New Dual Language Learners Report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine

Blog Post
Feb. 28, 2017

Today, at 11AM, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) published Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures, a consensus study assessing the current research, policy, and education landscape related to dual language learners (DLLs). The study was published by a committee under the direction of New America senior research fellow Ruby Takanishi, and under the title of, Fostering School Success for English Learners: Toward New Directions in Policy, Practice, and Research.

NASEM released the report with a Washington, DC panel discussion including Takanishi, University of Texas-San Antonio professor Harriett Romo, and Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist Claudio Toppelberg.

The report was charged with answering fifteen questions across two areas of focus: 1) DLLs from Birth to 8 years old, and 2) DLLs in K–12 schools. For instance, the committee was asked, “What are the roles of languages, culture, and cultural identity in the development of young ELLs/DLLs?” and “What strategies and practices show evidence of supporting optimal transitions establishing a learning progression in a continuum of education for young ELLs/DLLs from birth through third grade (i.e., between home, early childhood education and care settings, pre-K, kindergarten, and through third grade)?”

At today’s event, Takanishi explained that the committee answered these — and other — questions by “synthesiz[ing] the research and case studies in schools and districts throughout the country that had documented high levels of achievement amongst English Learners.”

For instance, in response to the question on alignment linking early learning experiences to elementary schools, the committee outlined existing research on DLLs’ linguistic development trajectories as well as the importance of early exposure to English while continuing their development of their home languages. It also included a profile of the Sobrato Early Academic Literacy (SEAL) program.

The report is best understood as a consolidation of authority on what we know — and don’t know — about DLLs’ linguistic and academic development. In addition to the substantial treatment of existing research, it also attempts to standardize slippery terms (e.g. two-way dual immersion programs, dual language learners, English Learners, and so forth).

Promising Futures is a significant achievement for the field. Discussions of DLLs’ education are frequently roped into debates over immigration, diversity, and a host of other supercharged public arguments. This makes it easy, even intuitive, to subduct uncomfortable facts beneath the ideological needs of a particular place or moment. Indeed, the relative dearth of evidence backing segregated ESL programs has rarely prevented English-only advocates from insisting that these are the best way to help DLLs develop as students and Americans.

Or, alternatively, and more commonly, DLLs’ proximity to other prominent political and cultural debates leads advocates to marshal limited research for tangential, often sweeping, conclusions. For instance, studies showing that particular dual immersion programs are uniquely effective for DLLs...often get used by groups pushing for dual immersion programs for all students. That is, interest in “multilingualism for all” carries significant public prestige, so it almost inevitably colonizes discussions of DLLs.

In short, it can be difficult to sort productive conversations about DLLs from the peculiarities of politics.

So, Promising Futures provides a foundation for sorting through the information we have about what DLLs need. This should help to anchor better conversations about these students simply by establishing areas where the research has significantly moved. Toppelberg offered an example at today’s event: “Strong skills in [DLLs’] home language are the basis for acquiring strong skills in the second language. Contrary to other beliefs in the past, the evidence is pretty strong that in childhood, acquiring a good foundation in the first language will be predictive of success in acquiring the second language.”

Importantly, it also identifies critical DLL questions that don’t yet have answers. For instance, at today’s event, Romo noted that “We know that teaching in the home language is important, but we need more research in which sorts of programs are most effective.” This echoed the report, which closes with a research agenda that includes a call for studies of the impact of various instructional programs on DLLs in early learning and PreK–12 settings.

The conclusion of the report also includes a number of recommendations for federal education policymakers, state departments of education, and school districts. Naturally, given such a scope, these cover a wide range of actions from the drafting of federal guidance to “social marketing campaigns” to the targeting of funding towards effective programs.

Still, it’s difficult to read the recommendations today and not worry about their viability, given the prevailing political climate currently surrounding DLLs in the United States. Promising Futures’ third recommendation calls for federal policymakers to “examine the adequacy and appropriateness of district- and school-wide practices for [DLLs/ELs].” It also suggests that this information be used to narrow the definition of “effective practices...according to the Every Student Succeeds Act.”

This is precisely right, and in keeping with longstanding federal practices: laws like the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provide states with money to give to districts and schools for particular purposes. These purposes are often defined by more by student population or outcome than by process. That is, ESSA’s Title III dollars are intended to be used for serving DLLs and ELs. These dollars (along with ESSA’s Title I dollars) are intended to be used for helping DLLs and ELs succeed academically and become proficient in English. In return for these dollars, the federal government provides states and districts with some guidelines: the programs they fund must be “evidence-based.” As such, a federal effort to gauge whether different instructional models for DLLs/ELs — different English-only, bilingual, or supplemental instructional programs, for instance — actually work could significantly change how DLLs and ELs are educated in the United States. Note that this is only one example of a steady pattern in federal policymaking. In Head Start and other programs, the model is the same: federal dollars come with strings attached that (ideally) support equitable opportunities and outcomes for underserved children. Over time, as evidence accrues, federal conditions for these funds often become more targeted, in order to ensure that these dollars are actually serving the purposes for which they are intended.

However, in our present political moment, the longstanding, common, usual ways of shaping policy appear to have been suspended. In a moment when Congress is considering erasing ESSA’s primary accountability regulations (and preventing them from being replaced), when the current Secretary of Education is open to a wholesale elimination of the Department of Education, it is difficult to imagine federal policymakers narrowing federal definitions of effectiveness that would constrain how states use federal funds.

Fortunately, federal disinterest in governing leaves state and local policymakers with even more latitude than before when it comes to improving how they serve DLLs/ELs. So, in the coming months, New America’s DLL National Work Group will write a series of posts analyzing specific topics, themes, and opportunities in Promising Futures. Stay tuned.


This post was written by Conor P. Williams, founder of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group. You can find him on Twitter at @ConorPWilliams. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”