The Importance of Bilingual Education

Archived Information

The Importance of Bilingual Education

March 25, 2016

Good afternoon.

Thank you, Tom, for that kind introduction. I'm grateful to Tom for his leadership on behalf of education for the whole child, and for ensuring that every student in California has the opportunity to graduate ready for college and career success.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to join CABE for today's conversation. I appreciate the leadership of Karling, Jan, and the CABE board, as well as the commitment that CABE has lived over many years to ensure that we advance bi-literacy and multi-literacy for all students. CABE's record includes launching the Seal of Bi-literacy here in California -- which we then replicated in New York -- and a commitment to the leadership development of teachers, principals, and school board members. These are critical efforts that are a testament to the strength of commitment in this room to bi-lingual education.

As a former high school social studies teacher, I like to put conversations in historical context. And I think it's important to take a moment to celebrate the transformation in the conversation around bi-lingual education over the last decade -- thanks, in no small part, to the leadership of those in this room. One need look back only ten or fifteen years ago to see many folks making the wrong-headed assumption that students speaking a language other than English at home were a deficit, an obstacle, a problem to be fixed. But we've shifted.

Thanks to your hard work, the conversation has shifted, and we now have a better appreciation -- I think not only here in California, but across the country -- that bilingualism is an asset. Having the ability to speak multiple languages is a strength and an asset to be leveraged on behalf of student success.

We have a growing body of research that makes clear that students who are bilingual have advantages, not only in their literacy development, but in the development of problem-solving skills and other areas of cognition. What we see now is that bilingualism is a gift that we can give to our students and to our communities. And that is a powerful shift in our historical perspective on bilingualism.

We also understand more clearly the importance of bilingual education to students' understanding of self and community. Nelson Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." That's a powerful statement.

If we give students the gift of bilingualism, of multilingualism -- if we give students the gift of those skills and those opportunities -- they have a better sense of themselves, their community, and their future, and a better appreciation for our diversity as a country. As Tom said, we aspire to a day when every child has the opportunity to be bilingual or multilingual and we have much work to do to pursue that goal.

We know that our competitiveness as a country depends, in part, on advancing that goal. A recent survey of California employers showed that a majority of employers, across all sectors, small business, large business, want and prefer bilingual employees. We know that our international competitors often do a significantly better job of preparing bilingual students. And so, we've got work to do as a country to ensure that we embrace bi-literacy and multi-literacy.

We also have work to do to ensure that our students who are English learners, who do not speak English at home as their first language, have the full range of opportunities. In too many places across the country, English learners get less -- less access to quality teachers, less access to advanced coursework, less access to the resources they need to succeed. That is the reality we must change, together.

We have a new opportunity with the Every Student Succeeds Act to move closer to the full range of opportunity for all students. But we have to approach that work with urgency. A new law only creates an opportunity -- we have to seize that moment, by making the right policy decisions with strong engagement of stakeholders. I take that as a deep and important charge for the Department.

The President signed the Every Student Succeeds Act because he believes it advances the civil rights legacy of that law. Again, this is worth putting in historical context: the Every Student Succeeds Act is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It was adopted as a civil rights law. It has to be viewed in the context of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act because he believed -- as a former teacher -- that education was our path to equality of opportunity in this country. The President signed the law because he believes we have an opportunity to advance that vision with this new law.

For me, this is deeply personal. I grew up in Brooklyn, and went to PS276 in Canarsie. When I was eight, my mom passed away; it was October of my fourth grade year. I lived with my dad, who was quite sick with Alzheimer's disease, but it was undiagnosed. I didn't know what home was going to be like from one night to the next. I can recall a night when my father woke me up at two in the morning and said, "Time to go to school." I remember clinging to the banister of the staircase in our house and saying, "No Daddy, it's not time to go to school. It's not time to go to school." I didn't understand why he was acting that way. I didn't understand what was causing that. And that was how home was. Home was this unpredictable, scary place.

But school was amazing. School was a place that was engaging and interesting and compelling; it was a place where New York City public school teachers saw, in me, opportunity and hope. They could have looked at me and said, "Here's an African-American, Latino young man growing up in New York City, in a public school, with a family in crisis -- what chance does he have?" They could have given up on me. But instead they chose to invest in me, to see hope and possibility. Because they did – because they created classroom environments where I learned about a world beyond Canarsie, Brooklyn, because we went to the museum and to the ballet, because we did productions of Shakespeare, because we memorized the leader and capital of every country in the world and read the New York Times every day in elementary school, because they created this compelling, interesting place in school -- I'm alive today. I became a teacher and principal to try to do what they did for me, for other kids. That is our shared obligation.

So as we approach implementing this law, we have to do it with that spirit. It gives us new tools. It gives us an opportunity to broaden the definition of educational excellence. Yes, we need students who have strong literacy skills. Yes, we need students who have strong math skills. But yes, we also want all students to have the gift of bi-literacy or multi-literacy.

We want all students to have science, social studies, art, and music, and the opportunity to develop socio-emotional skills. We want a broader definition of educational excellence. We want every student to have access to Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate courses, and to be on the path to college and career success.

Today we have an opportunity -- if we seize it -- to broaden that definition of educational excellence. We also have an opportunity to rethink interventions in schools that are struggling. One of the problems of No Child Left Behind was a one-size-fits-all response to struggling schools, often disconnected to the actual struggles within the school building. We know that, in schools with significant populations of English learners, teachers need professional development and support; they need colleagues who have experience working successfully with English learners to develop strong bilingual students. We need those teachers brought to those schools that are struggling. We need time for educators in that school to collaborate to figure out how to best support their students. We need interventions that make sense, to meet the needs of students.

