It is a relief that school districts will now be able to offer bilingual education if they deem it to be the best approach for their students. This means that a measure of sanity has been restored to the Commonwealth. Fifteen years of forbidding the use of heritage languages in our classrooms, however, has created a profoundly monolingual educational system, which is cause for sadness for those of us who care about social and linguistic justice.
Throughout these years, however, there has always been hope. The Framingham Public Schools have cultivated bilingualism and biliteracy through their support of Spanish- and Portuguese-language programming. In Boston, Cambridge, and Chelsea, Spanish and Mandarin programs continue to thrive despite limited resources for bilingual curricula. The Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education hosts a school-based annual conference for bilingual educators. Researchers at area universities maintain a focus on how bilingualism can be leveraged to promote literacy achievement. Non-profit organizations promote bilingualism and biliteracy as critical for supporting school and community ties.
These stalwart bilingual educators have sustained us over these 15 years, and now we have a new hope. We are faced with a singular, paradoxical moment: the pain of 15 years of free speech repression in K – 12 education, alongside the hope of being able to start over. Here are four things that should be at the forefront of rethinking bilingual education:
- District language policy. Districts should have a stated language policy that governs the means by which language educational programming decisions are made. This would include the range of language education programs available to English learners, language screening approaches, and the establishment of bilingual parent advisory councils. These approaches could be mandated and monitored by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education;
- Teacher education. We need a pipeline of bilingual teachers, and we need to provide training to practicing bilingual teachers who need it. Without these educators, there is no bilingual education. Currently, there are no bilingual teacher education programs in Massachusetts. Now, with the English-only era finished, it is likely that more districts will want to implement bilingual programs, which will need to be staffed by trained bilingual teachers. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education must take seriously the need to create regulations for bilingual teacher certification, which was entirely neglected during 15 years of English-only policy;
- Program Planning. Districts implementing bilingual programs should examine the languages they plan to offer, alongside the lived contexts of the student populations they serve. Linguistically, not all languages function the same. Some, like Spanish, are dominant languages spoken worldwide, with longstanding spoken and written traditions. Others, like Haitian Creole, are spoken in relatively small geographic bands, have a longstanding oral tradition, but a relatively recent written tradition. Some immigrant students have limited or interrupted schooling. Other students are children, born in the U.S., whose immigrant parents hold high status jobs in the worforce. These and other factors must be taken into account in planning bilingual education programming;
- Including stakekholders. The implementation of bilingual education, at the state, district, and school levels needs to be informed by a host of stakeholders. This includes, but is not limited to school, community, university, and state actors who work together to (bilingually) build an educational system that supports the linguistic plurality of Massachusetts’s K – 12 students.
The list is a start point. As of Wednesday, November 15, 2017, the English-only era in Massachusetts is over, and we have the chance to do something unique. It is time to cultivate bilingualism and biliteracy as ends in and of themselves, in the service of broader educational equity in the Commonwealth.