English-Only to the Core
What the Common Core means for emergent bilingual youth
Among bilingual educators, there has been much debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Some of the most respected scholars of bilingual education have endorsed the Common Core and are working hard to make it relevant for English learners. Others have been more suspicious. Not only do the standards focus on English-only, critics note, but they were bankrolled by the Gates Foundation, pushed on states in a way that amounts to bribery by the Obama administration, and promise to worsen the impact of high-stakes standardized testing.
In fact, the genesis of the Common Core stands in direct contrast to how bilingual education programs were won, namely through grassroots, explicitly anti-racist organizing by students, parents, teachers, and community allies. The standards thus raise a key question: Given the history of bilingual education programs in the United States, is it possible to expand social justice for emergent bilingual youth through the Common Core?
Addressing that question has been challenging, given the inconsistent responses of professional and civil rights organizations to the standards. The National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) issued a position statement in January 2013 with mixed messages. Although NABE’s membership passed a resolution opposing the Common Core, the statement explains that the group is “working collaboratively with policymakers, school administrators, and teachers” to ensure that implementing the Common Core does not negatively impact English learners. The TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) International Association issued a policy brief endorsing the standards.
Civil rights organizations—including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—have endorsed the standards while calling for equitable implementation. The NCLR, for example, has used Gates Foundation money to apply the standards to English-language education and to develop tool kits supporting parent advocacy on behalf of the Common Core. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) posted resources on its website to help parents make sense of the Common Core.
However, the Common Core isn’t just a set of standards. Instead, new standardized tests accompanying the standards promise to deepen the impact of high-stakes accountability measures in place since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) took effect in 2002. On this count, civil rights organizations have wavered. In October 2014, MALDEF and LULAC joined nine other civil rights organizations in issuing a letter to President Obama protesting the negative impact of high-stakes testing, and calling for more equitable resources and multiple measures (i.e., not just test scores) to define accountability. This letter clearly fit the mood of growing resistance by students, parents, and teachers to high-stakes testing. And yet, not three months later, many of these same organizations issued a letter to Arne Duncan endorsing the practice of annual, high-stakes standardized testing.
Their stance is significant, if unfortunate: When NCLB was first proposed, support from leading civil rights organizations gave enormous political cover to its high-stakes testing policies. The main argument was that accountability measures would “shine a light” on how poorly many schools were educating youth of color, including emergent bilinguals, and thus lead to positive change. Fifteen years later, we know how misguided that hope was. As Wayne Au has argued in Unequal by Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality, and as the many contributors to More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing have documented, high-stakes testing has had a devastating effect on many schools, but especially on schools that primarily serve Black and Brown youth. And yet, mainstream civil rights organizations continue to pursue this strategy for education reform.
If the response to the Common Core by scholars, professional organizations, and civil rights groups has been inconsistent, then it is no wonder that bilingual educators and teachers of English learners have struggled to make sense of the standards. If the standards can’t just be adopted, is there a way to adapt them and make them relevant for English learners? Is it enough to create a bilingual Common Core, that is, to translate the standards to guide bilingual instruction of language arts and math? If not, then what is the alternative?
To help address these questions, this article looks at CCSS in three ways: against the backdrop of the history of bilingual education and anti-racist struggle, on their own terms, and in light of the current status of bilingual education. Each perspective suggests that the Common Core will further erode bilingual education and linguistic justice in the United States.
A History of Successful Community Organizing
Usually, when the story of bilingual education in recent U.S. history is told, that story tends to focus on the actions of Important People like President Lyndon Johnson and Senator Ralph Yarborough. The narrative tracks formal policy, including the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case in 1974 as key plot points.
However, this approach to history distorts as much as it reveals. Actually, it was the actions of Chicana/o, Puerto Rican, Native American, and Asian American activists in the 1960s and ’70s that brought about bilingual education in the first place. As these activists focused on schools, they combated segregation and a lack of resources, and demanded bilingual and bicultural programming. They built strong social movements from the ground up, which compelled policymakers to heed their demands and either create or expand bilingual education. But the dominant historical perspective takes our attention away from grassroots activism and focuses instead on the actions of “key players” and/or policies.
It also reduces struggle to “advocacy.” That is, it narrows the definition of political activism to lobbying this or that politician, or testifying before this or that committee. This sort of advocacy can matter, to be sure. But it takes place on terms set by those with power. The politicians in their offices and the committees in their hearing rooms are able to set the boundaries of the discussion and debate, while advocates are left to adapt to it or be shut out of the conversation altogether. What gives this sort of advocacy any real weight is whether students, teachers, parents, and community allies have built movements that are strong enough to change the terms of the conversation.
