Two Puerto Rican parents sit in a Boston educator’s office crying. After surviving the trauma of Hurricane Maria and moving to Boston, they had seen a glimmer of hope for their first grader’s education when they learned about the dual-language education program at Sarah Greenwood School, where students learn in English and Spanish. But after the parents enrolled their child at the school, The Boston Globe reported that since their son had an emotional impairment that qualified him for special education services, he would be excluded from the dual-language program and learn in English-only special education classrooms separate from his peers. All of their hope for a smooth language and cultural transition vanished.
Students in two-way dual-language immersion education programs, where roughly equal numbers of English learners (ELs) and native English speakers take grade-level classes in both English and another language, develop strong bilingualism or even multilingualism. Though these programs are on the rise, ELs with disabilities continue to be placed in programs that emphasize English language acquisition and neglect developing their home language.
Research shows that ELs perform better in programs that are inclusive rather than exclusive of their home language. A RAND corporation study found that ELs in dual-immersion programs were more likely to be proficient in English by sixth grade than their EL peers in other programs focused on English proficiency. In contrast to a traditional ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classroom, where all the students in the classroom are trying to learn English together, ELs in dual-immersion programs have native-English-speaker peers, and they can practice English in their friendships.
The study also found that students throughout dual-language immersion programs did significantly better than their peers in other schools on reading tests in fifth and eighth grade, and even though dual-language immersion students received science and math classes in a non-English language, they did equally well compared to their peers in assessments for these subjects.
Dual-language immersion students’ success in reading is particularly important because students have been struggling nationally with reading proficiency. Even before the pandemic, 2019 U.S. Department of Education data showed that almost two-thirds of American students were unable to read at grade level, and the pandemic has set students back even further.
“Importantly, this evidence comes not from a small, boutique program, but from a collection of 12 varied DLI programs dispersed across a large, urban district and operating over a ten-year period. The variation among the programs means that the findings are not limited to one particular school, classroom language, or instructional approach,” the study’s authors wrote in a research brief.
National media has covered the problem of wealthier, white, and English-dominant families crowding into these dual-language immersion programs that were designed to close opportunity gaps for underserved students. Even with this trend, RAND’s study shows that these reading and English proficiency benefits are not due to the advantages of privileged families who self-select into dual-language immersion schools. The RAND study relied on data from Portland Public Schools, where students were randomly assigned to participate in dual-language immersion programs.
If school districts work to make sure that buying a house in an expensive neighborhood is not a prerequisite for access to these programs, the educational advantages could extend to any student who would benefit from dual-language immersion’s model.
A Good Fit for Latino Students
Latino students have a lot to gain in dual-language immersion programs since 77% of ELs in the United States are Latino, and the vast majority of these students speak Spanish at home. In monolingual, English-only education, the parents of English learners often struggle to become involved in supporting their child’s academic development. It is harder for them to help their children with homework assignments and to advocate for their children’s best interests at school. This dynamic unnecessarily puts these students at a disadvantage because studies have overwhelmingly shown that parental involvement is crucial to student success and well-being.
Additionally, at the level of the community, an academic article by Charles Payne and Mariame Kaba identified lack of trust between parents, teachers, and administrators as a substantial impediment to improving the quality of schools.
“In our worst schools, the basic web of social relationships is likely to be severely damaged,” they wrote. When parents are unable to communicate with their children’s teachers or when they feel alienated from their child’s academic environment, they cannot develop the level of trust that is essential to allow them to participate in building strong schools.
Dual-language immersion also helps Latino English learners connect with their communities and develop their identities.
“Maintaining a student’s native language is vital to their self-esteem, family heritage, and identity,” See Pha Vang, a teacher with Saint Paul Public Schools told NEA Today.
UnidosUS is working to address issues like these.
“It is crucial that parents, and especially parents who have students identified as English learners and as students who learn and think differently, know and understand how the program functions and what it looks like in action,” says UnidosUS Director of Parent Engagement Jose Rodriguez. He runs a parent engagement program called Padres Comprometidos, which is designed to help parents to build the capacity of Latino parents to acquire the skills they need to effectively engage with schools and play a leading role in preparing their children for college. “The core program was founded on the UnidosUS Guiding Principles for Engaging Latino Parents, and addresses language and culture as assets—rather than issues—upon which are built skills, confidence and, ultimately, empowerment,” adds Rodriguez.
Padres Comprometidos is currently partnering with Understood to help parents become better advocate for their children who learn and think differently.
Exclusion of ELs with Disabilities
Even though there is consensus about the benefits of dual–language immersion for ELs, including ELs with disabilities, education researcher María Cioè-Peña has conducted a study in New York City that shows that many Latino parents of English learners with disabilities report that their children’s teachers advocated for monolingual, English-only placements for children based on the ideas that bilingual classrooms would be confusing or more complicated. These recommendations are based on a deficit perspective of bilingualism, a false belief that the acquisition of two languages diminishes from the mastery of either.
The deficit perspective of bilingualism is based on a century of disproven colonial pseudoscience. A British psychologist from the 1920s, D.J. Saer, published a paper that concluded that bilingual children were less intelligent than monolingual children. Saer invokes familiar ideas about mental confusion to explain his conclusion. In his introduction, the author mentions the British colonial context, where many colonial subjects spoke other languages in addition to English, so it is impossible to ignore the racist political motivations for upholding the intellectual superiority of English speakers.
