in exchange for hard work. But we fail those best promises over and over and over.

That failure is our reality. But that dream is the spring that animates our public life. It’s that call to a better common future that is, I think, distinctively American and deeply, extraordinarily valuable. And I think that that aspirational country is nearly as real as the one we actually have. It might even be more important. 

In so many ways, the cause of civil rights has always been about fighting to bring our daily life in line with the better America we claim to be. This is why American heroes from Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. to today’s Black Lives Matter protesters have always wreathed their movements in the words of the Founders. Successful change movements in the United States always call the country to live up to its core beliefs. This is a tough balance to strike: it requires these heroes to be critical of a country in the name of improving it, moving it closer to a more perfect version of itself. That is, it requires them — requires us — to criticize something while still loving and believing in it.

I don’t have to tell you that today, in 2016, there are battles raging over how to make American education more equitable. The rhetoric around U.S. schools is as strident now as it’s been in many years. This can make it difficult to maintain a critical stance that is also equal parts compassionate and constructive.

But even as things have changed in education discourse, they always stay the same. Now, as has usually been the case, our education debates are dominated by two considerations: race and class. This is, perhaps, as it should be. Those are traditional divides in this country. They are major factors in determining how children are treated in school and in society.

And yet, in a moment when nearly one in three Head Start participants is a dual language learner, it seems as though we could stand to update our conversations about equity. Yes, young language learner students are considerably more likely than their native English-speaking peers to live in poverty, and they are very often students of color. So DLLs are sometimes implicitly included in these broader conversations about justice and educational equity...simply because language is a proxy for those other factors: race and class.

But too often, these kids are not included — and their unique linguistic and academic needs are almost never front and center in these debates. That’s where New America's DLL National Work Group comes in. While some civil rights and educational organizations periodically touch on issues related to dual language learners, this is our team's exclusive focus. We begin with data that are familiar to most in this room:

  1. DLLs are a large and growing student group. 
  2. U.S. education policies rarely take their needs into account.
  3. U.S. schools are only slowly beginning to rethink how they serve these children.
  4. These kids have extraordinary, remarkable potential. They are our future — the better we serve them now, the brighter they’ll shine as they take the reins in several decades.
So that’s the context. Now let’s talk about the ways that policies are shifting. I warned you before that this part would be dense: if you have a coffee handy, grab it.

Okay. As many of you may be aware, back in December, Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act. And again, as I suspect most of you know, this was a long time coming.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was over ten years old, and had weathered enormous criticism from all sides by the time it was finally replaced. By 2015, it had very few defenders. The only question was whether Republicans in the House of Representatives could pass a bill that Senate Democrats could support and President Obama would sign. The new bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), nearly failed on several occasions along that tortuous route.

You also probably know why NCLB became so unpopular. Many of you have lived the challenges in your daily work. It required a great deal of new data gathering on various metrics and greatly increased the federal government's role in shaping local educational practices. 

Here’s a key process from NCLB — it’s a process that illuminates how federal policymaking works in education. Here it is: over and over again, under NCLB, the federal government required states to require districts to require schools to do something. It’s clunky, but it’s more or less all the feds have as far as pushing changes down into U.S. schools.

So, under NCLB, the federal government required states to require districts to require schools to administer English language proficiency assessments...and academic content assessments. It also etc etc required states to hold districts and schools accountable to showing improvements over time.  You probably know the dreaded terms: schools had to make “adequate yearly progress” on “annual measurable objectives” and “annual measurable achievement objectives.” These objectives were usually defined by states, within certain federally-prescribed guidelines, but they were also designed to get tougher over time.

If your school or district fell short of these targets, NCLB asked states to push for changes. For the first few years of missing targets, schools and districts were required to come up with their own improvement plans. If they continued to come up short, the law made states get more involved in those plans. After five years, NCLB required states to choose from a series of dramatic options for turning the situation around. These, famously, included options like closing schools down or converting them into charter schools.

Big, draconian, controversial stuff. To be fair, research shows that the majority of schools that reached this point never faced these specific consequences; NCLB gave states the option of designing “other major restructuring” plans for improving schools, and in most cases, states took it. This often included pretty anodyne stuff: turnaround strategies that were much less dramatic than the law's other options.

Even still, I can feel the stress level rising now in the room even as I talk about the law.

And that — the fact that NCLB's accountability provisions felt so stressful for so many people for so long throughout the education system — that’s why it’s all gone. Yearly progress, annual objectives, etc. That’s all gone. It’s done. Exhale!

That’s right. The old accountability provisions in NCLB are no longer operative under ESSA. Federal oversight of how schools and districts serve DLLs has mostly evaporated. And as far as stress goes, that’s a very good thing. But the new law isn’t without its challenges — including some that will matter a lot for dual language learners.

So: what’s the Every Student Succeeds Act do?

First: the basic testing requirements are still there. DLLs will take English proficiency assessments until they meet your state’s criteria for reclassification. All students will take math and reading assessments each year from third to eighth grade. The big funding streams related to DLLs — Title I and III — will continue flowing much as they did before.

But, as I said before, it more or less kicks all accountability down to states. So those federal funds for supporting low-income and/or DLL students will no longer carry much federally-defined baggage. States will still have to collect data from those assessments and publish it, but the federal consequences are basically gone. The feds will no longer make states make districts do anything in particular to schools — based on how their students are performing on those assessments.

