Aug 19, 2021

Examining Bilingual Education Programs and Policies

Jeanine Hildreth
Region 4 Logo

By Sara Rutherford-Quach, Hannah Kelly, Daniela Torre Gibney & Jennifer Ballen Riccards

Multilingual learners come to school with tremendous linguistic and academic potential. States, districts, and schools can support multilingual learners, also called English learners (ELs) in federal policy, to manifest this potential by offering quality bilingual education programs, where teaching and learning occurs both in students’ primary language and English. Staff at the Region 4 Comprehensive Center partnered with the New Jersey Department of Education to better understand current bilingual education programs across the country, including when and how they are implemented, strategies to address the shortage of bilingual educators, and approaches to bilingual education policy and programming. The effort resulted in a series of briefs posted on the National Comprehensive Center resource library.

What is bilingual education?

While all bilingual instructional programs involve students and teachers engaging in academic coursework using two languages, bilingual education is not one-size-fits-all and varies both programmatically and instructionally. Bilingual instructional programs include both transitional (or early exit) bilingual education, with a goal of transitioning students to all-English instruction, and the popular two-way dual language immersion, where both languages are equally prioritized, and content is taught in both languages.

Why bilingual education?

In our increasingly global economy, proficiency in multiple languages is a desirable skill that students can use in their careers after leaving K-12 education. We know that bilingualism has many cognitive and social advantages for all students. For example, multilingual learners who have the opportunity to develop both their home language and English often have stronger academic outcomes. Additionally, students may feel a greater sense of belonging in school environments where they are not asked to leave part of their linguistic and cultural identity at home. For these reasons, education leaders in several states (e.g., California, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and others) have recently made the expansion and strengthening of bilingual education options for multilingual students a top priority.

What does a bilingual education program require?

Qualified instructional staff are at the heart of all strong bilingual education programs. Most bilingual education programs require teachers to hold an endorsement in bilingual education or English as a second language and to pass a language proficiency test. Some bilingual programs may also supplement instruction using paraprofessionals or aides who are fluent in students’ home language.

Yet across the United States, bilingual teachers are in short supply. Leaders in these areas find themselves looking for proven strategies to strengthen their bilingual teacher pipeline and decrease the number of pre-service bilingual teachers who leave education before completing their training.

How can education leaders use these briefs?

Our bilingual education briefs offer support to state and local leaders at every stage of development. Leaders looking to adopt bilingual education as a new approach or simply wanting to find out more about bilingual education in other states may refer to Bilingual Education Across the Nation. For leaders facing or examining their own bilingual teacher shortages, the briefs Addressing the Bilingual Teacher Shortage and Leveraging Flexible Teacher Certification Policies offer complementary perspectives on common causes of bilingual teacher shortages and ways states and districts have addressed them. Finally, a detailed brief about a specific state’s bilingual policies and programs – Lessons from Washington State – provide concrete and descriptive strategies for leaders looking to further prioritize bilingual education and grow their bilingual educator populations.