Today, the deficit perspective of bilingualism is often selectively applied to Latino students and other students of color whose first language is not English, while many white, non-Latino students are encouraged to learn world languages in school in addition to the English that they speak at home. This framework reflects a preference across the American education system for English, even though English is not the official language of the United States.
While researchers in the century since the Saer study have found that bilingualism has positive cognitive and developmental advantages, some educators continue to use the same rhetoric of mental confusion when speaking with the parents of ELs with disabilities. When teachers recommend monolingual, English-only education for ELs with disabilities based on this assumption, they ignore the linguistic realities of those students’ home and community context.
There are dire consequences for ELs if they do not develop competence in English and if they lose competence in their home language. While English helps them access educational and economic opportunities, losing linguistic capabilities in their home language can lead to weaker connections to their support networks and cultural identities. It is vitally important for many of these ELs to have access to both of their languages. ELs with disabilities have an increased need for language skills to strengthen their community networks because social isolation and exclusion are often already part of the experiences of people with disabilities. Strong community connections can help ELs with disabilities surmount discrimination and other barriers that might arise inside the education system and beyond.
But while many experts emphasize the importance of bilingualism for ELs, many education systems treat access to bilingual education as a luxury that is only for “gifted and talented” students, who are disproportionately likely to be white and wealthy. The idea of bilingual education as a privilege for privileged students instead of as an educational right for ELs leads directly to the exclusion of ELs with disabilities from these programs.
A Real-World Failure
A report series from The Boston Globe has recently illuminated that many ELs with disabilities in Boston are being barred from any support or instruction in their home language, including access to dual-language immersion programs, even though this violates state and federal laws. Students with disabilities who speak English at home have also been denied access to the city’s dual-language immersion programs.
“This, according to experts, is a violation of state and federal laws that prohibit districts from excluding kids from any educational programs just because they have a disability. It also violates laws that require students be taught in the most inclusive environments possible, given their disabilities,” wrote Tara Garcia Matthewson, a reporter for the Hechinger Report in a story featured in The Boston Globe.
Although 20% of students throughout the school district receive special education services, the numbers of students receiving special education in the district’s dual-language immersion schools is far lower; the numbers are in the single digits at two of the schools. Additionally, when a 2018 task force reviewed the individualized education programs, or IEPs, for 24 ELs with disabilities, they found that none of them mentioned instruction in their home language. Boston parents of ELs also complained that documentation about their children’s special education or EL services was only provided in English, and that schools did not provide interpreters in their home language so that they could speak with teachers or school administrators.
The results of this exclusion are drastic. More than 95% of ELs with disabilities fail the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam between third and eighth grade. Boston’s failure to adequately serve ELs with disabilities is also influenced by shortages of both ESOL and special education teachers.
These problems are not just confined to Boston. In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union and Rhode Island Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island sued the state Department of Education because they said many ELs with disabilities were receiving no direct services from an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, while all ELs without disabilities with low levels of English proficiency would have direct ESL instruction once a day.
In some cases, the parents of ELs with disabilities have reported that they did not receive their child’s individualized education program (IEP) in a language that they understand and that the document was only available in English. Without understanding their child’s academic plan, parents of ELs with disabilities struggle to advocate for bilingual education or ESOL support for their child. They also cannot advocate for their child’s best interests related to their disability or maintain the level of parental engagement that is crucial for student success. Beyond reports of this practice in Boston, the school district of Philadelphia was sued in 2015 for failing to translate special education documents into languages that parents understood.
Other recent lawsuits brought against school districts in Arlington, Virginia, and Crestwood, Michigan, reveal that failures to properly support ELs with disabilities extend across the country. Beyond harmful language ideologies about the bilingual capabilities of students with disabilities, a lack of staff and other resources greatly contributes to these issues. There are national shortages of both special educators and ESL teachers, with 7% of teachers serving Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) students lacking full certification in special education.
For ELs with disabilities, this problem is even larger because of a severe lack of bilingual special educators certified in both specialties. Additionally, students who need both services are often spread across many different schools. In the 2017––2018 school year, half of the students who needed Spanish-language special education services in New York City were the only students who needed those services in their school.
Because 1.8 million Latino students and 700,000 ELs have disabilities in the United States, ensuring that students with disabilities are fully included in dual-language immersion programs is essential for educators who hope to adequately support Latinos. Those educators must also be aware of the disciplinary inequities that Latino students with disabilities face. Students with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to be arrested than their peers without disabilities. This disparity is even worse for Black and Latino boys with disabilities, who only make up 3% of the student population, but represent 12% of all students who are arrested.
“Policymakers in education should prioritize the development and implementation of culturally and linguistically responsive policies, practices, and school eco-systems,” says UnidosUS Education Policy Project Director Amalia Chamorro. “ELs with learning disabilities and their families should be able to access programs that promote their children’s sense of belonging and foster positive self-identity. To deny students these critical supports is to perpetuate inequity.”
Author Aleja Hertzler-McCain is a freelance writer, an editorial assistant at Sojourners magazine, and a disabled Latina.