Dual Immersion: Can It Survive 'Data-Driven Reform'?
By James Crawford and Sharon Adelman Reyes

Teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, stressing basic skills at the expense of creativity and critical thinking … these are among the well-known consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act. But the law’s perverse effects in the classroom hardly stop there.

For English language learners, there is now a strong disincentive to provide native-language instruction, since the vast majority of these students are tested exclusively in English and their schools face serious consequences if they fail. Under President Obama’s policies, such consequences will soon be visited on teachers and administrators as well.
Never mind that state assessments in language arts and math are neither designed nor normed for ELLs. No one seriously pretends that testing children in a language they have yet to master is valid, reliable, or fair. Yet “high stakes” are attached nonetheless. Low scores can close a school, derail an educator’s career, or keep a student from graduating. By law, states are allowed to test ELLs in a language other than English for up to three years, but only a few do so.

All this makes many schools uneasy about offering any form of bilingual education, despite its well-documented benefits. Numerous studies have shown, for example, that academic skills and knowledge transfer between languages. Students who learn to read well in, say, Spanish tend to learn to read well in English over the long term. Developing fluent bilingualism also gives children a variety of economic, cultural, cognitive, and psychosocial advantages.

Sad to say, a diminishing number of educators feel they can afford the luxury of long-term, child-centered perspectives. Most are too busy prepping for the next round of high-stakes tests. This is especially true if their students are ELLs, but the effects on pedagogy have become pervasive for all groups that struggle to score at “proficient” levels.

As a direct result of NCLB-style accountability, approaches that stimulate children’s intellectual curiosity and get them excited about school are being crowded out by behaviorist, “transmission models” of schooling. Rather than engaging students in discovery learning or collaborative projects, there is a growing stress on “direct instruction.” Children are force-fed a steady diet of drills and worksheets designed to fatten them up with the basic skills and factoids that carry weight on multiple-choice tests.

For ELLs this translates into an “explicit, systematic” focus on the mechanics of English – phonics, grammar, and vocabulary – which are replacing natural approaches that immerse children in the language as they learn other subjects. Long discredited, the “skill-building” strategies are now making a comeback because they correlate so well with the goals of test-prep. It’s too bad that research shows no correlation with effective language teaching. (Of course, the lack of scientific support doesn’t stop the sponsors of such programs from claiming they are “research-based.)

There is, however, an important growth sector in bilingual education that offers some shelter from the fallout of today’s misguided reforms. Dual immersion schools are increasingly popular with parents who want effective language-learning opportunities for their kids. And the available evidence shows these programs are just that, both for ELLs and for English-dominant students.

Dual immersion, also known as “dual language” or “two-way bilingual education,” has proven successful precisely because it avoids skill-building in favor of natural approaches to language acquisition. Its pedagogy is grounded in research showing that students acquire a new language incidentally, as they understand it – making sense of it in context – while engaged in purposeful activities. Comprehension is enhanced by the fact that children from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds are interacting and learning from each other.

This is a far cry from the “sink or swim” method. Dual immersion teachers employ “sheltering” strategies that adjust the language of academic lessons to students’ current level of understanding. The emphasis is on developing children’s capacity to use the language for meaningful pursuits, an approach that is far more likely to engage their interest than memorizing the syntactical forms of English or Spanish. It is also far more likely to foster proficient bilingualism.

In other words, dual immersion schools are effective in teaching languages because they create an environment that enables students to become active learners. Not surprisingly, many programs extend this approach to the curriculum as a whole. Children are encouraged to discover for themselves, pose their own questions, challenge their own preconceptions, and develop their own conceptual understanding – in short, to construct meaning from their experience. Hence the label often attached to this philosophy: constructivism. It views learning not as a process of filling passive minds with information, but as an act of cognitive change, a literal rewiring of the brain, as children engage the world and reconstruct their understanding of it. Early childhood educator Beverly Falk said it best: “Learning is something that a learner does, not something that is done to the learner.”
Yet, contrary to some caricatures of progressive education, constructivist classrooms are hardly unstructured. Students are guided by a well-planned curriculum applied creatively to unleash their natural curiosity. Rather than lecturing them on “what they need to know” or steering them toward the “correct” answer, constructivist educators use “scaffolding” techniques. These are various forms of support and adult guidance designed to help children climb higher intellectually than they could advance on their own.

Diary of a Bilingual School, our latest book, combines narratives and analysis to demonstrate how this can be done – in fact, how it was done at Chicago’s Inter-American Magnet School, one of the country’s earliest and best dual immersion programs. The story unfolds in a second-grade classroom inhabited by a gifted teacher, her eighteen bilingual collaborators, and an unending supply of insects—bugs that crawl, fly, mate, lay eggs, hatch, and die—to the fascination of their human care-givers. Children not only learned language. While exploring a subject that excited them, they also acquired critical habits of mind, performed scientific experiments, engaged in creative arts, honed their reading and writing skills, and improved in math.

One caveat, however. The story was documented in the 1995-96 school year, well before the passage of No Child Left Behind.  Students at Inter-American, whether English-dominant or Spanish-dominant, have consistently scored above city and state norms on standardized tests. Not in spite of the school’s creative curriculum, but – we insist – because of it.  Nonetheless, today’s “data-driven” accountability systems are affecting pedagogy in even the most successful bilingual programs. Pressures to use rote instruction to “cover the standards” have intensified, now that the fate of schools, educators, and students depends so heavily on test scores.
Yet, at the same time, we are seeing strong counter-pressures from parents and teachers who understand the potential of education that is both bilingual and constructivist, as well as the benefits it can bring to their children. This kind of support seems to be growing, along with a respect for language learning and a resistance to the test-obsessed culture of American education. For these reasons we are optimistic about the future of dual immersion, believing it remains one of the rare spaces in our schools where the excitement of learning can still break out.