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Congress Must Do More for Bilingual Education | Commentary

By Karla del Rosal There are 4.4 million immigrant children in America with the potential to become fully bilingual, well-educated and contributing citizens. With the right opportunities, they can succeed academically, enjoy stronger connections to their families and achieve their professional aspirations. The question is, how can Congress help ensure these children do not fall through the cracks in our education system, but have the chance become the glue that strengthens it? It’s more than possible. And, for me, it’s deeply personal.  

There are moments in life — be it a conversation or experience — that stay with us. One such moment occurred when my then 8-year-old son Rodrigo, who had immigrated to the United States with my husband and me as a toddler, asked to return to Mexico. His reasons both touched and surprised me: “I am forgetting how to speak Spanish. Everyone I love speaks Spanish. I’m afraid they will stop loving me if I cannot speak it anymore.”  

Rodrigo equating love with his native language taught me to view bilingualism beyond the cognitive benefits, the cultural richness, and potential economic and professional opportunities. For him, speaking Spanish was a vital link to family. While I supported bilingualism long before coming to America, my son taught me its true value. He’s not alone. Others share his belief that language is a bridge to those they cherish and who love them.  

For me and millions of others who have immigrated to the United States and who love our new country, we continue to appreciate where we came from and what we left behind. We want to be both present in our new life and connected to our past.  

Fortunately, we are now at a point where we can make recommendations to Congress based on the cognitive knowledge we have about the benefits of bilingual education.  

Bilingual children need access to quality bilingual education programs and to quality English as a second language development programs. They need a structure that both allows them to maintain their native language skills and to learn English well.  

To do this, policymakers must explore ways to better educate our educators. English language learners are typically taught by less qualified teachers. To address a shortage of bilingual teachers, states often hire bilingual professionals who do not have a four-year teacher preparation background; as long as the candidate can pass the content exam, he or she will obtain an alternative teacher license and a job despite not having pedagogical knowledge. On the flip side, four-year teacher preparation programs offer very limited course work on ELLs.  

Long term, Congress should embrace policies that embed the knowledge and skills needed to teach ELL students in the course work to ensure that future teachers know how to teach them in each content area from the start. In the short term, the ESEA reauthorization legislation should require alternative teachers with an ELL certification to obtain preparation to teach mathematics, science, and social studies and require all content teachers to obtain professional development training to address the linguistic and cultural needs of ELLs in specific content areas and in order to maintain their license.  

The new law should also include incentives for bilinguals to become teachers and for teachers who commit to teach ELL students. The workload is heavier and typically more difficult. It’s easy to become frustrated regardless of the level of one’s commitment. That’s why I decided to forgo my own teaching career to focus on developing strategies to fix the system. This is not just about my classroom, but every classroom in America.  

Finally, schools need to establish more welcoming environments for parents. Administrators, faculty and teachers must get to know the community they’re serving. Little changes can make a big difference. For example, parent communications should be translated into Spanish and presented in a form that is accessible for parents with different levels of education. And school officials need to share their expectations for parent and family engagement.  

We — and by that I mean society as a whole — must engage in the education of all children, not just our own. We have to advocate for them, monitor their academic progress, support them at home, and not be afraid to ask tough questions about their education.  

And government at all levels – federal, state and local – has a role to play by encouraging and enacting policies to ensure that all children have the opportunity to succeed.  

We have no more time to waste.  

Karla del Rosal is Assistant Professor of Bilingual Education at the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University.
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