New Research: Strategies for integration in dual-language programs

I’m happy to be back with the first SD Notebook post in a while. As you know, there’s been a lot going on in this world. And, while the Critical Race Theory bans have rightly gotten a lot of attention, not everything has been so maddening. Though smaller in number, there are also state level bills in North Carolina and Massachusetts that would put in place key policies to begin reversing the decades-long trend towards resegregation in each state. Like the federal Strength in Diversity Act and this slice of Biden’s federal budget, a proposed bill in my home state would set up a grant program to experiment with new/underutilized strategies for racial integration.

And, that gets us to the topic for today’s post- a popular strategy for integration that could see even greater attention if feds or states are successful in encouraging wider experimentation with voluntary integration. Two-way Dual language Immersion (TWI) has enormous potential both for integrating classroom-level student enrollment as well as moving away from the ways that whiteness and mono-lingualism are embedded in American K-12 curriculum. Like everything else, though, implementation matters. A 2018 forum held by the UCLA Civil Rights Project addressed a variety of implementation challenges that can compromise the potential of TWI programs as vehicles for racial equity- summary report here has a lot more info. For example, as described here and on a related Integrated Schools podcast episode, white parents can have a colonizing effect on TWI programs.

Research can play an important role, then, in understanding what TWI looks like in classrooms today and in identifying strategies for realizing its potential as a vehicle for integration. Of course, that’s exactly the focus of the article described below. Working with Jennifer Ayscue at North Carolina State University, Elizabeth Uzzell studied a TWI program in a rural elementary school to understand how such programs can best facilitate true integration. Notably, the program studied here has not been affected by the kinds of white opportunity hoarding that can affect TWI programs. Lots of implementation strategies and policy recommendations below- feel free to share thoughts/reactions in comments or on twitter.

Racial Integration Through Two-Way Dual Language Immersion: A Case Study by Elizabeth Uzzell

Integration and Immersion

It has been more than 65 years since Brown v. Board of Education declared that separate is not equal, but the United States has not yet realized the goal of integration. Students of color often experience segregation by race and poverty, but many White students are attending segregated schools as well—that is, with other White students. While students of color benefit from attending schools with middle class White students because of the resources that are more readily available, there are also benefits to White students attending desegregated schools, including the important ability to function in diverse workplaces and interact with people from different racial backgrounds. As described in an earlier post, new research found that white students in diverse schools report higher levels of civic engagement, sense of belonging and even physical safety than their counterparts in less diverse schools. Many schools are as segregated today as they were before Brown—and it is evident that we need integration, true integration. A racially integrated school promotes equal status among historically marginalized and historically advantaged groups in collaborative, mutually beneficial environments.

The idea of white supremacy, which had previously enforced segregated schooling, was never eradicated. One way white supremacy manifests in education is through language acquisition: English is preferred in most schools, and the common belief is that students will be most successful having learned English. The preference for English language instruction is longstanding, and nonwhite English learners (ELs) often experience triple segregation by race, poverty, and language. If language is a hierarchy, academic English is often viewed as the top, so although ELs are gaining access to the advantages of knowing two or more languages, their skills are not always recognized as assets. Linguistic segregation hinders achievement through isolation from resources: lack of positive peer role models, lack of support staff, and lack of communication in academic English. Without meaningful interactions with English-speaking classmates, ELs can struggle in language development and academic achievement. On the other hand, bilingualism has academic, cognitive, and social benefits.

The Current Study

Our study, Racial Integration Through Two-Way Dual Language Immersion, brings together the literature on integration and bilingual education to explore how language immersion can help create racially integrated learning environments. Specifically, two-way dual language immersion (TWI) programs provide instruction in two languages, English and a partner language, and balance English speakers and speakers of the partner language. As such, TWI programs have the potential to create integrated classrooms in which students from different racial backgrounds can have equal status in mutually beneficial environments. Furthermore, TWI programs are one possibility for counteracting triple segregation and promoting racial and linguistic desegregation.

This case study takes place in North Carolina, a state with upwards of 60 TWI programs, most of which are Spanish immersion. The program often begins in kindergarten with a 90/10 model, where 90% of the day is taught in Spanish, and 10% in English, eventually moving to a 50/50 model. Once a leader of desegregation efforts in the South, the largest school districts in the state have changed student assignment policies so that race is no longer a priority, effectively resegregating schools in the largest counties. With its demonstrated support for school choice, North Carolina may have an opportunity to renew integration efforts by expanding voluntary TWI programs.

Through semi-structured interviews, observation, and document analysis, we examined how a Spanish TWI program facilitates integration in a rural elementary school. True integration promotes equity among historically marginalized and historically advantaged groups through a program that acknowledges the value of different abilities and embraces diversity in collaborative, mutually beneficial environments. Based on our findings, we propose that TWI attempts to facilitate integration by:

  • promoting equal status among linguistically diverse students,
  • uplifting languages other than English by helping students become bilingual,
  • exploring global cultures by helping students become bicultural, and
  • providing an environment where all students may be successful.