In fact, it was local struggles—often school-by-school and district-by-district, led by students in concert with parents, sometimes teachers and teacher organizations, and radicals—that provided the necessary momentum to make advocacy effective. Without the blowouts in East Los Angeles in 1968; without the student boycotts in Crystal City, Texas, in 1969; without the Third World student strike in San Francisco in 1968 (where the lawyers for the Lau family cut their political teeth); it is difficult to imagine bilingual education becoming formal policy at the district, state, or federal level.
Finally, the dominant approach to bilingual education history completely misidentifies the source of hostility to bilingualism and bilingual education from the 1980s on. It focuses, accurately, on the election of Ronald Reagan as a turning point, a moment when all the gains of the civil rights movements came under attack. The Reagan administration backtracked on the Lau remedies, a series of measures flowing from the 1974 Supreme Court case that strengthened bilingual education. There was also a concerted campaign to declare English the official language, federally and in several individual states. But when it comes to explaining why this conservative shift happened, the story runs into trouble—it lays the blame at the feet of the very civil rights activists who pushed for bilingual education in the first place. Their activism is described as too confrontational, the demands for meaningful bilingual education as too radical.
According to the terms of the dominant view of the history, which ignores or denigrates community demands and organizing, I guess it’s logical to rely on official channels and Important People to reform schools. But the actual history of bilingual education in the United States suggests something quite different. It was the conscious, ambitious, and collective actions of anti-racist activists that brought real change to schools for emergent bilingual youth. The CCSS are neither the product of, nor will they contribute to, the creation of such movements.
Emergent Bilingual Education and the Common Core
Bilingual education scholars who support the Common Core, and even some who don’t, have acknowledged the significant shift it represents in understanding the relationship between language and content. How language and content are connected has been an enduring dilemma for language educators.
One traditional, but prevalent, model claims that English learners must first “master” the language (i.e., use grammar and vocabulary accurately) before they can engage in meaningful, age- and grade-appropriate content. The most extreme version of this model is Structured English Immersion (SEI) in Arizona. In 2000, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 203. This measure not only severely restricted bilingual education, but also required the state to develop a new model of English-only education. The state responded with SEI. English learners are grouped by proficiency level—and segregated from their English-proficient peers—for up to four hours per day in English-language development classes. This model includes no content instruction or cultural components. Contrary to what some 40 years of applied linguistic research have taught us about language learning, SEI assumes that students can develop enough language “skills” to be successful in mainstream classes within one year.
This approach to language education is consistent with the twin logics of standardization and accountability that have deformed our schools. Skills and facts are broken down into discrete parts; it is assumed that these parts can be measured and that those measurements reflect real learning. Students are then “prepped” on those parts ad nauseum. Under the SEI model, student progress is tracked on what is called the Discrete Skills Inventory. This stranger-than-fiction document contains a series of tables that literally break down the English language into grammatical units. Teachers are then expected to use the inventory as a checklist to track student “mastery” of English: Student uses past tense of to be accurately—check! Student uses past negative of to be accurately—check! Student uses past simple negative accurately—check!
Other models have tried to unify language development and content knowledge in so-called sheltered environments. Here, academic language is scaffolded to facilitate student engagement with content. Prominent examples of this model include the Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol, widely adopted by school districts across the country; the Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English model, first developed in California; and the Cognitive Academic Language Learning model. Although there is much value in these models, it is an ongoing challenge to prevent scaffolded or sheltered instruction from becoming watered-down instruction.
Part of the support for the Common Core among bilingual educators and teachers of English language learners (ELLs) is rooted in the potential they see in CCSS for moving away from these models toward an academically robust environment for emergent bilinguals. Scholars and practitioners working with the Understanding Language project at Stanford University have made this case most clearly. For them, the Common Core assumes that English learners can learn the language through rigorous content. The standards focus literacy instruction simultaneously on text (processing individual letters, words, etc.) and discourse (overall meaning). That is, it shifts literacy instruction away from mere decoding skills and instead gives English learners access to instruction using academic language for a variety of complex, critical tasks. Emergent bilinguals don’t just learn about language through explicit instruction on grammar items or isolated vocabulary. Rather, they use language to engage academic content and to collaborate with others (with native-speaker, English-only, and multilingual peers, and with teachers who do and don’t share their home language) on academic tasks. The math standards also support language development by focusing on the language of math, namely, the language of explanation, reasoning, and argumentation associated with mathematical functions. Finally, the standards reinforce the idea that every teacher is a language teacher, not just the ELL or bilingual ed specialist.
