New Reports Outline Early Learning Policies for Dual Language Learners

Blog Post
Oct. 19, 2017

Nearly one-third of all young children in the U.S. now live in a household where at least one other parent speaks a language other than English. One in three. That’s a remarkable number, one that only continues to rise. Education leaders must grapple seriously with the implications of these changing demographics and available policy options. For all children, and these dual language learners (DLLs) in particular, the foundation for long-term academic success starts with high quality educational opportunities in the early years.

To this end, last week, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) released reports taking stock of key policies for DLLs across early education systems. Education Week's Corey Mitchell covered them here. The new publications include a national profile along with fact sheets on the 30 states with the most DLLs. The authors use the term DLLs throughout—consistent with Head Start's terminology—to refer to children ages 0-8. Federal law refers to the majority of these same children in K-12 as “English learners” (ELs), once identified for extra language services at school.

The fragmentation of early education, in particular, presents an added layer of complexity to DLL policy, a reality that the MPI resources help to illuminate. Early education is not (yet) a universally mandated nor offered public good. So, in contrast to the K-12 years, it represents more of a disparate patchwork of funding streams, policies, and settings, including home-based offerings, childcare centers, state-funded pre-K, and Head Start.

With such a system, it is difficult to get a firm count on the number of DLLs across settings, and most states do not track enrollment of DLLs even within their state-funded pre-K programs. MPI researchers overcame this data void by using Census data on 3- and 4-year-olds’ participation in “pre-K,” loosely defined as a variety of family-reported childcare arrangements. They estimated that 41.5% of DLLs are enrolled in pre-K compared to 47.9% of non-DLL peers.

In addition to these enrollment gaps, the national profile looks at several risk factors facing DLLs and their families. The DLL population is disproportionately poor with nearly 60 percent of young DLLs growing up in low-income families. Around 30 percent of parents of DLL children have less than a high school education compared to 6 percent of non-DLL parents. Consideration of these risk factors is crucial for accurately diagnosing root causes that impact DLL performance to prescribe maximally effective, holistic policy solutions.

One weakness of the MPI report is its use of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data to highlight achievement gaps between ELs and non-ELs in fourth grade math and reading. The authors argue that the data underscores the need for high-quality early education to help close these later achievement gaps. Using the gaps in NAEP data to rouse concern for DLLs/ELs is a popular tack; however, presenting the data in this way—as evidence of a troubling status quo—is as tempting as it is misleading. Such framing implies success is reached when the gaps close. But these gaps will never close due to metric design and the developmental realities of language learning, as I detail in a recent policy paper.

Due to the fact that the EL subgroup is not static, there is a fundamental data collection flaw that creates a moving target: the most successful students exit the subgroup after demonstrating English proficiency, typically along with rising scores in math and reading. However, while classified as ELs (that is, English learners), we expect these students to fall below the academic proficiency bar when tests are in English. Ultimately, NAEP data and data like it provide a skewed picture of DLL/EL outcomes, which should be viewed with extreme caution.

NAEP data caveats aside, on the whole, MPI’s new report provides a useful overview of several policy levers for DLLs: 

  1. Bilingual education. Research suggests that young DLLs benefit from systemic exposure to English in the early years balanced with the continued development of their home language. Over a handful of states have mandatory bilingual instruction in K-12 and, notably, Illinois and Texas extend these bilingual mandates to their state-funded pre-K programs. Other states, such as Arizona and Massachusetts, have explicit laws on the books banning or limiting bilingual education options, which many advocates argue is counterproductive to DLLs' success.

  2. Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS). Similar to the idea of a rating system for hotels or restaurants, leaders use QRIS to evaluate early education quality with a set of defined program indicators. The inclusion of linguistically and culturally responsive indicators in QRIS design can shape providers’ approach to DLLs. The report notes that Illinois, Massachusetts, and Oregon are exemplars in this regard, with explicit DLL criteria to hire bilingual staff or hold conferences in a parent’s home language, for example. However, according the authors, the vast majority of states have “few if any provisions” that are similarly responsive to DLLs.

  3. Kindergarten Entry or Readiness Assessments (KEAs/KRAs). Many states now require schools to test children before or upon entry in kindergarten to gauge prior development. Similar to the concerns noted above with NAEP K-12 data, there are a host of potential validity issues, and English-only assessment may underrepresent students’ academic skills across languages. Some states, such as Ohio and South Carolina, are experimenting with various accommodations, while others have protocol and materials for bilingual assessment. 

  4. Access to high-quality early learning and supports. The report also cites earlier findings from the National Institute for Early Education Research on DLL policies for state pre-K programs. That research found that only 22 states track DLL enrollment while just five states require pre-K teachers to have qualifications related to DLLs. Beyond state-funded pre-K, the authors note the disproportionately low use of federal Child Care and Development Fund dollars for minority groups: only 8 percent of eligible Hispanic children use these funds. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program is also a federal resource for low-income families, but one with incomplete state-level data on its reach with DLL parents.

Altogether, MPI's new national report along with the state-specific fact sheets help define and bring visibility to key policy strategies for DLLs in the pre-K and early elementary years. State-level leaders and advocates should closely examine the efficacy of these and other policies to build more equitable systems for young, multilingual learners.