• IDRA Newsletter • January 2021 •
A number of organizations in the Texas Early Childhood English Learner Initiative, including IDRA, released a policy roadmap with recommendations for ways the state legislature, state agencies, school districts and child care centers can support English learner (or “emergent bilingual”) students. The initiative’s goals are to ensure emergent bilinguals…
- become strong readers by third grade,
- become fluent and literate in both English and their home language, and
- learn in settings where educators and parents have the tools to support them during this precious period of childhood.
The initiative is led by a steering committee composed of Texans Care for Children; IDRA; Philanthropy Advocates, a collaboration with Educate Texas; Texas Association for the Education of Young Children (TAEYC); and Dr. Dina Castro of the University of North Texas (UNT) at Denton.
The recommendations stem from a statewide survey of 185 experts in bilingual and early childhood education, three virtual workgroup convenings with community leaders from around the state, and numerous conversations with education program leaders and stakeholders. The initiative’s website, bilingualtexas.org, provides a policy roadmap with recommendations for improving the quality of early learning programs, strengthening the workforce, collecting better data and retooling school finance.
“To make the most of the great steps the legislature took on pre-K last session, we need to have smart strategies in place for educating English learners,” said Jennifer Esterline, director of Philanthropy Advocates, formerly known as TEGAC. “The recommendations we’re releasing – based on months of listening to educators, researchers and other experts – will help the Legislature meet its goal of ensuring Texas kids are strong readers by third grade.”
In 2019, the Legislature passed a major school finance bill, HB 3, that included provisions to fund full-day prekindergarten for eligible students and to expand the use of dual language programs to improve students’ reading ability by third grade. Emergent bilinguals account for 28% of students in pre-K through third grade in Texas public schools.
“English learners’ path to graduation starts when they first walk into an early childhood classroom, but only one in 12 emergent bilingual students graduates college-ready in this state,” said Celina Moreno, President and CEO of IDRA. “Improving Texas policies for young English learners is especially urgent now that the COVID-19 pandemic has socially isolated children and interrupted student learning, especially in early grades.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, not only is online learning more difficult for the youngest students, but many students in early grades have not even enrolled in school. The Texas Education Agency recently reported that pre-K enrollment declined 22% during the first semester of the current school year.
“Use of students’ two languages to support their development and learning is most effective, and this means that dual language education should be expanded,” said Dr. Dina Castro of UNT Denton. “The fact is that early childhood is the time when the brain is best equipped to acquire two or more languages, thus, access to bilingual learning should begin then.”
The report’s recommendations to the Legislature include creating a state strategic plan to cultivate bilingualism across all early learning systems; adopting a uniform process across early childhood systems to identify English learner children and collect data; creating a teacher certification in bilingual special education; and updating school finance formulae to reflect the cost of educating emergent bilingual students.
The report also offers recommendations to TEA and other state agencies, including the recommendation to continue to identify emergent bilinguals in the state’s education database after they exit a bilingual education or ESL program in order to better track their progress and evaluate the efficacy of different strategies.
The report recommends that schools and child care providers recognize bilingualism and biliteracy as strengths and implement research-based teaching practices that support their development; work to recruit, hire, retain and promote bilingual and multilingual staff; and take other steps outlined in the report.
Recommendations to schools include expanding the use of dual language programs, which have proven more effective than other programs and models for emergent bilingual, and instituting student progress monitoring that goes beyond measuring English proficiency.
“If you’re trying to make sure Texas is smart about pre-K and smart about growing strong readers in elementary school, then one of the first things you need to do is look at the research about how to effectively serve the large number of English learners in these grades,” said David Feigen, Early Childhood Policy Associate at Texans Care for Children. “We want to make sure schools are helping kids master English and their home language, recognizing that their bilingualism is an asset for themselves, for their school, and ultimately for our state as we compete in a multilingual economy.”
Experiences in early childhood set the foundation for success in school and in life.
“If policymakers want kids to do well in elementary school, they need to make sure the state has strong child care policies in place,” said Kim Kofron, executive director of the TAEYC. “We’re excited to work with state leaders and child care directors to pursue these recommendations and make the most of the early years for English learners.”
For more information on the Texas Early Childhood English Learner Initiative and to see the policy roadmap, visit bilingualtexas.org.
[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2021 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]