This shift in orientation to the language-content connection reflects perspectives that many bilingual and English-language educators have long held. It is certainly refreshing to see these ideas taken up so broadly in policy briefs and curriculum guides. My sense is that for this reason alone many bilingual educators (practitioners and academics alike) have gotten on board with the Common Core.
However, the Common Core only makes this connection between language and content in English. The CCSS make no reference to linguistic diversity, to culture and its relationship to language, or to the linguistic and cultural resources that emergent bilinguals bring with them to the classroom. Worse still, the standards make no room for applying the language-content model to any language other than English. The standards invoke all the opportunity represented in sociocultural approaches to language learning, only to foreclose on it by focusing on English only.
The authors of the Common Core do explicitly address English learners in a brief addendum to the standards, but the addendum is inconsistent in its perspective. On the one hand, it acknowledges the linguistic, cultural, economic, and academic diversity of emergent bilinguals and states clearly that these students are capable of engaging rigorous content. However, it uses a medical model for defining effective instruction as that which “diagnos[es] each student instructionally.” It also labels students as English learners (i.e., defining them by what they do not yet know) rather than as the emergent bilingual youth they are. Moreover, the cultural knowledge that emergent bilingual students possess, and how teachers might leverage that knowledge, is left entirely unaddressed.
Most revealing, though, is how the addendum talks about students’ home languages. In the very few instances where they are mentioned at all, home languages serve merely as tools for learning English and English language content. In the section on English language arts, for example, “first languages” are mentioned only as a resource to learn a second language more efficiently. In the section on mathematics, “all languages and language varieties” are identified as resources for learning about mathematical reasoning. But home languages are never described as worthy of further academic development themselves. This stance continues the long tradition in the United States, even within some bilingual education models, of using home languages just long enough to learn English, and then leaving them behind.
On their own terms, then, the CCSS amount to another English-only policy. This severely undermines whatever curricular or pedagogical advances they might contain.
Bilingual Education Under Attack
Of course, the Common Core does not exist in isolation from other education reforms. In fact, the standards are part of a doubling down on the test-and-punish approach to reform that has had disastrous consequences for all students, but especially for schools serving students of color and multilingual communities. In addition, the standards appear at a moment in which bilingual education has long been in decline as a legitimate model for emergent bilingual youth.
There are several factors that account for this decline. One is an open political assault on bilingual education that reached its highpoint at the turn of this century. Four state-level ballot initiatives attempted to restrict bilingual education; three of them (in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts) were successful. These initiatives were part of a larger wave of anti-immigrant racism that had grown significantly by the 1990s. At first, anti-immigrant activists focused on denying undocumented immigrants access to public services, as with Proposition 187 in California in 1994. Although voters approved that measure, it was overturned by a federal court. In some ways, measures like Prop. 187 were seen at the time as too radical. Anti-immigrant forces quickly regrouped and focused instead on attacking bilingual education. Here, they found greater success—and greater legitimacy for their ideas. Bilingual education has long been low-hanging political fruit for anti-immigrant racists (Bale).
Beyond these explicit attacks, shifts in education policy have further undermined bilingual education. Most significantly, NCLB abolished the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and all mentions of bilingual education and bilingualism were replaced with English-only terminology. NCLB’s high-stakes accountability measures have had direct and disastrous consequences for emergent bilingual youth. Kate Menken has documented this trend in two important studies in New York City public schools. Her work shows that the pressure exerted on schools to perform on high-stakes literacy exams in English has led to a significant decline in bilingual programs—even though both city and state policies still formally support bilingual education (Menken, Menken and Solorza).
One glimmer of hope in this otherwise dismal situation is the modest growth in dual-language programs. Different from compensatory bilingual education models, in which all students are English learners, dual-language programs have a more balanced mix of students. Some students are proficient speakers of English, and some are proficient speakers of the other language. This balance between speakers of dominant and minoritized languages is designed to build equity into dual-language programs: Each set of students acts as a linguistic and cultural resource for the other. However, language educators have long raised concerns that dual-language programs are often created either at the behest of or to attract (upper-) middle-class, white families and they tend to function more to the linguistic and academic benefit of English-speaking children. Language scholar Nelson Flores recently referred to this dynamic as “columbusing”—the “discovery” by white families of the benefits of bilingual education programs that in fact were fought for and won through the activism of communities of color.
