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The Boston school district currently has five dual-language programs in which students learn core subject matter in two languages. The district is developing plans to add three more in time for the 2017-18 school year to teach students French and Haitian Creole, Portuguese and Cape Verdean, and Mandarin and Cantonese, in addition to English.
Such programs are growing in popularity all across the country. In 2000, then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley called for the number of dual-language programs in the U.S. to grow from an estimated 260 to 1,000 by 2005. The federal Education Department was unable to provide an exact number of such programs operating in schools today, but according to a 2011 article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it’s estimated that the number has reached 2,000.
A joint U.S. Department of Education-American Institutes for Research report shows 39 states and Washington, D.C., offered dual-language education during the 2012-13 school year, with Spanish and Chinese programs cited as the most common.
Last school year, the New York City Department of Education added 40 new dual-language programs in schools across the city. District of Columbia Public Schools is poised to open three more dual-language programs this fall at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. For the first time, DCPS will guarantee students who wish to complete all of their pre-K-12 instruction in both Spanish and English can do so in the district.
Widely cited research by George Mason University Professors Emeriti Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas has shown that children who are bilingual perform better academically than their peers who speak only one language. A study of 85,662 students in North Carolina Public Schools during the 2009-10 school year found that overall, English-language learners in two-way dual-language programs had higher reading and math scores. At the middle school level, most students in these programs were scoring higher than monolingual students in the grade above them, and in some cases two grade levels higher than their current academic year.
Despite these findings, bilingual education has met with its share of opposition. The “Americanization Movement” in the early 1900s and World War I sparked widespread opinion that foreign language instruction was a “threat to the integrity and the unity of U.S. society,” said Nelson Flores, an assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, California, Arizona, and Massachusetts banned bilingual education in schools and mandated that students who were English-language learners be placed in English-only immersion programs. Still, schools found loopholes and began to adopt dual-language models, which take on various forms, said Flores, who works with dual-language programs in Philadelphia.