Last fall my three-year-old son enrolled in a public pre-K program at a local elementary school in Washington, D.C. At our first meeting with his teacher, she asked us questions about what languages we spoke at home and whether our son spoke a language other than English. I was thrilled to be asked these questions because I knew that it meant the school was taking their responsibility to identify and screen potential dual language learners (DLLs) seriously.
Yet, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) 2015 State of Preschool Yearbook, D.C. is in the minority when it comes to setting policies that support their DLLs. It was one of just 14 states (or, in D.C.’s case, “states”) with at least three DLL-related policies in place. These policies include: making program recruitment/enrollment materials available in multiple languages, collecting information on student’s home language, and using multiple developmental screenings and assessments to identify and support DLLs.
NIEER estimates that 23 percent of three- and-four-year-olds in the United States are DLLs. This percentage is more than double than DLLs’ percentage of K–12 enrollment, which stands at nine percent of students. These numbers vary considerably by state, however. California has the largest percentage of DLLs in the younger age group (45 percent) and West Virginia has the lowest (2 percent). Given these numbers — and the growing research base highlighting the benefits of high-quality early education on DLLs’ early literacy, math and English language development — it’s become increasingly important to track how state pre-K programs are serving DLLs.
To that end, this year marks the first time that NIEER has asked states to respond to multiple survey items related to their data collection and policies on DLLs. States were asked to respond on the following:
- enrollment of DLLs in their pre-K program;
- home languages of DLLs;
- policies to support DLLs;
- resources for DLL supports and;
- early learning and development standards for DLLs.
The data reveal that the landscape for DLLs is uneven at best. To begin with, only 23 state pre-K programs, including D.C., track enrollment of DLLs. And in 10 of those states, the percentage of DLLs served is lower than the percentage of children served overall in the state. For example, Oklahoma’s state pre-K program serves 75 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, but only reaches 42 percent of the state’s DLLs. On the other hand, states like Michigan, Texas, and Washington — all of which use home language as one of the eligibility criteria for state pre-K — have a proportionately higher percentage of DLLs enrolled in state pre-K. In Michigan, 62 percent of four-year-old DLLs are served by a state pre-K program compared to just 32 percent of children this age overall.
Despite the gaps, these data are useful for getting a better understanding of DLLs’ access to and enrollment in pre-K. NIEER has previously documented that DLLs often enroll in early education at lower rates than their monolingual peers, but their current data suggest access is variable and likely mediated by state policies. Beyond access, the yearbook also highlights the relative scarcity of state policies for supporting DLLs’ academic and linguistic development.
Only six state pre-K programs have policies requiring DLLs to be assessed in their home language (California, Delaware, Maine, Missouri, New Mexico and Rhode Island). That means the majority of DLLs attending a state pre-K program do not get an opportunity to demonstrate all they know and can do and many teachers are getting an incomplete picture of these children’s skills. As my colleague Janie Carnock recently wrote, “This failure to collect data on home language proficiencies sets in a motion what researchers have termed a ‘deficit perspective’ before a DLL even reaches kindergarten. That is, education systems too often focus on what DLLs can’t do with (the English) language versus the wealth of what they can.”
Additionally, just eight state pre-K programs require teachers to have qualifications specifically related to DLLs. This is deeply troubling, given that many educators feel unprepared to teach DLLs. In a recent paper, prepared for the National Research Summit on the Early Care and Education of Dual Language Learners, Dina Castro argues that early childhood education programs should use “instructional enhancements...to support DLLs’ development and learning.” These include providing instructional supports in DLLs’ home languages, ongoing and frequent assessment, and explicit instruction to build vocabulary and academic English. And that means teachers will need to learn how to both increase their understanding of the development of their DLL students and implement these strategies.
In Massachusetts, pre-K teachers working in a public school or charter school are required to receive an endorsement in Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) in order to help them learn strategies for integrating language and content instruction to better support the linguistic and academic development of their DLL students. Similarly, pre-K teachers in Illinois are required to be certified in both early education and English as a Second Language (ESL) or bilingual education, but that mandate has not yet taken effect due to widespread shortages of teachers with those specific credentials.
NIEER’s data provides DLL advocates with additional fodder to compel state policymakers to enact legislation aimed at filling in existing gaps. A first step would be to mandate that state pre-K programs identify DLLs and track their enrollment. Individual states could then identify gaps in DLLs’ pre-K access and monitor enrollment trends in order to devise tailored approaches to serving these children. For example, the state could develop an outreach campaign if DLL enrollment is low or devise professional development for teachers working in programs serving a high number of DLLs.
As NIEER director Steve Barnett shared during a recent webinar, DLLs stand to benefit the most from participation in high-quality early education, “When we look though at what happens when they get a good preschool program, we see that they take off like bottle rockets. Their gains in language, literacy and mathematics are by far the largest...it’s just a tremendous win to serve as many of these kids as we can.”
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."