California has the opportunity to have that conversation. As we do, we must focus on the notion that our educators are our best path to educational success. What defines a quality education are strong teachers and strong principals. That's why we've got to invest in our teachers and principals. Tom talked about the importance of this.

We've got to make sure that we invest in our teachers and our principals, so that they earn salaries that allow them to have successful lives. We've got to make sure that when we think about teacher preparation, that all teachers are prepared to work effectively with English learners -- not just the bilingual teachers or the ESOL teachers. All teachers need those skills. We need to make sure that we have more bilingual teachers at every level. Particularly, I worry that our high schools often do not have the bilingual subject area teachers that we need. And, we need to increase teacher diversity. Today, in the United States, a majority of students in our schools are students of color. But only 18% of our teachers are teachers of color. We have to do more to ensure diversity amongst our teachers and principals.

The investments that the President proposed in his 2017 budget are aligned to these very goals. He proposed investments in early learning -- and we know there is a critical opportunity in early learning to pay attention to the dual-language learning opportunities, from the earliest years. How do we move forward as a country to ensure our long-term success? We invest early. We know there's a nine to one return on investment for every dollar invested in early learning. The President's proposed a path to universal preschool in the United States. We need to move down that path.

The President has proposed increasing Title III funding because we know our schools need more resources to support our diverse learners.

The President has proposed investing in projects to support our Native youth. We know that too many of our Native young people do not see hope for their future. One of the ways we can ensure that they have a sense of hope is to create school environments that support cultural competence, on the part of educators, that leverage students' native languages and support their long-term learning.

The President has proposed an investment in teacher and principal preparation, to make sure we have that pipeline of bilingual teachers that we need.

The President has proposed an initiative called Respect: Best Job in the World, to invest a billion dollars to make sure that teaching in our highest-need schools is the best job in the world, including ensuring that teachers have the compensation and opportunities for professional development that are needed.

The President has proposed an initiative called Stronger Together, which asks us to confront the reality that, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we still have communities where schools are more segregated today than they were a decade or two decades ago. With the Stronger Together initiative, we would invest in efforts that would bring students across districts and neighborhoods together -- because we are stronger together. One of the ways that we can advance the Stronger Together vision is through dual language schools. We know that dual language schools are demonstrating great outcomes for our students. A multi-year study of dual language programs in North Carolina showed that, all students -- students who spoke English at home and those who spoke languages other than English at home -- not only had the benefit of learning both languages, but also had stronger academic outcomes. The Stronger Together initiative would create a pathway to investing in more dual language schools.

The President has proposed teacher loan forgiveness initiative -- if you commit to teach in a high-need school, we ought to make sure that your higher education is affordable and that you are not saddled with debt you cannot repay.

The President has proposed ten thousand dollars in loan forgiveness and up to twenty-five thousand dollars for those who go to a highly-effective teacher preparation program, because we want to invest in our educators.

The President has also proposed America's College Promise – an initiative for every hard-working student in the America. These students should know that their first two years of community college, a Historically Black College or University, a Minority-Serving Institution, or a Hispanic-Serving Institution, will be free. We've got to make sure that we focus our higher education institutions on not just on enrolling low-income students, but on supporting students through to graduation. So as we move forward, the President is deeply committed to ensuring that we deliver on the promise of equality of opportunity through education. We have to work with Congress to advance many of these proposals, and that can sometimes be challenging, but the Every Student Succeeds Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. I think we have an opportunity to build on that bipartisan momentum.

And, we have an opportunity to build on the bipartisan consensus around the importance of early learning, the critical role of our K-12 education system and our long-term economic future, and the role that higher education plays as a pathway to opportunity and to the middle class for those who are struggling. As we move forward, we have to acknowledge that our work as educators intersects with other areas of our students' lives. We have to acknowledge that our schools are embedded in communities.

Earlier today, I was in East Palo Alto talking with folks talking about the importance of connecting health and schools. For many of our students, if they don't have access to quality healthcare, quality mental health services, quality dental care, and quality eye care, it gets in the way of learning.

Today is actually the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act -- an important anniversary. We've made important progress as a country towards expanding healthcare access, but we've got to make sure that our young people in schools have access to quality healthcare they need to succeed academically. We've got to make sure that community-based organizations have the opportunity to partner with schools, to support students' needs after school and in the summer, and to provide services to families including engaging the families of our English learners. These community-based organizations can help us make sure that schools not only have translators, but on-site staff who speak the languages of kids in the community, so that parents and schools can work together for the success of their children.

We've got to do a better job as a country of ensuring that every school welcomes all of our children, including students who are undocumented. This is one of the challenges that we face across the country. California has been more progressive about this than many other states. Every child has the right to a high quality education regardless of immigration status. So we've got to make sure that our young people understand that, regardless of the immigration status, higher education is possible for them. Again, California is ahead of the rest of the country on this -- but we've got more work to do here and across the country in ensuring that every child has the opportunity to get a high-quality K-12 education and go on to success in college and careers.

We have tremendous opportunities, and we have tremendous challenges. Too many of our students drop out of high school. Too many of our students get to high school and are told, "No no, you have to go to remedial class. You go down the hall." And "remedial class" is a euphemism for "high school." These students are in college, but they're taking high school classes and paying college prices. We have tremendous challenges as a country -- but there is nothing wrong that can't be fixed by what's right. Before me is a room of full of people who are about what is right in American education.

Together, I hope that we move toward a vision of bi-literacy and multi-literacy, and college- and career-readiness for every child. I hope that we fulfill America's promise of equality of opportunity for all. It's an honor to be with you. It's an honor to do this work together. Thank you.