Moreover, dual-language programs are not necessarily more exempt from racism than bilingual programs. Consider the experience of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arabic-English dual-language program that opened in Brooklyn in 2007. As Brooklyn is home to the largest number of Arabic speakers in the United States, it is a logical site for such a school. The Arabic language curriculum it initially adopted was developed by researchers at Michigan State University and Arabic language teachers in that state. Their work was funded by the Department of Defense, which supports Arabic language learning in the name of national security. Neither logic nor the shroud of national security protected the school from a hateful campaign of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism. Although the school managed to weather the storm, its potential was severely undermined. Its founding principal was forced to resign, and the school has changed locations several times.
Given this political context, whether the next generation of education standards sets bilingualism and biliteracy as explicit goals for all students is not a neutral question. And clearly, the Common Core has taken sides. By focusing on English-only, the standards function as the culmination of more than a decade of attacks on bilingual programs and emergent bilingual youth.
Politics, Not Evidence
From every perspective, then, it’s clear that the CCSS promise to further erode bilingual education and linguistic justice in the United States.
This conclusion underscores a point that has long been acknowledged, even by bilingual educators who support Common Core: Bilingual education is above all a question of politics, not of evidence. We have no shortage of evidence about the cognitive, personal, and social benefits of bilingualism. And, as difficult as it has been to come by, given the ups and downs of research funding and changing models of language education, we even have significant evidence of the benefits of bilingual education models themselves (Baker, García, García and Baker).
To be clear, as linguistic diversity in U.S. schools continues to increase, we need much more research on educational models for multilingual as well as bilingual settings. Also, there is much work to do in developing standards and curriculum that support and sustain students’ home languages while they learn academic English. This is the goal, for example, of the Bilingual Common Core Initiative in New York, a welcome response to the English-only assumptions in Common Core. But even here, “translating” the standards misses the point because the Common Core isn’t just a set of standards, but part and parcel of the test-and-punish paradigm. A bilingual version of Common Core may be pragmatic, but it does not move us away from the high-stakes testing that has so disfigured public schools. In short, adapting to the Common Core, rather than challenging it, does not help progressive educators change the conversation about real school reform.
Although challenging the Common Core may seem like a daunting task, the good news is that we already know a lot about what makes for high-quality and equitable bilingual education. In their book Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners, Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen describe the most effective practices for emergent bilinguals organized around four key strands: tailoring educational programs to the specific linguistic and academic needs of English learners; implementing fair assessments, especially assessments that decouple language from content proficiency; providing equitable resources, especially age- and grade-appropriate curricular resources in both home language(s) and English; and involving parents and communities at school. An important advance in the ideas they describe is moving away from a traditional approach to bilingual education that strictly separates the two languages and privileges only academic/standard varieties of language, and instead moving toward classroom practices that help students become conscious and critical users of the full language repertoire they bring with them to school, that is, both standard and non-standard varieties of English and home language(s).
History also tells us that challenges to the Common Core can’t come from just inside the classroom. Although many teachers and language scholars were working on models of bilingual education in the 1950s and early ’60s, it wasn’t until that work connected with a radical and grassroots civil rights movement that those models were widely implemented. The same holds for us today: If we are to transform schools into more equitable places for emergent bilinguals, then we need to rebuild social movements of students, parents, teachers, and community allies to make that change happen. The coalition building of the Chicago Teachers Union before their successful strike in 2012; the ongoing coalition work by groups such as the Grassroots Education Movement or the biannual Free Minds, Free People conference; the dramatic and rapid growth of opt-out and other anti-standardized testing activism across the country; the potential of deepening the #BlackLivesMatter movement to include education issues—all offer compelling and promising models for what this work looks like moving forward.
Not only did the CCSS not emerge from these educational and activist spaces, their vision of “reform” stands in direct opposition to grassroots, anti-racist democracy. If we are to transform schools into places that foster linguistic equity, the Common Core will not be the vehicle of that change. The burden, then, is on us—as supporters of linguistic and social equity for emergent bilingual youth—to organize against the Common Core politically, and to be part of building social movements that force open social space at school and beyond for bilingual education and practice.