TWI Promotes Equal Status       

TWI promotes equal status among students from different cultural backgrounds by creating a language balance between English and the partner language: language acts as the leveler for the effects of segregation and isolation. This equal status has the potential to facilitate interaction across racial and ethnic lines, strengthen student relationships, and promote positive collaboration through shared challenges.

“They’re going to learn how to speak in English from the English speakers, as well as the English speakers to learn from them. So they respect each other. They know that they are facing the same difficulties even if they are from different backgrounds.” – First grade teacher

TWI Helps Students Become Bilingual

TWI gives students the opportunity to become bilingual, which can include many academic, cognitive, and social benefits. Teachers and leaders in this study, more than half of whom were bilingual themselves, expressed that learning in two languages helps students with understanding difficult concepts and often provides an opportunity for deeper learning. Additionally, TWI challenges the “English default,” which presents an important alternative to English-only policies.

“It used to be that Hispanic parents would [say], ‘No, I want him to learn English and then delete that native language,’ and now they see the value in, ‘Let’s continue to learn Spanish, continue to improve the skills in your native language, and learn English as well.’” – Principal

TWI Helps Students Become Bicultural 

Along with the goal of becoming bilingual, TWI can help students become bicultural. Students learn about other cultures from their teachers and classmates, which helps broaden their worldviews and promotes global awareness. Students are able to and encouraged to interact with classmates who are different from them. Becoming bicultural aids in integration as students can understand and appreciate people who are unlike themselves.

“The students that are not Hispanic can embrace our culture and can be exposed to our culture, our language. And we as teachers, we share that part of us with them.” – Kindergarten teacher

TWI Provides an Environment Where All Students Can Be Successful

TWI can be beneficial for historically advantaged and disadvantaged students and provides a potential “win-win situation” in which all students can be successful. Bilingualism, for example, offers a lifelong benefit that enables students to interact and communicate with other cultures, ensuring their participation in a diverse society. The benefits reaped from the program can have lasting effects beyond the classroom and may serve to open doors for students in the future, laying the foundation for integrated workplaces and a diverse, democratic society.

“For students, it’s a huge benefit because it is so much easier to learn a second language when you’re young. It’s so much easier. And if they start off in kindergarten being completely fluent, especially when they leave to go to middle school, reading, writing and speaking Spanish, I mean, that’s a lifelong skill that’s going to benefit them in work and everything else.” – Third grade teacher

An Eye on Equity

There are still cautions associated with TWI implementation. While TWI programs have the ability to desegregate and pull ELs out of linguistic isolation, they could also primarily benefit English speakers. In order to benefit historically advantaged and historically disadvantaged groups, these programs must:

  • ensure quality instruction, in which academic Spanish is the target,
  • pay close attention to intergroup relations so that students form strong relationships across lines of race, ethnicity and language (useful guide here), and
  • attempt to empower students.

TWI teachers in our study demonstrated a commitment to these goals by

  • promoting academic Spanish, which was given a level of importance equal to that of academic English,
  • encouraging interactions between racial groups through collaborative learning, and
  • having both English and Spanish students help each other, while learning about and respecting various cultures.

However, as noted above, implementation requires significant and sustained effort, which may not always be realized, such that all students are not able to reap these program benefits. While other programs have been subject to resource hoarding by white families, this elementary school was experiencing an increase in Latinx enrollment, which some participants feared may stigmatize rather than incentivize the TWI program. We recommend a close eye on enrollment trends so that a racially integrated environment that benefits all students may be achieved. 

Policy Recommendations

Historically, desegregation and language policy have been treated as separate and sometimes competing initiatives rather than as complementary ways of achieving equity and serving a diverse population. As our study demonstrates, the nature of TWI programs presents an opportunity for both bilingual education policy and integration. TWI programs can promote integration and will likely be most effective if implemented with the goal of serving marginalized students and intentionally facilitating authentic integration. Implications of this study include the need for increased federal, state, and local funding to support districts using TWI to achieve integration. The US Department of Education, along with state education agencies, can provide financial and technical support for districts and schools that are implementing TWI for integration through

  • a language policy that supports and encourages TWI
  • grant programs encouraging local districts to implement TWI programs for integration purposes
  • technical assistance for districts and schools
  • guidance for how to implement equity-centered programs that foster true integration

At the local level, school districts should

  • consider TWI programs as a tool for integration when pursuing voluntary desegregation
  • ensure that programs have access to adequate resources and materials in the partner language
  • recruit, develop, and retain TWI teachers
  • monitor TWI programs to ensure that they are serving all students and therefore allow the benefits of integration to reach their full potential.

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