THE BLOG
11/21/2016 04:29 pm ET

California Can Lead The Nation On Multilingualism And Diversity

On Election Day, Californians cast their votes for diversity and multiculturalism by passing Proposition 58 -- a victory worth celebrating in the face of politics driven by xenophobia and racism. But to realize the true promise of improving outcomes for our students, we must quickly turn our attention to implementing the new law.

Proposition 58 removes barriers that restricted bilingual education programs and mandated that English learners be taught in English. It brings California in line with research that shows total English immersion is the not best way for young children to learn English. Such outdated beliefs resulted in a "one-size-fits-all" approach to educating 1.4 million students learning English, and diminished others' ability to learn another language.

My Chinese immigrant grandparents believed that learning two languages would confuse my father as he began school, and delay him from learning English. Research now tells us that in fact self control, mental flexibility, and holding information so it can be used for decision making -- foundations for school readiness -- have been linked to early bilingualism.

In the coming year, Priority 1 is rebuilding the workforce of bilingual educators, and there are many upcoming opportunities to do that. Leading up to implementation of the new law in July 2017, the State Board of Education will approve guidelines and revisions. And as the new budget and legislative session approaches, advocates led by Californians Together and the California Association for Bilingual Education are already contemplating budget and legislative options.

With English Learners comprising more than a third of kindergarteners, California must seize the opportunity to develop both their home languages and English in the early years -- thus honoring their culture, cultivating our future workforce, and giving our state an edge in the competitive global economy. The early years merit special attention because of the extensive capacity of the human brain to learn multiple languages during the early childhood years, according to neuroscientists and psycholinguists who have researched learning two languages during the infant-toddler years.

But first, we must rebuild our ability to offer our children these opportunities. California faces a shortage of teachers in general, and bilingual teachers are among the most in demand. "Right now there are people who want to mount programs and they are not able to do it," UCLA researcher Patricia Gándara told EdSource. "There is already a demand that cannot be met, and this will increase that demand."

The number of bilingual authorizations, the credential required to teach a bilingual or dual immersion program in California, is at a 20-year low due to the Proposition 227, which restricted bilingual education and passed in 1998. As the measure began to take hold, authorizations declined from a high of about 2,200 to less than 700 in 2014-15. Proposition 58 revises the measure to remove the English-only requirement and allow schools more choice in bilingual instruction.

The question of how we can attract and retain teachers, prepare them to meet credentialing requirements, and support their ongoing professional learning lies at the heart of how we can deliver on the promise of Proposition 58 to improve outcomes for our children. A new roadmap, "California's Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8 (TWB8) Implementation Plan,"outlines what we must do in those areas to support our early childhood workforce.

In addition, there are distinct considerations for those who educate dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Linda Espinosa's seminal "PreK-3rd: Challenging Common Myths About Dual Language Learners" brief should be required reading for those who make policy and design training and professional development programs. She notes that just because schools don't have the capacity to provide instruction in all of the languages represented by DLLs, programs should not provide instruction only in English.

California has much to build on. The California Department of Education has led the way in sourcing best practices, and guidelines for educating young dual language learners. Aligning and sharing what early childhood educators have learned with early elementary educators will help sustain children's gains.

Another asset that California has is a ready pool of potential educators, if the state provides the funding and supports to help them get to the next level. More than 126,000 high school students have graduated with the State Seal of Biliteracy, which recognizes graduates with a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing one or more languages in addition to English. And, about 1 in 5 classroom paraprofessionals speaks a language other than English at home, according to a new brief by New America. Policymakers should help these groups surmount financial, academic, bureaucratic, and linguistic obstacles to entering the teaching profession.

California has the opportunity to lead the nation in its embrace of multilingualism and diversity. Now it's time to roll up our sleeves so that our policies and funding reflect what research and educators tell us is best for our students, schools, and our state.

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