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Why the Dual Language Immersion Approach Will Change Achievement in American Public Schools

July 12, 2017
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All students — no matter their native language — stand to benefit from dual language immersion programs.

Based on Conversations with Dr. Bob Slater, Co-Director of American Councils Research Center (ARC)

For decades, the American educational system has struggled to create equal opportunities for the rapidly expanding population of students whose first language is not English. Too often, these students fail to achieve the same level of academic success as their peers; and the majority of past educational approaches to support English Learners (ELs) have proved neutral, at best.

Despite that more US students than ever are ELs, the achievement gap persists: Students who speak a language other than English at home are more likely to underperform in key subjects like reading and writing and less likely than their peers to graduate high school and enroll in college.

However, parents, teachers, community leaders, and the schools themselves can advocate for an approach that may well empower both multilingual and native English-speaking students. We believe the answer lies in dual language immersion programs.

All students no matter their native language stand to benefit from dual language immersion programs.

During the last decade, multiple research studies have demonstrated the significant cognitive benefits derived from early language learning, as well as the potential long-term educational and career benefits that multilingual students accrue.

Further research has found a meaningful connection between dual language immersion programs and academic success regardless of a student's native language. Now, with the culmination of a four-year comprehensive study of these programs in the Portland Public Schools District of Oregon, we have evidence that a dual language immersion classroom approach directly correlates with greater educational achievement.

Through a partnership with the RAND Corporation, Portland Public Schools, and American Councils for International Education, Dr. Robert Slater (who lends his expertise to research projects at American Councils) and his colleagues followed dual language immersion students in Portland Public Schools for four years and compared their educational gains to those of their non-immersion peers.

Funded by the Institute for Educational Science at the US Department of Education, the findings from this study are critical to advancing our understanding of dual language programs and advocating for dual language efforts around the US and, of course, to public schools across the country.

Why are the results of the study so critical for public schools across the US?

First, the RAND/American Councils study is the most rigorous and systematic research to-date examining the effects of dual language immersion on student achievement in reading, math, and science. Its power derives from the study's focus on 1,625 students, who were randomized to an immersion or a control group, and tracked from 2004 2011.

Second, Portland is a great model, particularly for small- to medium-sized cities. With a city population of about 600,000 including several significant minority communities the challenges that Portland Public Schools face are commonplace in many American school districts.

According to Dr. Slater, a particular challenge for the state of Oregon including Portland Public Schools is that it ranks in the bottom tier of state graduation rates. For Portland, like many other cities, its goal is to provide all students, no matter their background, an equal chance to succeed and graduate.

Third, Portland is an important school district to study because it has a rich history in dual language initiatives, launching its first dual language program in 1986. The school district now offers two types of language immersion programs in five languages. In two-way dual language classrooms, half of the students are native English speakers and half are native speakers of the partner language.

For example, in Portland Public Schools, you may find a classroom with a group of English-speaking and Mandarin Chinese-speaking students enrolled in an English-Mandarin Chinese dual language program.

Portland Public Schools also offers one-way programs in which the majority of the students in the classroom are new to the partner language. For example, a group of Spanish-speaking students would enroll in a Spanish and English dual language program. These types of one-way programs are particularly relevant for school districts with large pockets of heritage speakers.

But let's talk about the educational outcomes.

Dr. Slater and his colleagues found that students randomly assigned to dual language immersion programs outperformed their peers in reading in English by seven months in grade five and by nine months in grade eight. That amounts to almost a year ahead in reading level by the eighth grade compared with their non-immersion peers.

They also found no statistically significant benefits but also no detriment for math and science performance.

There is suggestive, but not statistically significant, evidence that the immersion benefit for reading is higher for students enrolled in Spanish immersion programs.

"We discovered that immersion students with a native language other than English have a three-point lower rate of classification as English Language Learners (ELLs) by the sixth grade and this effect is considerably larger by 14 points! if the students' native language matches the classroom partner language," says Dr. Slater. "This outcome demonstrates the enormous educational gains that multilingual students can make in a dual language classroom."

Additionally, the research team identified limited evidence that dual language immersion programs keep students in the public school system. This relationship needs further research and could be a game changer for public school enrollments. Significantly, there was no evidence that observable peer, teacher, or class size characteristics drive the effects of immersion on educational achievement.

It's also important to be realistic about the challenges to executing successful dual language immersion programs.

The greatest challenge, Dr. Slater is quick to note, is the demand for multilingual teachers who can also provide high-quality instruction. High-quality programs are key to maximizing the educational benefits for dual language learners.

Another key challenge is cultivating a long-term commitment to dual language programs on both the part of school districts as well as parents. Everyone has a stake in these programs and commitment is crucial to reach these increased levels of educational attainment.

Apart from the challenges, dual language immersion has the power to transform educational achievement in public schools across the country.

Just by implementing this approach, students perform substantially better in language arts, gain an earlier departure from English as a Second Language (ESL) status, demonstrate equal performance in math and science, and become bilingual. Not too bad!

Dual language immersion can offer public schools an opportunity to support historically underserved students while remaining an additive approach for all offering every student an equal playing field to excel and to accrue the significant benefits of bilingualism.

About Dr. Robert Slater, Co-Director of American Councils Research Center (ARC)
Dr. Robert O. Slater, for more than three decades, has been a national leader in creating innovative solutions to language issues across the nation. Formerly the Director of the National Security Education Program, he created and launched the Language Flagship effort, the National Language Service Corps, and numerous scholarship and fellowship programs that support the study of languages by US students from kindergarten through post-secondary education. Dr. Slater currently co-directs the American Councils Research division.

Are you a parent with a child in a dual language program? Does your school district offer dual language programs? Tell us about your experience by using the #LanguageMatters hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Or, drop us a note at languagematters@americancouncils.org.

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