Few States Have Standards that Support Early ELLs

Yesterday, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) released an issue brief on state policies supporting young English-language-learners.  The brief cites a 2010 Urban Institute report that says one in four U.S. children has a parent who was born in another country. Most of these children speak a language other than English at home.

Many middle-class parents with multilingual backgrounds–like the family in this recent AP story–actively support their children’s language learning in both English and the language they speak at home. These families also work hard to find dual-language school options for their children. Less affluent families, in contrast, may lack the time and resources to support their children’s language development, often prioritize their children’s education in English–even when their own language competence is in another tongue–and trust school systems to educate their children effectively in English.

Alas, CLASP’s policy scan indicates the trust of those less-affluent families might be misplaced. While research shows that supporting a child’s growth in the use of his home language often strengthens his ability to master English, only one state–Illinois–requires bilingual services for three- and four-year-olds in state pre-kindergarten programs. And, according to the National Council of LaRaza, only Alaska has comprehensive early learning standards that explicitly support dual language learning across children’s developmental domains.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education released its final guidelines for the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. While CLASP calls the new competition an opportunity for states to revisit their early learning standards in light of recent research on both how children acquire multiple languages and the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, I’m not sure how high a priority that perspective will be. It sounds like the main goals for the Early Learning Challenge are to get states to align their many offices involved in early childhood better and to develop systems that help parents find high-quality childcare and early learning programs. The extent to which these changes will benefit English-language learning preschoolers remains to be seen.

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