To be fair, I’m oversimplifying things a little.

ESSA does ask that states build some sort of accountability system of their own. That means that your state may or may not decide to continue the system it built under NCLB. Math and reading scores on state assessments may remain paramount...or they may not. States are technically required to get involved in the “weakest five percent” of schools, but they can define those schools more or less however they’d like...and define whatever consequences they’d like.

That is, if your state determines that your school falls into the bottom five percent (however they’re defining that), ESSA requires your state to require your district to require your school to do something about it. The big difference, it appears, is that there are very, very few limits on what that “something” must be.

We’re pretty deep into the weeds now. So let me put this in simple terms: state-level advocacy has always mattered for DLLs. Of course! But now it’s the whole ball game. States define what success and failure looks like for schools. States define what districts have to do in response to schools that continue failing over time. States have expanded leeway in pretty much every section. The Wall Street Journal, of all places, loved the bill, calling it “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.”

Say what you want about NCLB’s big potential punishments, but they gave DLL advocates leverage. If your district was ignoring these kids, you could go to the state and point out those big, inflexible expectations. NCLB may have unduly focused attention on math and reading assessments. But it also focused attention on underserved children. It forced states to prioritize these children.

So that’s the challenge: the worst of NCLB is gone. States, districts, and schools are finally free from its narrow mandates. That’s a win. But it came at a cost. The best of NCLB is also gone. Now states are in the driver’s seat for allocating resources and attention to underserved kids. Do you trust your state to stay focused on supporting DLLs? Or do you worry that they might minimize their importance for the purposes of state accountability?

Let me offer a less polemical, and hopefully more illustrative example. ESSA gives states some new flexibility about data collection as well. For instance, the new bill allows states to keep counting the academic performance of former DLLs as if they were still DLLs for up to four years after students leave that group. That means that after a student reaches English proficiency and is reclassified as a “former English Learner,” states can continue counting their achievement as if they were still in the group.

That probably doesn’t sound very important. But consider this: research shows that the academic performance of students who reach English proficiency usually improves considerably. So if a state keeps counting former DLLs as if they were still learning English, their higher achievement might make it look as though the state and its schools are actually doing better than they are. Those stronger-performing recent DLLs will raise the overall numbers for the state’s DLLs, and make it seem as though these kids are actually being served well in cases where that might not be true. One other thing on this point: states can do this for up to four years...which means that they have wide leeway for monkeying with how they count DLLs’ and former DLLs’ performance.

This is a small example. I know. It’s way, way in the weeds. I think it’s unlikely that any misuse will have a dramatic effect on too many classrooms.

I bring it up to illustrate the challenge ESSA poses to DLL advocates...that is, the challenges it poses to folks like you.

Perhaps state-level advocates are prepared for the many (arcane, complicated) policy arguments they’ll need to win under ESSA. But I’m worried that equity advocates will struggle to keep states’ attention and resources focused on DLLs. Remember, this is underdog work: losses will almost always outnumber wins, especially at the state and local levels. There’s a reason that the large majority of American civil rights victories consist of appealing to the federal government to rectify injustices perpetrated, aided, or perpetuated by local and state officials. ESSA sets up a particularly frustrating political dynamic for DLLs. It marries national political neglect with the reactivation of innumerable state-level fights over their access to quality opportunities and stable resources.

I don’t think that state policymakers are necessarily, deeply, or uniquely biased against DLLs. Rather, it’s that they hear from myriad interest groups with wide-ranging concerns. The most powerful of these groups usually have considerable resources — and their interests are rarely aligned to those of underserved students and their families. In other words, state policymakers don’t generally hope to serve DLLs poorly — but these students are likely to be lost in the shuffle when other, more powerful groups are commanding attention.So think of your state’s education discourse. Is it usually comprehensive enough to include careful discussion of DLL assessment policies? Or is it dominated by arguments over school funding, choice, integration, and other high-controversy issues? State policymakers are responsible for covering lots of different issues, and few are experts in policies related to DLLs. That is, they may not necessarily have expertise in the area, and they get considerable pressure to focus on other issues.

In short, and in sadness, I say to you, there’s a reason that civil rights battles are so often won at the federal level. It’s not that people in Washington, DC are particularly compassionate or uniquely empathetic. Rather, it’s that our system is set up in a way such that civil rights fights are hard to win at the local or state level. ESSA pushes many key decisions about equity and justice in education back down to those levels.

So let me close where I began: I’m always eager to get into rooms like this because your work is so much more consequential and noble than mine. But these days, in this new moment for education policy, I’m even more eager to get in this room, because you need to know that your work matters more now than ever before.

Lots of Beltway denizens say things like that. Lots of politicians — and policy wonks, I guess — close speeches with flattery. But I assure you that I am deeply earnest about this. The end of No Child Left Behind means many things. But it also means that there is a dire need for state and local advocacy around the needs — and the rights! — of young, multilingual kids.

I keep saying that "they" over at the state are newly empowered to make all kinds of consequential decisions for DLLs under ESSA. But it needn't be that way. ESSA's new state-level flexibility is also an opportunity for people — like you — to help the "they" at your state's education agency with those decisions. You have the expertise and the wisdom. How should DLLs' success be measured? What should happen in schools where DLLs are not succeeding, according to those measurements? It's up to you to decide whether you'd rather leave those to state policymakers — or help make them yourselves.

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.”

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Author:

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.